MMA 2023 Year in Review: Upset of the Year

Sean Strickland UFC
Sean Strickland, UFC 2024 Season Press Conference Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

There probably won’t be any surprises in our 2023 Year-End Awards when it comes to Upset of the Year. There were really only three or four candidates discussed, and we’re not spoiling anything by just telling you this now: it’s Sean Strickland.

Still, read on to hear our reasoning, and get a few honorable mentions like Alexa Grasso and Dricus Du Plessis.

Upset of the Year 2023

Eddie Law: Sean Strickland def. Israel Adesanya at UFC 293. Who saw the brash and outspoken “outlaw” taking the title from a man many considered the 185 GOAT? We’ve never had a champion like him before. Say what you want about Strickland, but he’s at all times, unapologetically, himself. 

Gabriel Gonzalez: Sean Strickland. Few expected a victory for Alexa Grasso in March against Valentina Shevchenko, and for the first several rounds it appeared that their prediction was on its way to an inevitable conclusion. But Sean Strickland came out against Israel Adesanya in the first round and managed to control the majority of a 25 minute contest on the feet against a former Glory kickboxing champion whose abilities had entered him into the conversation of being the most skilled middleweight in UFC history. Add into it that Strickland won the fight with what might be the most beautiful execution of “the basics” ever seen and you have a recipe for a historic upset.

Jay Anderson: There are two options here, Alexa Grasso vs. Valentina Shevchenko, and Sean Strickland vs. Israel Adesanya. Grasso caught “Bullet” in a choke and came out with her hand raised, but she wasn’t winning to that point and their rematch ended in a draw. When I think about upsets, I’m looking for a more thoroughly decisive win, and that’s what Sean Strcikland had against “The Last Stylebender.” No one expected a showing that dominant, I’d hazard a guess and say even Strickland didn’t envision the fight going the way it did. Upset of the Year, possibly even of the decade.

Jamie Theodosi: Dricus Du Plessis’ win over Robert Whittaker. Originally I was going to pick Sean Strickland’s win over Israel Adesanya for this award, but because I’ve picked him for Fighter of the Year, I’ve gone with DDP. Nobody, including myself, was giving DDP a chance in this fight. It felt like a way for the UFC to find Whittaker a title rematch, but DDP played spoiler, and the fact that it has now set up for a huge title fight with Strickland makes it even bigger.

Val Dewar: Upset of the Year: Sean Strickland vs Israel Adesanya. This was a year of upsets, as all years are in a sport as unpredictable as MMA, but the most notable were Strickland beating Adesanya and Grasso over Shevchenko. Elves Brener had the biggest numerical upset of the year, winning as a +475 underdog, but it’s hard to look past championship level upsets for this award. Strickland earns the nod here simply because many people thought Valentina also lost her last fight to Taila Santos, so it was less of a surprise to see her defeated than Adesanya, who had not faced a blemish in his entire middleweight career before being dominated by Sean Strickland in November.

Cade Morehouse: Sean Strickland dominating Israel Adesanya the way he did to become a world champion is the upset of the year. Strickland was not supposed to get that fight and he made the most of the opportunity. Nobody had ever dominated five rounds with Adesanya the way Strickland did this year. That was easily the highlight of the year and upset of the year.

Patrick McCorry: Dricus Du Plessis over Robert Whittaker, just for the finish. No one saw that coming, finishing Whittaker is an incredible feat.

Shawn Bitter: It has to be Sean Strickland dethroning Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title. Strickland got this fight because of a short notice opportunity and nobody expected him to win. Not only did Sean win but he dominated for five rounds.

End result: In a landslide, Sean Strickland takes home our Upset of the Year award for 2023. He’s set to defend his title in just under two weeks’ time at UFC 297 in Toronto.