The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s fourth straight event out of the UFC Apex on Saturday in Las Vegas at least offers the best main event of the bunch, as Paulo Costa meets fellow former title challenger Marvin Vettori in a fascinating middleweight headliner. Their bout does most of the heavy lifting for UFC Fight Night 196, but there are pieces to like throughout the main card. Rising lightweight prospect Grant Dawson gets a tough veteran test in the co-feature against Ricky Glenn, and a women’s bantamweight showcase between Jessica-Rose Clark and Joselyne Edwards is well-matched and important for both competitors. Add in an Alex Caceres sighting and some light heavyweight violence in the opener, and this ranks above some of the UFC’s less desirable offerings in recent memory.
Now to the preview for the UFC Fight Night “Costa vs. Vettori” main card:
Light Heavyweights#5 MW | Marvin Vettori (17-5-1, 7-3-1 UFC) vs. #2 MW | Paulo Costa (13-1, 5-1 UFC)
ODDS: Vettori (-150), Costa (+130)
With his title shot against Israel Adesanya now firmly in the rearview mirror, there are as many questions as ever about Costa. He burst onto the UFC scene in 2017, looking unrecognizable from his stint on “The Ultimate Fighter Brazil” just a few years earlier, having bulked up to a musclebound Adonis who was now all too willing to bully his opponents. It was quickly clear that the UFC realized what it had in “The Eraser,” giving him showcase wins on pay-per-view cards for the rest of the year before moving him up the ladder in earnest. Costa impressed every step of the way. First, he had little trouble against a strong performance from Uriah Hall, eating Hall’s offense and eventually scoring the finish with pressure. Then came Costa’s victory over Yoel Romero, which seemed to answer every question about the Brazilian in the affirmative. Faced with someone else who could match him on strength and power, Costa met the challenge head-on, going after Romero and taking his licks in the process; he managed to go toe-to-toe with one of the division’s most dangerous fighters and came out the victor. Having answered questions about his heart and his chin, Costa looked like both the next and toughest challenge yet for Adesanya. After a year of build that could best be described as psychosexual, Costa finally got his shot at Adesanya and promptly put on the worst performance of his career. Costa seemed tentative to start—something that only got worse as Adesanya started to pick him apart, particularly with leg kicks. Costa just never got into a second gear, with Adesanya eventually taking the fight completely over and finishing it late in the second round. That led to what has essentially been a lost year for Costa, who has done little but pull out of fights and blame the performance against Adesanya on a wine hangover. While the vibes are not exactly great for Costa at the moment, he is still a clear talent who gets a big chance at a bounce-back win against Vettori, a man who happens to be Adesanya’s most recent challenger.
For as many questions as there are about Costa, Vettori has been consistent to a fault. “The Italian Dream” initially came to the UFC in 2016 as a formless but obviously talented fighter, and over time, he wound up settling into a relatively simple pressure attack that worked due to Vettori’s durability and sheer persistence. Vettori’s first fight against Adesanya in 2018 was the first real sign that he was turning a corner, as he took the current champ to a split decision; by the time Vettori re-appeared over a year later, he looked like a much more complete and effective fighter. The UFC’s pandemic era saw Vettori ride main event wins over Jack Hermansson and Kevin Holland to a title rematch against Adesanya, which is where he hit his ceiling and mostly charged into Adesanya’s offense for five rounds. Vettori is still only 28 years old and less than a decade into his professional career, so there is some hope that he can still evolve a bit more going forward. Any sort of diversity in his attack figures to help greatly, given that the lack of surprise to his game seems to be the main thing holding him back from becoming a reliable finisher. At any rate, Vettori’s campaign back to middleweight title contention starts here, and a win would serve as a huge step toward keeping him ahead of another former title challenger.
At first blush, this seems like an easy pick for Costa. Both men are at their best moving forward and bullying their opponents, and Costa has the advantage of being both the harder hitter and the deeper technical fighter when it comes to his striking. However, there are obviously a lot of questions around Costa, some of which will not be answered until this fight starts. One of the main reasons Costa was such an interesting challenge for Adesanya was that the Brazilian seemed unbreakable in his confidence, which made it a complete shock when he seemed to already be broken once the fight started. Was that just a one-off against an opponent who succeeded at getting into his head, or did it portend something going forward, likely only made worse by the result of the fight? At any rate, the assumption should probably be that Costa looks closer to his old self. If nothing else, Vettori’s fundamental but low-power pressuring approach figures to be exactly the type of style that can force Costa to fight back and eventually find a groove. Even against the better version of Costa, Vettori presents an interesting challenge. Vettori has been consistent to a fault at times, which includes an ability to keep charging through a ridiculous amount of damage. So even if Costa is the more powerful and effective fighter to start, can the Brazilian keep that pace for five rounds if he is unable to score a knockout? Costa’s win over Romero marks the only time he has been out of the second round in his professional career, and while he managed to maintain his pace, he was obviously exhausted by the end of 15 minutes with a fighter who is not nearly as taxing to fight as Vettori. Add in 10 more minutes, and it becomes easy to see Vettori taking this fight over by the time the scorecards are read, with his wrestling game likely proving to be an effective change-up as time goes on. It makes this a ridiculously close fight that should tilt in Vettori’s favor at some point, though it might look like a Costa blowout until it does. With things being relatively even, the questions about exactly where Costa stands mentally are enough to have more faith in the Italian. The pick is Vettori via decision.
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