UFC 253: Israel Adesanya 'practicing patience' ahead of Paulo Costa showdown

Ahead of his title fight in Abu Dhabi, the middleweight champion explains why he's 'not even close' to achieving all he wants in the UFC

UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya training in his hotel room in Abu Dhabi ahead of his title defence against Paulo Costa at UFC 253, which opens Fight Island 2 in the capital on Sept 27.
Credit: Jeff Sainlar - EMG
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For Israel Adesanya, what from the outside seemed a perfectly cordial chance meet with Paulo Costa at their hotel only cemented what he feels inside.

Chiefly, that come Sunday, his opponent will crumble under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

"I kind of expected it a little bit," Adesanya tells The National of the run-in, sent out across social media this weekend, when the pair bumped into one another and shared a joke about Costa's weight.

Perhaps, though, it wasn't so genial, after all.

"I could sense it,” Adesanya says. “I put up a story on my Instagram and it showed you what really happened. He walked by me, I stared him down and he goes, ‘You good’, and I replied, ‘I’m great’. He said something and I doubled back and I went over there to size him up.

“I had he and his manager giggling like little girls. I gave him an opportunity to say what he really wanted to say. It just confirmed what I already knew: without no crowd, without no TV cameras, he doesn’t keep the same energy. I do."

In a protracted and often profane build-up to the headline act at UFC 253, a middleweight title bout that kicks off Fight Island 2, the mental warfare continues.

“He submitted to me," Adesanya, the current champion, says. "It confirmed to me that he’s my son; I son-ed him. And I had them, ‘Hey we’ll be nice, we’ll be nice’ as I approached them.

“I shook his hand, tapped him on the shoulder – all these things are a strategy because I was feeling him out, seeing the pressure of his handshake. And I could see that he’s not about that life.”

Recounting the story from his hotel room at the W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island, less than six days out from another mighty test in a thus-far meteoric rise through the UFC, Adesanya is playing it as cool as a desert night.

Some say Costa represents the greatest challenge to his unbeaten record, built latterly in Adesanya’s two and a half years in the promotion. Yet, outwardly at least, he doesn’t seem too perturbed.

“I’m practicing patience,” he says. “There’s no point in getting excited. That’s why when I saw him, I wanted him to feel me so I rocked up to him, doubled back to him.

“I was hoping he’d do something, because he’s been the one beating his chest at every fight of mine. I wanted to see if he kept the same energy, but he didn’t. So I stayed cool, calm and collected. Like the killer that I am.”

Adesanya's CV certainly speaks to that. Having carved a stellar career in kickboxing – he won 75 of his 80 bouts through China, New Zealand and beyond – the Nigerian-born athlete joined the UFC in December 2017 and, within two months, had a debut victory.

Eight more wins have followed. Achievements have flown with the time: interim champion; 2019’s Fight of the Year, against Kevin Gastelum; four Performance of the Night bonuses. He has seen off six top-15 fighters.

Last October, Adesanya took out then-champion Robert Whittaker in spectacular fashion in front of 60,000-plus in Melbourne. Still, and with typical belt-holder bravado, he stresses he hasn’t exceeded his own expectations.

“Not even close,” Adesanya says. “I feel like I’m almost halfway to what I’m achieving in this game, when I’m talking about legacy-wise. But there’s still a long way to go.”

Sunday's showdown with Costa is another step towards that. The clash brings together two undefeated fighters – Adesanya stands at 19-0 in professional mixed martial arts, Costa 13-0 – only the second time in UFC history that unbeaten rivals face off for the title. That only other one was in 2009.

Little wonder, then, that UFC president Dana White has declared this will be Fight of the Year in an already memorable 2020, both inside and outside the octagon.

Adesanya, though, doesn’t necessarily agree.

“To be honest, his toughness is probably what’s going to make it fight of the year, if he can somehow withstand the beating I’m going to put on him," he says. "But I don’t think he can. I don’t think his gas tank will let him. That’s why I don’t really think it’s going to be fight of the year. But it’s going be a domination of the year and knockout of the year.

“[His style] is tailor made for me. I just watched '[UFC 253] Countdown' this morning and I can he has a whole team around him, just a bunch of ‘Yes men’ around him.

“He hasn’t been – I hate this word so much because people try to use it about me – humbled properly. Like I have with my teammates, my killers that I work with. Every single day is a struggle, especially with this lockdown that we had at the gym, because everybody was levelling up. So I just don’t see it going past the fourth round.”