Sean Strickland wasn’t really the next guy in line. He wasn’t the guy behind the next guy in line either. Ranked No. 5 in the world, Strickland’s title shot fell to him through a series of fortunate events.
Driscus Du Plessis could not make a short turnaround to fight Adesanya due to a foot injury. Adesanya’s dominance hadn’t left any other worthy contenders. He had already defeated Robert Whittaker twice, Marvin Vettori twice, Jared Cannonier, and Paolo Costa. That allowed Strickland to get his shot despite only being 2-2 over his past four fights. Strickland scored the upset, and the UFC needs to plot where his title reign will go.
Fortunately for the UFC, Strickland is a man who will be willing to be a fighting champion for as long as he holds the belt. Strickland has fought six times since the beginning of 2022 and has incredible durability. He has gone all five rounds in four of those fights this season.
Here’s a look at a few possible options for future opponents.
Who’s Next for Sean Strickland?
Play It Again, Israel
Immediate rematches have been a popular recent trend for the UFC. Adesanya showed that he could correct a loss when he knocked out Alex Pereira at UFC 287 after being knocked out by him five months early. But Adesanya’s activity — he has fought nine times since 2020 — has people questioning if he may want to take a break.
The Last Stylebender is 4-3 over his last seven fights, including a decision loss to Jan Blachowicz when he tried to step up a weight class to win the light heavyweight championship and be a two-division champion. Adesanya is 24-3 overall in his career and has defended the middleweight championship five times during his two reigns as champion.
Adesanya is an intelligent striker who has a long history of participating in kickboxing fights. Even if Adesanya decides he wants to return sooner than later, he likely still has a few competitive years left in him. Strickland likely would welcome a chance to prove that he is capable of striking with Adesanya again as well.
Du Plessis Doesn’t Want to Miss Opportunity
Next, Sean Strickland could face the man who was offered the Adesanya match first. That would be a fascinating matchup, as du Plessis vaulted to the top of the contenders’ rankings by blasting former champion Whittaker. Since coming into the UFC, du Plessis has run off six consecutive victories.
His ability to finish fights hasn’t declined since he reached the top promotion, either. Du Plessis has won five of his six UFC fights by finish, including four knockouts. He is now 20-2 during his career.
What du Plessis has to worry about is vengeful UFC President Dana White. White wasn’t happy du Plessis declined the Adesanya fight and had held grudges in the past. But du Plessis should be the top contender.
Whittaker Has Path Back to the Title Opened
Whittaker’s chances of becoming champion once again are better without Adesanya on top of the division. Adesanya has already beaten Whittaker, who is a former champion, twice and knocked him out in their first meet. But with Sean Strickland on top, Whittaker could elevate himself back in the picture with a win over the right opponent.
The du Plessis’ defeat hurts, but the Australian should be in a good position to match up with Strickland. Whittaker is a solid striker and a capable wrestler who is well-rounded enough to win the championship again.
Cannonier Believes He Has a Claim
There wasn’t much that separated Strickland and Jared Cannonier during their previous fight. During a slow-paced battle that went the distance, Cannonier was able to edge out a split-decision victory. Strickland may be eager to get a win back over Cannonier.
Cannonier is a striker known for his power but had a hard time getting through Strickland’s strong defense. Strickland had more volume during their bout — he attempted 400 significant strikes to 310 for Cannonier — and outlanded Cannonier 152 to 141. But Cannonier landed a higher percentage and seemed to hit with more impact.
Cannonier lost an ugly decision to Adesanya in his only other shot at the title. A Strickland rematch would make sense. Cannonnier has also picked up another win over Marvin Vettori, where Cannonier landed hellacious strikes throughout the belt.
Does Chimaev Want to Stay at Middleweight?
It has been a year since Khamzat Chimaev made a mess of UFC 279. In an unprecedented scene, Chimaev weighed in 7.5 pounds overweight for a scheduled welterweight bout with Nate Diaz. The UFC had to rearrange the entire card the night before to keep Chimaev on the card and set up a catchweight bout with Kevin Holland.
Chimaev has been destroyed since he debuted in the UFC in July 2020. Chimaev, who is 12-0 in his career, fought three times in his first two months in the UFC and won all three fights by finish. However, since the controversy at UFC 279, Chimaev hasn’t been able to get a fight.
Chimaev is scheduled to return with a bout against Paulo Costa in October at UFC 294. If Chimaev wins again, he may be next in line for a shot at Strickland. Chimaev is a dangerous opponent for anyone he would fight.
Gastelum May Do in a Pinch
While this is an unlikely, longshot option, Kelvin Gastelum could step in in the unlikely event of a fighter pulling out, or if the company needed a fighter it could count on to put on a good show. Gastelum previously challenged Adesanya for the interim title back in 2019.
Gastelum has had many losses on his record since then but is still capable of drawing high-profile matchups. If there is some bizarre scenario where they need someone in a pinch, calling on the veteran may make for a fun striking matchup with Strickland.