Heading into UFC 253, there have been few fights — let alone sporting events — with as much hype and build-up behind them as there was for Costa vs. Adesanya. The millions of people that were chopping at the bit over the past months were finally gifted the long-awaited fight this past Saturday at UFC’s Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. With the bad blood between the two, the social media presence and coverage around it, and of course, the skillsets both fighters hold, there was no doubt that this would be one of the most profitable and entertaining fights in UFC history.
This last weekend held a title fight that caused some fans to bury their heads in their hands, while others simply gave a Jordan shrug and scoffed, saying “onto the next.” Costa fans watching went silent, Izzy fans roared, the classic smackdown after a smack-talking of the ages proved once more that there are very few — if any middleweight fighters — that can go toe-to-toe with The Last Stylebender. As always, with a win comes another flamboyant celebration from Adesanya, and this time he may have set off a ticking time bomb. Adesanya’s gesture of pelvic thrusting Costa twice after knocking him out didn’t sit well with Paulo, certainly guaranteeing a future matchup at least once more between the two. However, that is down the road, and as for now, Izzy made a definite statement on Saturday.
For one fighter, Paulo Costa, the fight was a massive wake-up call. For the other, Israel Adesanya, it was another notch on an already Hall of Fame resume. However, as one should always do when faced with defeat, I wanted to look at the takeaways for Costa from the loss. I figured this would be a great time to talk about a few things I observed from watching the fight Saturday that ultimately hurt Costa, but are adjustable to where he can improve and get better in the future.
1: Paulo Costa’s corner did little to help
When watching the fight, it was easy to see within the first three or so minutes of the first round that Costa wasn’t fighting this fight like any of his ones prior. While ‘El Borrachinha’ is criticized by many for his technique — or lack thereof, for him to be standing as flatfooted and open as he was, was a problem from the get-go. Not only was his stance just easy-pickings for Adesanya’s brutal and various leg kicks to his lead left leg, but it was also limiting his own offensive abilities as well. I’ll touch more on that later in another portion, but prior to getting into how Costa’s corner left him for dead, first here’s a comparison of how the night went for both fighters from a statistical perspective (info via Forbes):
|SIGNIF. STRIKES LANDED||SIG. STRK LND %||S.S LND- HEAD||S.S LND- BODY||S.S LND- LEG||S.S LND- CLINCH|
The stats tell the story if the eye test wasn’t enough. For one of the most feared and brutal strikers across all divisions of the UFC to get out-shot by 43 significant strikes — the second-largest gap from all fights Saturday night — is inexcusable. What makes Costa such an intimidating fighter in the ring is that he is always applying “unrelenting pressure,” as Joe Rogan put it best. With this fight against Adesanya, there was little-to-no pressure from him whatsoever, and he was solely fighting defensively. Obviously, when fighting against Israel Adesanya, there are very few mistakes to capitalize on, so for Costa to be fighting in a defensive or counter-attacking style is interesting. However, as strong of an argument could be made about how difficult it is to press Izzy and get up close enough to do tons of damage — which is what Costa’s calling is.
Now, after the first round, it was apparent that the leg kicks were going to start becoming problematic for Costa, but when listening to his corner, there was no sense of urgency or change of approach being suggested. His corner encouraged him to work his combos and told him that when he’s got Izzy up against the cage that he should push off him and separate. My main problem with that advice is that advising Costa, who already had a 3in height disadvantage to go with an 8in reach disadvantage, to make this a fight from distance in the center of the octagon doesn’t make sense. For his corner to suggest the idea of “throwing his combos” implies that Costa would need to be on the offensive and pushing in more. Once more, however, as the second round got underway, his shots were not landing. I myself don’t speak Portuguese, so I’m not entirely positive as to what was being shouted out by his team throughout the fight, but for an in-between round talk to be so contradictory of oneself was interesting.
What I mean by that is that encouraging Costa to work the combos and let them come to him, but also discouraging him to get in the clinch or up close enough to do that patented damage he’s so well known for, contradicts completely. There was seemingly no anger or aggression that Costa was fighting with, and one can contribute some of his corner’s lack of plausible advice as one of the reasons. Costa was not going to win this fight by going five rounds, and there were little who expected him to outduel Izzy from the center of the octagon. Simply put, the strategy put in place by Costa and his team was completely shattered within a few minutes of the fight.
2: Costa’s stance and nonchalant demeanor cost him greatly
While many love the heavy punches and seamless combinations executed, there’s an undeniable art to the wear-and-tear style of fighting. For Adesanya to have come out and executed the various leg kicks that he did, most to the outside of the knee and oblique, and various to the calves and thighs, shows that he truly does possess the precision he daunts. After a few moments, Costa’s knee began to swell, and by Round 2, it was already bleeding, along with the inside of his thigh. Praising Adesanya is easy after that showing, and of course, it is easy to rag on Costa’s rather pitiful performance, but the one glaring thing Costa neglected to do anything about were those kicks. He very infrequently even attempted to check them and didn’t once switch up his stance or try to switch up the octagon position.
The 26 Significant Strikes Landed to the leg by Adesanya were the most strikes landed between the two across the entire body. Yet, when the fight’s candle slowly was nearing the burnout, it were the early leg kicks that were Costa’s main downfall. To some, leg kicks are ineffective and, when not properly executed or located, can do minimal damage. However, with as accurate as Izzy was, and as little care as Costa seemed to show toward it, it played a crucial part in his loss.
For Paulo, he’s always been a confident fighter and one that enjoys showboating in the ring, but to do it against Adesanya while not actively doing anything himself, was not what I wanted to see out of the potential future middleweight champion. I’m all for having fun in the ring and giving your opponent nothing to feel good about or smile about, but to not push offensively in between doesn’t make sense. Costa’s demeanor is never going to change, and nor should it. His confidence and ego play into his ambition and work ethic, and there are very few who work as hard as he does. Yet, to see him repeatedly slap his knee as if it wasn’t a mere slap from Adesanya while neglecting to check it or counter it was worrisome.
When Costa fought Yoel Romero at UFC 241 last year, there are glaring differences in the way he approached both bouts. With Romero, Paulo was constantly on the offensive, keeping his body straight and aligned with Romero, his shoulders square. He had his classic guard up — with both hands up below his chin, left hand lower and dangling for the majority of the fight. That allowed him to throw those lead left jabs and hooks and hit him with the brutal right uppercuts or hooks when the body is turned. Add to that, Costa constantly pushed Romero and tried to get in the clinch. When up against the fence, he’d throw knees and vicious body shots, even if it meant he’d take some hits as well. Ultimately that combination led to a few knockdowns for Costa, some hard punches, and win via unanimous decision.
The Adesanya fight was a completely different story. Very rarely was Paulo ever seemingly fighting off his front foot, and he was often caught in an open stance where Izzy was able to land repeated kicks and a few headshots throughout the fight. What Makes Israel Adesanya such an incredible fighter is his ability to switch stances on the fly, thus adjusting and adapt to whatever is going on in the moment and read fighters’ moves, seemingly telegraphing them before they happen. For Costa, there was no stance switching or applying pressure when his opponent was caught on his back foot. There were no combinations thrown or kicks mixed with jabs that could’ve dazed Izzy. Instead, it was as if Adesanya knew everything that Costa was going to throw. The constant feints and ducks, while being light on his feet and repositioning himself accordingly, ended up being too much for Paulo to keep up with.
3: Costa needs to greatly improve his adjustability and agility
Paulo Costa could eat the Jan Blachowicz diet of Polish sausages and beets & potatoes, as well as nothing but straight butter and not lose his figure. There is no doubt that his strength and striking ability are amongst the best of the best in the world, but if he wants to be a titleholder, he is going to need to expand his range. Costa teased the media by saying he could take Adesanya to the ground in a matter of seconds, but there was not one takedown attempt attempted by Costa. There were few impactful kicks that he landed, aside from a few decent shots to the body and one that clipped Adesanya’s head. To put it simply, Costa’s game, when he was unable to push in and throw his punches, was severely limited. If he truly wants a shot at the belt, he needs to work on his endurance and agility along with his craft — specifically his kicking.
I am not implying that Costa is out of shape or is unable to handle the grueling endurance battles that can take place in the UFC, but it was quickly apparent that he wasn’t remotely as quick or technically smart as Adesanya. Costa has never fought a five-round bout before in the UFC, either, and the longest fight he’s fought was that UFC 241 FOTY candidate between he and Romero that went to the judges after three. The more important thing I am touching on with his agility and endurance is that his horizontal movement and ability to adjust when having to fight off his back foot are lacking. When he is able to be the aggressor and throw his punches, thus dictating the fight, there is no one that can stop him. If that fails to materialize in the early stages of the fight, when going up against poised and technical fighters like Adesanya, Costa has to have a fallback option.
Similar to how in baseball, what separates an elite pitcher from a good pitcher is their out-pitch and their complementary stuff. For guys like Clayton Kershaw, it is his changeup and curveball, for Josh Hader, it is his slider and fastball. In the UFC, world-class fighters who are considered the best of the best have well-rounded games, and outs that they can look to in case they encounter a roadblock in their own game plan. Adesanya is able to move quickly and combine his precision and lethal strikes with light footwork and rapid pace, allowing him to adjust on the fly and pickup his opponent’s moves before they happen. For Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s his ability to throw quick punches and then drop levels and take you to the ground within a blink of an eye, before executing near flawless grappling techniques. Whereas for Costa, if he’s not able to use that gorilla-like strength and pressure, there is no true other option for him yet. His biggest strength is his ability to fight in the clinch and up-close. When Costa is pressed against the opposing fighter and able to throw vicious body shots mixed with headshots, opposition can only stay standing for so long. He didn’t land a single shot when in the clinch versus Izzy and was quick to break it and revert back to the middle.
That inability to adapt and either A) push Adesanya against the fence and initiate the clinch more, or B) match him with exchanges and shots at a distance, was his downfall. On Saturday night, everyone saw that Costa could be labeled a “one-trick pony” and that there are flaws in his game for sure. Taking away the lack of grappling, for his stand-up game to truly reach elite levels and to be considered the best of the best, he is going to need to diversify and expand.
Paulo Costa is certainly not down and out in the UFC. There should be little-to-no-doubt about him returning with an emphatic statement in his next fight and doing whatever it takes to claw his way back to that Adesanya matchup. He already told Dana to book the rematch, proving that this rivalry is nowhere near close to over.