UFC president Dana White has once again ‘guaranteed’ that the UFC 253 main event between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa will be ‘fight of the year’. The UFC Middleweight title bout takes place September 27 at the ‘Fight Island’ complex on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Speaking to press ahead of UFC Vegas 11, White proclaimed “this fight is going to be ridiculous.”
On paper, the matchup looks like the kind of fight UFC fans want to see: UFC Middleweight Champion Adesanya (19–0 MMA, 8–0 UFC) is a kickboxing specialist, and challenger Costa (13–0 MMA, 5–0 UFC) employs a standup-heavy arsenal. Both men are undefeated. But will it be fight of the year?
‘Stand and bang’
In an era where ‘stand and bang’ fights are demanded by the UFC brass, Paulo Costa is the perfect choice. His style is to walk forward, stay in his opponents face and throw heavy punches until his opponent falls, and fall they do. ‘The Eraser’ won first 4 UFC bouts by knockout in the second round, prior to his decision win over Yoel Romero back in August 2019.
The hulking Brazilian, barring any surprise tactical switches, will walk forward and force Adesanya to engage. Adesanya for his part, won’t be afraid of Costa’s approach, but will he fight fire with fire?
Israel Adesanya is arguably the most credentialled striker to grace the UFC octagon. ‘The Last Stylebender’ owns a kickboxing record of 75–5 (29ko) and a boxing record of 5–1 (1ko). Prior to his switch to MMA, the Nigerian-born New Zealander was ranked #2 in the famed Glory Kickboxing promotion.
After 86 professional fights in striking disciplines, it is fair to say that there is little that Adesanya has yet to experience in stand up fighting. A walk forward fighter like Costa will be nothing new, in fact a fighter of that style is what boxing legend Teddy Atlas would describe as ‘an available fighter.’ As such, Adesanya will be uniquely placed to employ his preferred counter striking strategy, as he won’t have to look far to find the target.
So why, you might ask, would this not be a ‘fight of the year’ candidate? The matchup pits an aggressor with a counter fighter, the perfect clash of styles right?
Brains vs Brawn
In Adesanya’s most recent UFC appearance, he was also pitted against Cuba’s Yoel Romero. The fight had all the makings of a classic. However the fight, in reality, was very different. It turned out to be a low-volume affair, with 43-year-old Romero waiting and fighting in infrequent bursts, and Adesanya dancing on the outside in a bid to pick off the Cuban from long range. While Costa will provide more engagement than Romero did, the common denominator is Adesanya.
In his last 7 UFC starts, Adesanya has managed only 2 knockout wins, and while his victims in those fights (Derek Brunson and Robert Whittaker) are nothing to be sneezed at, his recent record shows that he has been forced to use his superior technical ability to get by. This is no criticism of Adesanya, but it does give us a clue as to how the fight with Costa might play out.
If fans are expecting Adesanya to stay in the pocket and engage with Costa, they are likely to be disappointed. Adesanya has far-superior range control and a broader array of attacks at his disposal, so engaging in a slugfest with Costa would be ill-advised. While Adesanya will most likely see moments of adversity, Costa will make sure of that, he has all the tools to work his way out of trouble. He will have learned his lesson from his April 2019 fight with Kelvin Gastelum in which, while victorious by unanimous decision, Adesanya took his fair share of damage.
What is this fight then, if not ‘fight of the year’?
The net result is that Costa will bring the fight to Adesanya, we know that, but Adesanya has seen it all before. Adesanya will once again stay light on his feet, and likely take a cerebral approach in picking his moments to land on his opponent. We won’t see another crazy war, like those that we are accustomed to seeing from Costa, but it will instead be a tactical battle.
Can Costa corner Adesanya and put him away? Or will Adesanya pick him apart over 5 rounds? These are the kinds of questions that make an upcoming MMA fight compelling. However in reality, while the fight is likely to be an entertaining battle as advertised, it won’t be ‘fight of the year’.