Fighting out of the red corner, is the reigning, defending, undisputed, UFC middleweight champion of the world – Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya. Born in Nigeria, raised in New Zealand, standing at 6’4”, “Izzy” can already be described as one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time.
Adesanya has spent most of his career as a kick-boxer. He has a professional record of 75-5 and was a two-division world champ when he made the switch to MMA. He went 11-0, all finishes, before being signed by the UFC. Since joining the UFC, he’s been untouchable. He’s 8-0, out-classing all of his competition, and claimed the middleweight title in a dominant win over the Australian phenom, Robert Whittaker.
He’s a showman. He knows how to create a spectacle. Against Robert Whittaker, where fighters usually opt for their favourite hype-song, Adesanya did a choreographed dance. Had he lost, the performance would have looked stupid. But he didn’t. He claimed the middleweight title with a perfectly placed left hook. In his first title defense, he emerged flanked by two women in traditional Nigerian robes, throwing flower petals at his feet. They were performing a tribal ceremony, done in preparation for war. He has the hairs on the back of your neck standing before he’s even reached the cage.
But the real show begins when he enters the octagon.
Adesanya, in my opinion, is the greatest striker MMA’s ever seen. He blends techniques from various martial arts (it’s why they call him “The Last Stylebender”) and hides them behind feints and complex footwork. Once his opponent is second-guessing his every move, he dispatches them with ruthless efficiency from his seemingly infinite arsenal of attacks.
He stunned Derek Brunson with a knee as he was shooting for a takedown. A question mark kick, followed by a whip of a right hand had Brunson stumbling across the cage. Adesanya stalked him, waiting for the right shot to present itself. It’s common for fighters, once landing a big shot, to blitz their opponent, throwing absolutely everything they have in a panicked flurry, often exhausting themselves in the process. You don’t see that from Izzy. He’s composed. He’s calculated. He picks his shots when the time is right and lands them where he intends to. “I don’t throw and hope, I aim and fire”. Brunson finally succumbed to a left hand on the end of a 10+ strike barrage – all of which landed.
It’s a huge part of what makes Adesanya so dangerous. He isn’t a power puncher. He’s actually quite light for the division. But he doesn’t need power. As a wise man once said, “precision beats power, and timing beats speed”. The human body has two off switches – the jaw, and the carotid arteries. Attack those effectively – size and strength become obsolete. Izzy is an expert at finding the off-switch. He doesn’t need massive power. He combines a huge range of kicks, punches, knees, and elbows, all hidden behind feints and footwork, timed to perfection, landed precisely. He’s a calm, cold, deadly assassin. A ninja.
But all that technique is useless if you can’t overcome adversity. It doesn’t matter how good you are, every fighter is destined to be in serious trouble at some point in their career. Izzy faced that against Kelvin Gastellum.
In a five-round war, he proved he wasn’t just a showman. Having been dropped twice, battered and bruised, and the fight tied at 2-2, the interim title came down to the final 5 minutes. In one of the greatest moments in MMA history, Izzy looked across the octagon to Gastellum and said “I’m prepared to die”. He came out in the 5th, dropped Gastellum twice, and won both the interim middleweight title and 2019 fight of the year. Adesanya said after the fight he’d been repeating to himself “ayabiekun” which means “heart of a lion” in Yoruba – his language from Nigeria. He showed that night that he has the attributes of a true champion.
The champ puts on a show for the fans. His striking technique is some of the best on the planet, and we know he’s able to overcome adversity. His skills have made him one of the biggest stars the UFC has ever seen, and he’s coming into UFC 253 with a flawless 19-0 record.
But… standing across the octagon, in the blue corner, will be Paolo “The Eraser” Costa. Standing at 6”1’ (183cm), and weighing over 230lb’s (104 kg’s) out of camp, Costa is a certified savage. He’s powerful, he’s explosive. He’s aggressive. Combined with high-level striking and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Costa makes for Adesanya’s toughest opponent to date.
I was introduced to ‘The Eraser” at UFC 217. His opponent was Johnny Hendricks, a former welterweight champion. Sensei McCoull asked if I’d seen who Hendricks was being “fed to”. I hadn’t, but I thought he was being a little dismissive of Hendricks, a man who almost beat the greatest mixed martial artist of all time – Georges St-Pierre. Pretty early into the fight, I realised Scott was right – Hendricks didn’t stand a chance. Costa walked him down and finished him in the second round. Hendricks was in survival mode from the get-go. Another second-round TKO over a high-level striker – Uriah Hall – led to a fight against Yoel Romero: the most terrifying man in the middleweight division.
Costa vs Romero was one of the most exciting fights of the year. As Joe Rogan put it, it was like two “brahman bulls” smashing into one another. Romero is one of the most feared fighters in the UFC. An Olympic silver medallist in wrestling, with insane power in his hands, he makes for an intimidating match-up for anyone. Against a guy like Romero, most fighters’ game plan would be to avoid his huge power and counter-strike where you can. When Israel Adesanya faced Romero, Izzy spent the 25 minutes keeping distance and landing leg kicks, which resulted in one of the lowest strike counts in a title fight, ever. Costa opted for a different approach. He walked forward, throwing everything he had at Romero and took some serious damage in the process. The strategy worked, and Costa came out the victor after three rounds of intense action. We not only saw Costa’s massive power (he had Romero hurt – notoriously difficult to do) but also that he’s extremely durable. There’s very few human beings on this planet capable of trading shots with Yoel Romero. Costa proved he’s one of them.
Every fighter approaches a fight with a unique set of skills; an individual set of weapons. The aim of any fight is to amplify your own strengths while exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses. If you’re great at jiu-jitsu, your goal will be to take the fight to the ground and look for a submission. If you’re a great kick-boxer, you’ll want to avoid your opponent’s takedowns and keep the fight on the feet. The better you’re able to steer the fight in your favour, the better your chances of emerging victorious.
How will this play out in Adesanya vs Costa? Costa will be trying to create an all-out war, while Adesanya wants a chess match.
We can expect Costa, especially in the first two rounds, to come out swinging. He’s incredibly dangerous when he’s fresh. He’ll walk Adesanya down, eat some shots, then try to put Adesanya’s lights out with one of his big power punches.
Adesanya, on the other hand, will be looking to weather the initial storm, then start to pick Costa apart. The longer he survives, the better chance he has of winning. The further into the fight we get, the more fatigued Costa will be. He has so much muscle and throws with so much power, he’s inevitably going to slow down, especially once we hit the championship rounds (4 and 5). The more time Adesanya has to figure Costa out, the better he’ll be able to exploit vulnerabilities and find counters. The first half of the fight: advantage Costa. The second half of the fight: advantage Adesanya. If we see either man playing to the other’s hand i.e. Adesanya brawling with Costa, or Costa trying to out-smart Adesanya, the fight won’t last long.
Although Costa is a BJJ black belt, he’s never landed a takedown in the UFC. It would be interesting if he tried to take Adesanya down, but it’s unlikely he’ll stray from his so-far successful strategy.
Another important point to remember is that Adesanya (203cm / 80”) is going to have a massive reach advantage over Paolo Costa (183 cm / 72”). A reach advantage is a huge benefit in a fight, because you’re able to hit your opponent without them hitting you. This will make it even more important for each fighter to stick to their game plan. Costa will need to march forward and into range to be able to land his big power shots, while Adesanya will want to keep Costa at a distance, landing shots and avoiding taking damage.
So, we’re looking at a kick-boxing battle between a wrecking-ball and a ninja. A bull and a matador. An unstoppable force and an untouchable object.
With a combined record of 33-0, two of the greatest martial artists on the planet are going to war. A middleweight champ will be crowned, and someone’s flawless record will be in tatters. Israel Adesanya vs Paolo Costa has all the making of a classic. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype.