Whatever the true sentiment behind that widely reported hotel encounter earlier this week, protagonists slipped right back into it in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, provocateur and verbal sparring partner trading brickbats before the blows at UFC 253 on Sunday.
Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa crossed paths for the first time since the hotel hallway, perched metres apart on Yas Beach, in front of the Arabian Gulf and in full view of the assembled media, the mics and the cameras.
It was less than three days until they square off in the octagon, the headline tussle at the UFC's last pay-per-view event that marks Fight Island's return. This one, the second residency in the capital and following on from July's significant success, glistens with two of the most mouthwatering match-ups on the company's roster. After Adesanya-Costa comes Nurmagomedov-Gaethje at UFC 254 late next month. A trio of Fight Nights lay between. "Return to Fight Island", swelled by one event from its predecessor, begins and ends with a bang.
Adesanya and Costa promise to provide bang for the buck, each undefeated, when thrown together lending their bit to history. For only the second time in the UFC, unbeaten males go at it for gold. The other instance took place more than a decade ago, thousands of miles away across the Atlantic. But a pandemic and a burgeoning partnership between the world’s lead mixed martial arts organisation and Abu Dhabi has transported all concerned to Yas Island.
Dana White, UFC president and the promotion’s most passionate pitchman, set the scene perfectly, eyes squinting under the midday sun.
“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,” he claimed, with more than a hint of hyperbole.
White delivered it like he believes it, and he should be commended considerably for delivering time and again through a global crisis. Fight Island, dreamt up to allow the UFC’s international athletes to compete during the coronavirus, is simply another example of his commitment to the combat cause, even if Abu Dhabi makes it worth the sizeable effort.
White reiterated on Thursday what he has championed for some time: that this, middleweight No 1 against middleweight No 2-ranked contender, billed as precision (Adesanya) versus power (Costa), carries with it genuine Fight of the Year credentials.
That the two “energies”, as Adesanya describes it, evidently don’t mix – “oil and water,” the champ says – only heightens the hype. The build-up has been extended and expletive-ridden, something that continued somewhat on Yas Beach, where Adesanya mocked his Brazilian foe’s English, which it must be said is fast improving; highlighted his perceived struggles in making weight: “he’s weak, sucked out, dry”; insinuated once more that Costa dopes: “still on the juice”; and questioned his grappling ability.
Staring down the jiu-jitsu black belt, Adesanya (19-0) trumpeted his own groundwork. “If I grab your neck,” he warned, “trust me I’m not going to give it back.”
Costa (13-0) played more than the willing adversary. He poked fun at Adesanya’s “skinny body”, remarked that his mother wore earrings similar to his opponent’s, accused the box-office star of acting up for the cameras before and after the rendezvous at the hotel.
“I expected to see a different tough guy,” he said of last Sunday’s run-in, when everything, or all of the 15 seconds of video depicted, appeared pretty cordial.
“Don’t know if it’s fake,” Costa added in reference to his rival.
Repeatedly on Thursday, they spoke over one another. When attentions turned to Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz, Sunday’s light heavyweight title contenders who flanked them and who warrant serious recognition too, Adesanya and Costa carried on regardless, off mic.
Asked what they had exchanged as Reyes and Blachowicz kept things civil, White interjected: “lots of mean things to each other”.
This, of course, is nothing new in UFC, MMA or combat sports. Spite sells, however authentic. It makes for compelling viewing, just like Adesanya and Costa undoubtedly will around 7.30am on Sunday, not long after Reyes and Blachowicz most probably do likewise.
Looking ahead, Costa declared with a menacing laugh: “I will just go to erase him”, while Adesanya fired back, “I wanna get unleashed on this guy”.
Fighting talk, all right. Not at all what seemed to transpire in that hotel corridor, which on Thursday felt a world and more away. Laidback beach living it wasn't.