ABU DHABI – Saturday’s championship bout between UFC middleweight titleholder Israel Adesanya and top contender Paulo Costa has clear historical significance, but the bout’s position in terms of true impact on the sport’s chronicles may only be clear in retrospect.
Surprisingly, the UFC 253 headliner is just the second time in modern UFC history that two undefeated male fighters have squared off with a title on the line. The first such instance saw Lyoto Machida defeat Rashad Evans for the light heavyweight title in May 2009.
“I love these kind of fights,” UFC president Dana White told MMA Junkie during a pre-fight press conference on Yas Beach. “When you have two of the baddest dudes in the world, undefeated, in their prime, facing off for the world title, nothing gets better than this.”
On paper, Adesanya (19-0 MMA, 8-0 UFC) and Costa (13-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) do, indeed, make for a perfect pairing.
The reigning champion is one of the slickest strikers ever seen in the octagon, boasting a unique style built over a stellar kickboxing career that saw him rack up more than 75 professional wins. Adesanya’s attacks are precise, but his footwork, creativity, and mastery of range all contribute to make him a standup master.
Meanwhile, Costa is renowned for his power – a Brazilian bruiser capable of total devastation. But “Borrachinha” isn’t simply in pursuit of landing one big shot. In fact, his UFC career average of 8.43 strikes landed per minute is currently the highest mark on the roster.
“When you look at this fight stylistically, I pick this fight to be ‘Fight of the Year,’” White said.
In terms of “can’t miss” fights, Adesanya vs. Costa fits. But is it, on paper, one of the greatest matchups in UFC middleweight history? Adesanya doesn’t think so, citing Costa’s limited pedigree as the culprit.
“Just his resume doesn’t hold up enough,” Adesanya said. “If you look at the guys he’s beat – he beat an over-the-hill Johny Hendricks; no offense, a former welterweight champion, that is. He beat Uriah Hall, who was actually doing quite well in that fight, one of his better performances. But then Uriah Hall just succumbed to his will because Uriah Hall sometimes breaks mentally. And he beat Yoel Romero, who’s on his way out, anyway.”
For what it’s worth, Costa actually seems to agree. The Brazilian powerhouse said it’s not really his place to try to suggest where this moment lies in promotional history.
“This is for you guys who work with this,” Costa said. “To me, I’m just a fighter. I don’t care if he’s undefeated or not. I go in there to do my work.”
It has been more than 11 years since two unbeaten fighters contested a UFC title, so Costa does admit that’s probably more than just a simple footnote.
“If I look for this angle, yeah, I think it will be a very rare moment,” Costa said.
Outside of Adesanya’s current reign, the biggest title fights in UFC middleweight history belong to future UFC Hall of Famer Anderson Silva.
In 2008, Silva welcomed reigning PRIDE titleholder and two-time Olympian Dan Henderson to the UFC in the only bout to ever feature current (at the time) undisputed champions from the rival promotions.
In 2010, “The Spider” ignited a massive rivalry with the infamous Chael Sonnen, leading to a pair of blockbuster battles that remain among the most financially successful contest ever contested at 185 pounds.
Silva’s 2011 battle with fellow MMA legend and countryman Vitor Belfort is widely credited with launching the current popularity boom of the sport in Brazil.
Ten years from now, will this matchup of undefeated athletes in Adesanya vs. Costa be discussed alongside those titanic clashes? Only time will tell.
Adesanya’s first UFC title fight, an April 2019 clash with Kelvin Gastelum, wasn’t necessarily one of the most anticipated contests of all time, but the incredible battle played out to in epic fashion and is easily one of the greatest fights in UFC history.
So whether Saturday’s main event turns out to be Adesanya’s latest title defense or the start of Costa’s reign as middleweight kingpin, the weight of the moment simply can’t be quantified by their career records right now.
Of course, it still seems like an awfully good reason to watch.
UFC 253 takes place Saturday at Flash Forum at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN2 and ESPN+.