UFC 253 viewers guide: Undefeated rivals Adesanya, Costa perfect for ‘Fight Island’ showcase

  • MMA columnist for ESPN.com
  • Analyst for “MMA Live”
  • Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun

You have to give it to the UFC. The promotion has pulled off this 2020 concept of “Fight Island” remarkably well, and I’m not just referring to stringent COVID-19 measures.

The UFC’s pay-per-views this year on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, have offered a lot. From the “BMF” champion taking a title fight on six days’ notice at UFC 251 in July to now a middleweight title fight between two undefeated stars in Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa — one can’t ask for much more in terms of storylines and visuals.

And while the Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal main event in July turned into a bit of a dud in the cage, the middleweight main event of UFC 253 on Saturday really should be anything but. Just the visuals of a “skinny” Adesanya squaring off with a hulking Costa this week on an Abu Dhabi beach — this fight was made for a place called “Fight Island,” and it should deliver.

This matchup has felt inevitable, at least to me, since mid-2018, when I watched Adesanya (19-0, 8-0 in the UFC) size Costa up at UFC 226 in Las Vegas. Adesanya was granting interviews backstage when Costa came back following his victory over Uriah Hall. Adesanya wouldn’t take his eyes off him, although I honestly don’t think Costa (13-0, 5-0 UFC) even noticed at the time.

I remember thinking the two should fight back then as rising contenders, but the UFC let them both work their way up independently. That proved to be the right call, as we will now see only the second men’s title fight in UFC history between a champion and challenger both with perfect records.

The matchup has taken on a personal undertone in recent years, which has generated some trash talk, but the real “beef” here from my perspective is simply that two guys recognized early on they were going to fight one day, and have kept an eye on one another as they’ve risen through the ranks.

And honestly, that to me is one of the best beefs that exist in MMA. A fundamental disagreement — You’re doing well for yourself, but I’m better. Don’t forget that.

As much fun as Masvidal’s late arrival to Abu Dhabi was in July, this main event — a matchup that’s been years in the making — should eclipse it in terms of what we get on fight night. And while the storyline in the co-main is also intriguing — our first look at a post-Jon Jones light heavyweight division, in a title fight between Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz — I really do believe Izzy vs. Costa has a chance to be the fight we remember most when we look back on this “Fight Island” chapter in UFC history.

Middleweight championship:
Israel Adesanya (c) vs. Paulo Costa

Adesanya won the title last October with a TKO of Robert Whittaker and has defended it once, beating Yoel Romero by unanimous decision in March. Costa also beat Romero by decision in his most recent fight, in August 2019, but prior to that he had finished every opponent he had faced (11 knockouts, one submission).

By the numbers

8.43: Strikes landed per minute in the UFC by Costa, the most in the promotion’s history.

65.5: Percentage of his opponents’ significant strikes that Adesanya avoids, the second-best striking defense among active middleweights, behind only Marvin Vettori’s 67.1%.

15:53: Average fight time for Adesanya, the longest of all time among UFC middleweights. Costa’s fights average 7 minutes, 17 seconds, the fifth-shortest time among active 185-pounders.

1.65: Knockdowns per minute by Costa, the most among active middleweights. Adesanya is fourth, at 1.18. Overall, Adesanya has 10 knockdowns in the UFC, tying him with Yoel Romero for the second most among active 185-pounders, behind Anderson Silva’s 13.

12: Brazilian fighters who have started their UFC run at 5-0, with Costa among them. Six of those fighters went on to win a championship: Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, Cris Cyborg, Junior dos Santos, Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information research and UFC Stats

A look back …

Five vs. five

Israel Adesanya’s most recent results
Win: Yoel Romero (UD, March 7, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Robert Whittaker (KO2, Oct. 6, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Kelvin Gastelum (UD, April 13, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Anderson Silva (UD, Feb. 10, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Derek Brunson (TKO3, Nov. 3, 2018)

Paulo Costa’s most recent results
Win: Yoel Romero (UD, Aug. 17, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Uriah Hall (TKO2, July 7, 2018)
Win: Johny Hendricks (TKO2, Nov. 4, 2017)
Win: Oluwale Bamgbose (TKO2, June 3, 2017)
Win: Garreth McLellan (TKO1, March 11, 2017)

Zero vs. zero: A UFC history

Saturday will be only the second time in UFC history that two undefeated men compete for a championship. The first was over a decade ago: Rashad Evans vs. Lyoto Machida on May 23, 2009, at UFC 98 in Las Vegas.

Evans came into that bout at 13-0-1, having won the light heavyweight title from Forrest Griffin five months earlier, but really making his mark four months before that with a stunning KO of legendary ex-champ Chuck Liddell.

Machida was 15-0 but was given the title shot only because the UFC’s planned challenger, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, injured his knee. Machida made the most of his opportunity, knocking down Evans in the first round and finishing him in Round 2 with a flurry of punches that sent the champ awkwardly to the canvas.

Although that’s the only title showdown between unbeaten men, there have been several in the women’s game — all but one involving Ronda Rousey. During a stretch from February 2014 through November 2015, “Rowdy Ronda” defended her bantamweight title five times — with all but one defense coming against an undefeated challenger.

On Feb. 22, 2014, at UFC 170, Sara McMann came in 7-0 and lost to Rousey via TKO at 1:06 of Round 1. At UFC 184 on Feb. 28, 2015, Rousey submitted 9-0 Cat Zingano in 14 seconds. On Aug. 1, 2015, at UFC 190, Rousey KO’d 9-0 Bethe Correia in 34 seconds. Then, on Nov. 15, 2015, at UFC 193, the 12-0 Rousey was felled by 9-0 Holly Holm’s second-round head kick heard ’round the world.

The other championship fight between undefeated women: Joanna Jedrzejczyk, 12-0 at the time, defended her strawweight belt against 10-0 Karolina Kowalkiewicz on Nov. 12, 2016, at UFC 205. The champ retained her title via unanimous decision.

Dom and Gil’s film study

Dominick Cruz breaks down Adesanya’s footwork:

Gilbert Melendez on how Costa is like Mike Tyson:

And the winner is …

It can be hard to gauge a fighter’s confidence leading up to a fight. Sometimes an athlete puts up a good front, hiding the uncertainties underneath. Sometimes an athlete really is confident all week but loses it when the moment actually arrives. I will say this, though: Both Adesanya and Costa look supremely confident going into Saturday. Adesanya has said he’ll make it look easy. Costa has told his team he predicts a first-round knockout. And I truly believe they both mean it. Costa is going to come with pressure I don’t think Adesanya has faced in his UFC career, while Adesanya will counter with precision and technique Costa hasn’t seen in his. I think it goes into the championship rounds, and Adesanya’s experience and accuracy decide it. Adesanya via TKO, fourth round.

Light heavyweight championship:
Dominick Reyes vs. Jan Blachowicz

This is a fight for the title longtime champion Jon Jones vacated in August. Reyes (12-1, 6-1 UFC) is coming off his only career loss, but that defeat in February came against Jones in a contest many believe the challenger won. Blachowicz (26-8, 9-5 UFC) has won his past three fights and seven of his past eight. He earned his spot in this title bout with a first-round knockout of Corey Anderson in February.

By the numbers

3: Fighters who have been older than Blachowicz (37 years, 215 days) when they first fought for an undisputed UFC championship: Dan Severn (lost in February 1997 at age 42 years, 244 days), Fabricio Werdum (won in June 2015 at 37-318) and Yoel Romero (lost in March at 42-312).

52: Percentage of UFC takedown attempts on which Blachowicz has been successful, by far the best among active light heavyweights. Jon Jones is second at 44.2%.

82.4: Percentage of opponents’ takedown attempts successfully defended by Reyes, which ranks him fourth among active UFC 205-pounders.

4.88: Significant strikes landed per minute in the UFC by Reyes, the fourth most among active light heavyweights. Ion Cutelaba is No. 1, at 5.29.

815: Total strikes landed in the UFC by Blachowicz, placing him eighth among active light heavyweights.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information research and UFC Stats

A look back …

Five vs. five

Dominick Reyes’ most recent results
Loss: Jon Jones (UD, Feb. 8, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Chris Weidman (KO1, Oct. 18, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Volkan Oezdemir (SD, March 16, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Ovince Saint Preux (UD, Oct. 6, 2018)
Win: Jared Cannonier (TKO1, May 19, 2018)

Jan Blachowicz’s most recent results
Win: Corey Anderson (KO1, Feb. 15, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (SD, Nov. 16, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Luke Rockhold (KO2, July 6, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Thiago Santos (TKO3, Feb. 23, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Nikita Krylov (SUB2, Sept. 15, 2018)

Dom and Gil’s film study

Dominick Cruz on what made Reyes effective vs. Jon Jones:

And the winner is …

In terms of X factors here, the situation would seem to favor Blachowicz, right? Reyes goes from a controversial loss to Jon Jones, and the enticement of a rematch, to a fight in which he is now a clear favorite, against an opponent whom fans, media and even previous opponents have a habit of overlooking. Blachowicz doesn’t have a ton of pressure on him here, at least compared to Reyes, who is expected to win after going blow for blow with the great Jones. Reyes seems up to the task, don’t get me wrong, but this is a more competitive fight than some think, and Reyes getting the belt is not a foregone conclusion. We’re predicting Reyes, but Blachowicz is a live ‘dog. Reyes by decision.

Saturday’s fight card

PPV (via ESPN+), 10 p.m. ET
Israel Adesanya (c) vs. Paulo Costa | Middleweight
Dominick Reyes vs. Jan Blachowicz | Light heavyweight
Kai Kara-France vs. Brandon Royval | Men’s flyweight
Ketlen Vieira vs. Sijara Eubanks | Women’s bantamweight
Hakeem Dawodu vs. Zubaira Tukhugov | Men’s featherweight
ESPN2/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET
Brad Riddell vs. Alex Da Silva | Lightweight
Diego Sanchez vs. Jake Matthews | Welterweight
Shane Young vs. Ludovit Klein | Men’s featherweight
William Knight vs. Aleksa Camur | Light heavyweight
Juan Espino vs. Jeff Hughes | Heavyweight
Khadis Ibragimov vs. Danilo Marques | Light heavyweight
(c) = defending champion

Three more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)

1. The pay-per-view opens with a bout featuring Hakeem Dawodu, whose significant strike differential of plus-2.97 is the largest in men’s featherweight history. Dawodu faces Zubaira Tukhugov, who has the third-highest striking defense percentage in division history (68.1%). Something’s got to give.

2. Ketlen Vieira, who fights Sijara Eubanks, has stuffed 12 of 13 takedown attempts against her, a 92.3% defense rate. That would place her second all time among female bantamweights if she had the necessary 20 opponent attempts to qualify for statistical leadership. Eubanks has 13 takedowns in her six UFC fights, including three in her Sept. 12 win over Julia Avila. Eubanks is seeking to tie Chris Leben for third-fewest days between victories in the UFC’s modern era (14 days).

3. Kai Kara-France, a teammate of main eventer Israel Adesanya at City Kickboxing in Auckland, New Zealand, has seen all five of his UFC bouts go to decision. His flyweight opponent, Brandon Royval, has 10 finishes in 11 career wins (seven by submission, three by knockout). Royval tapped out former title challenger Tim Elliott in his UFC debut in May.

ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight card preview.

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