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UFC 253, The Morning After: Overcorrection kills

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In an attempt not to play into Israel Adesanya’s game, Paulo Costa may have rounded off all the rough edges that made him championship material in the first place.

UFC 253 Adesanya v Costa Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Thematic consistency is not a regular feature of mixed martial arts (MMA) cards. The sheer volume of potential outcomes this sport offers makes it profoundly difficult for the enterprising or bored among us to find a narrative with which to stitch together a dozen fights across multiple weight classes.

Luckily for the nerds mentioned above, UFC 253 offered not only a theme but actual bookends. Do you know how rare it is to see narrative conventions crop up organically in this business?

The first fight of the evening saw Khadis Ibragimov — a one-time elite prospect in freefall — face hand-picked Brazilian Danilo Marques, who hadn’t fought in more than two years. Though known for his grappling prowess on the Russian circuit, he’d unsuccessfully reinvented himself as a brawler in the Octagon, resulting in three consecutive losses as his gas tank failed to hold up. Against Marques, he came out more measured, but this just allowed his opponent to outwork him and grind his way to a wide, ugly decision win as he failed to impose his own wrestling or commit to his favored brawl.

It was a truly dreadful fight, one best shoved into the dustiest of memory drawers, but it served as a bizarre portent for the card’s final two bouts.

In the co-feature, Dominick Reyes faced the resurgent Jan Blachowicz, a once-busted prospect who’d improbably found his footing and cut a swath through the division. Reyes had arguably taken three rounds from Jon Jones earlier this year, but faded down the stretch, resulting in a controversial defeat. That fight appeared to weigh heavily on his mind, as his usual mobile, high-volume attack was nowhere to be found. Instead, he looked to be conserving his energy and feeling out Blachowicz.

As a result, Blachowicz had no qualms about pushing forward with heavy combinations and occasionally punishing the taller man with body kicks. Reyes’ length advantage collapsed under his own refusal or inability to impose it, and a thoroughly emboldened Blachowicz began finding the mark more and more often. Reyes finally tried to earn his opponent’s respect in the second, only to get clipped and finished by a left hook from the undamaged, undaunted, and now unstoppable Pole.

Paulo Costa met a similar fate in the main event. His rampant aggression had paid dividends on his road to a title shot, but it had also gotten him staggered by Uriah Hall and Yoel Romero. Champion Israel Adesanya, meanwhile, had dissected Robert Whittaker when “Bobby Knuckles” tried to stay in his face. All signs pointed to the standard-issue “Eraser” getting melted by a counter, so the standard-issue “Eraser” didn’t show up, replaced by a new model that gave the champ’s vaunted striking a healthy dose of respect.

The thing is, Paulo Costa is not a technician. Hanging back may have protected him from the worst of Adesanya’s arsenal, but it also eliminated the physicality and pressure he’d leaned on to get this far. “The Last Stylebender” was able to tear his lead calf apart with impunity, and like Blachowicz above, was untouched and fully prepared when Costa realized the writing was on the wall and switched from Plan B to his usual Plan A. The Brazilian’s efforts to avoid a stunning knockout loss proved fruitless, succeeding only in eliminating what chances at victory he once possessed.

UFC 253 began and ended the same way: with a spooked fighter trying and failing to be something he wasn’t.

For complete UFC 253: “Adesanya vs. Costa” results and play-by-play, click HERE!