Wednesday afternoon, Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight champion Sean Strickland responded to a series of questions from a journalist named Alexander K. Lee with a string of insults.
Among the lowlights:
“You’re an infection.”
“You’re the definition of weakness.”
“Everything that is wrong with the world is because of f***ing you.”
Strickland, who defends his title Saturday night in the main event of UFC 297 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, said some things we can’t print here, and other stuff we’ll address later. Vile, bitter, bigoted stuff that, if it had come from an MLB or NFL player, would have generated headlines, and led to some combination of fine and suspension.
But if you’re waiting for the UFC to discipline Strickland for the outburst … don’t.
Sometime between 2013, when the company suspended Nate Diaz for a homophobic twitter post, and last September, when a pair of athletes punctuated post-fight interviews with anti-gay slurs without sanction from the company, the UFC seems to have exited the business of policing fighters’ speech.
When it comes to monetizing their time in the spotlight through apparel deals and kit sponsorships, athletes have next to no leeway. The UFC has a strict set of rules regarding what athletes can wear, and fighters fall in line, even if it costs them money.
But when fighters get near a microphone, they can say what they want and apologize for it later. Or not. I expect minimal official blowback for Strickland here — he’s the A-side of the main event of the UFC’s first event in Toronto since 2018. He’s no Georges St-Pierre in terms of mainstream appeal, but he’s the face of Saturday’s fight card.
And in his exchange with Lee, he’s also the clear loser.
Alex Pereira knocks down Strickland during a middleweight bout at UFC 276 in Las Vegas on July 2, 2022. (John Locher/The Associated Press)UFC’s profile has dropped in TorontoLee wins because he did his job. He asked his questions and parried Strickland’s bad-faith queries, all while refusing to fall into a pointless name-calling contest. As the old folks in my family say, you can’t sling s**t without getting some on you. Lee never stooped to scoop, let alone sling.
Strickland, for his part, could have just responded to Lee’s questions about his previous public homophobic statements. Instead he melted down, maybe hoping nobody would realize he never provided an answer. But we noticed. It’s on video. The exchange left Strickland with excrement smeared on his throwing hand, holding the L.
The other losers in this news conference?
Local fans in a city that used to be a major market for the UFC.
The fight promotion debuted here in 2011, drawing nearly 56,000 spectators to the Rogers Centre for a card headlined by a St-Pierre title defence. This week it returns after a five-year absence with a main event between Strickland, who is relatively unknown beyond hardcore mixed martial arts fans, and Dricus Du Plessis, who might be a name-brand athlete in his native South Africa, but is anonymous over here.
Message resonates with some UFC fansThe closest this event has come to generating pre-fight buzz among general sports fans was the ripple Strickland’s tantrum sent through social media. His message resonated with his fans, but triggered a mixture of scorn and ridicule elsewhere. It’s an ominous sign for the featured bout of a fight card competing for attention in a crowded sports landscape. It’s NFL divisional playoff weekend; the Raptors just traded Pascal Siakam; the Australian Open is on; the Leafs are still the Leafs.
In fairness to the world’s top MMA promotion, the UFC works hard to facilitate fight week media access, whether via traditional news conferences, or by gathering talent in a big room and letting reporters make the rounds, speed dating style.
My years covering the UFC coincided with Toronto’s time as a high-priority market for the company. I heard a packed-to-capacity Rogers Centre gasp when Lyoto Machida knocked out Randy Couture with a flying front kick in April of 2011. The blow ejected one of Couture’s teeth, which twirled in the air like a flipped coin before landing on the octagon’s canvas. Later, when St. Pierre walked the aisle before the main event, the crowd cheered so loud that I didn’t just hear the ovation. I felt it in my chest.
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2023 Canada’s Sports Hall Of Fame inductee: Georges St-Pierre, MMAAt the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, UFC legend Georges St-Pierre was awarded the Order of Sport as a member of the Class of 2023, marking her induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
The UFC staged six events in Toronto between 2011 and 2018, and sent some of its biggest stars here to headline. St. Pierre may have been the top performer, pound for pound, in the whole organization. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was regarded as the future of the sport when he topped cards at the arena then known as the Air Canada Centre.
The two most recent UFC cards in Toronto, one each in 2016 and 2018, featured Max Holloway, a fearless fighter with a technically sound, but fan-friendly style. He lacked the profile of a St. Pierre or a Jones, but came with a reputation — relentless, professional, respected.
Five years later we have Du Plessis and Strickland, who has the middleweight belt, a podcast, and some deeply devoted fans, if the admirer who stormed the stage to shake his hand at Thursday’s news conference is an accurate barometer.
Can he sell tickets here?
Calls reporter a cowardHard to say. UFC president Dana White announced that UFC 297 had sold out, and generated $7.6 million US in ticket revenue, an unusual set of figures to release two days before the event. Even more curious: as of Thursday night, Ticketmaster’s website showed plenty of unsold seats. We don’t know if White’s proclamation was untrue or simply premature, but it, like his contention that power slap contests are comparatively safe, didn’t align with the facts.
What we do know is that at Wednesday’s media event, when Lee asked Strickland how the fighter’s past homophobic public statements would go over in a city with a large LGBTQ presence, Strickland went off topic and on the offensive.
“Are you a gay man?” he asked Lee, more accusation than question.
“I’m an ally of the community,” Lee answered.
Under further questioning, Lee revealed that if he had a gay son, he would love that son unconditionally, which prompted another tirade from Strickland, this one ending with the words, “Go f*** yourself, you coward.”
When a Republican candidate talks that way during primary season in the U.S., political pundits call it “Red Meat For The Base.” Indeed, the Strickland fans at Thursday’s media event seemed to eat it up. Among local media, only the Toronto Sun spun Wednesday’s rant into a story.
Neither the Toronto Star nor the Globe and Mail picked the story up. Same with ESPN.com, the website belonging to the UFC’s broadcast partner. On the broader internet Strickland made headlines — almost all of them negative.
Over at Le Journal de Montreal, a teaser on the combat sports home page, translated from French, tells a neutral observer everything they need to know about Wednesday’s run-in with Lee.
“Strickland makes a fool of himself.”