Preview: UFC 253 ‘Adesanya vs. Costa’ Main Card

Adesanya vs. Costa

By Tom Feely Sep 24, 2020

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will make its return to the United Arab Emirates, and with UFC 253 comes one of the best title fights the promotion can put together at the moment. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and No. 1 contender Paulo Henrique Costa headline essentially a two-fight show; the co-feature between Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz, which will crown a new light heavyweight champion, also serves as an interesting affair despite not having nearly as much promotional sizzle as the main event. Further down, it looks like a fun main card thanks to a flyweight tilt between Kai Kara France and Brandon Royval, along with a potential banger between top featherweight prospects Hakeem Dawodu and Zubaira Tukhugov. Add in a women’s bantamweight fight between Ketlen Vieira and Sijara Eubanks—it makes up for its lack of excitement with some solid stakes—and, all in all, this becomes worth our time.

Now to the preview for the UFC 253 “Adesanya vs. Costa” main card:

UFC Middleweight Championship

Israel Adesanya (19-0) vs. Paulo Henrique Costa (13-0)

ODDS: Adesanya (-170), Costa (+150)

He has taken mixed martial arts by storm, but it still feels underappreciated just how quickly and impressively Adesanya took over the UFC’s middleweight division. He entered the promotion with some big questions and concerns but managed to strike UFC gold and become the biggest star in an entire region of the world in just a shade over a year and a half. “The Last Stylebender” split time between his impressive kickboxing pursuits and his fledgling mixed martial arts career up through 2017, and that showed in his pre-UFC film. Adesanya managed to get by when opponents looked to wrestle him, but his reliance on using athleticism over technique to escape those jams raised some concerns about how he would fare among the middleweight elite. Indeed, his UFC debut against Rob Wilkinson in 2018 showed off those positives and negatives. Wilkinson managed to control the fight for about a round, but as soon as Adesanya stifled his grappling, it was all one-way traffic for the promotional newcomer. It soon became clear that Adesanya was on the prodigy track. Less than five months after that UFC debut, Adesanya showed that he had patched up his defensive holes in a main event against Brad Tavares, a trustworthy vet who got nothing done in 25 minutes against him. After one more win against Derek Brunson, it was off to the races, as Adesanya had a breakout 2019 campaign. First came a win over Anderson Silva in a fight obviously set up as a passing of the torch, and then came a five-round war against Kelvin Gastelum that was on the shortlist of best fights of the year. That all set up a title fight against countryman Robert Whittaker, and in a bout that felt like it would help write the future of MMA in the Anzac region, Adesanya completely dominated, taking apart the typically durable champ before finishing him halfway through the second round. He followed it with a March fight against Yoel Romero, which stands out as one of the biggest missteps in recent memory, especially given how perfectly Adesanya’s UFC career had gone up to that point. Despite two straight losses, Romero was still considered a top contender and one of the hardest matchups in the division, and the fight was framed as Adesanya asking for a tough test so he could impress once again and further add to his legacy. Instead, what happened was one of the worst title fights in UFC history, only made worse by that it followed an all-time classic between Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Romero had his usual approach of doing nothing in the hopes of finding an opportunity to spring into action, and for all the talk beforehand, Adesanya did not really seem to have an answer. He threw out feints without overextending himself, and Romero did not react; that was essentially the fight. That was all perfectly understandable, as Romero is a difficult puzzle to solve and dangerous to try and defuse, but the whole build to the fight suggested that Adesanya had come in with a blueprint to affirm himself as an all-time great. Instead, there was nothing worth remembering. Now it is time for the middleweight champion to regain some shine, and thankfully this fight should provide plenty of action. Costa does not seem to know any other way.

It has not happened quite as quickly as Adesanya’s rise, but Costa has still had an impressive run up the ranks. While there have been some long stretches of inactivity, it has taken “The Eraser” just five fights in the UFC to make it to title contention. It is even more impressive considering that Costa was a complete non-factor during a stint on “The Ultimate Fighter Brazil” in 2014. Costa would officially show up inside the UFC three years later as a much better and much more muscular fighter, with a bullying approach that has been both simple and effective. Garreth McLellan, Oluwale Bamgbose and late-career Johny Hendricks were not the sturdiest run of opponents, but Costa marched them down with little concern for what was heading back his way, earning three decisive finishes in the process. A bout with Uriah Hall answered some questions around the margins for Costa. Hall might have been susceptible to Costa’s bullying, but the Brazilian showed some durability and mental fortitude. Unlike some frontrunners of the past who crumbled in the face of resistance, Costa only seems to get more motivated to impose his will as his opponents fight back. That all came to a head in a wild fight against Romero that served as Costa’s breakout victory. Costa came in with shockingly little regard for Romero’s offensive potency and simply charged him down like he was any other opponent, and while he took some hard shots, he kept fighting back until he earned the narrow decision. Again, it was a much cruder approach, particularly in contrast to Adesanya, but Costa’s combination of power and will might just be enough to take the middleweight strap anyway.

This looks to be one of those fights that is difficult to parse on paper but should become clear within the first minute or two. Again, Costa’s entire approach is based on charging through damage, so there is the temptation to think that all the skill and finesse in the world cannot save Adesanya from his blunt force if the Brazilian is not discouraged by the abuse he is going to take. After all, Adesanya already faced one relatively crude and defensively lax opponent in Gastelum and absorbed a great deal of damage in a win, so it is not hard to see that approach paying off for someone who simply hits much harder. On the other hand, is Costa much more of a Whittaker-type of challenge for Adesanya, given his willingness to fight in close quarters? Gastelum may be hittable when he moves in on straight lines, but at least he had the sense to stay out of danger until he decided to attack. Whittaker chose to press the action, overextended himself and got punished repeatedly. At the end of the day, this feels a bit more like the Whittaker fight from that aspect. Costa is a complete blank canvas defensively and should give Adesanya the opportunity to take every advantage of that fact. From there, it becomes a question of Adesanya’s durability, and the champion has shown enough from that standpoint to get the benefit of the doubt. There is some concern that Costa could show some new wrinkles. He has known this opportunity was coming for over a year, and he is both well-coached and coachable. Given that he came up as more of a wrestler and grappler, it will be interesting to see if he breaks out that long-dormant part of his game now that it could serve him well. However, Adesanya should be able to get the better of what figures to be a brutal and attritive war, if only because he has the ability to get hit a lot less. The pick is Adesanya via fourth-round stoppage.

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