Spend time looking into the politics of the Mixed Martial Arts world, and you quickly reach the depressing conclusion that it’s a nest of vipers. Even fighters who seem like stand-up types – your Justin Gaethjes, your Darren Tills – turn out to love the hard right, or even fascists when it comes to it. There are honourable exceptions, like Jeff Monson, but for those of us fans who fight for the advance of the working class, it can all get a bit cringe sometimes. Gaethje, along with a host of other fighters, recently attended Donald Trump’s conference to fawn over him. You suspect this can’t be out of personal admiration. He is, after all, one of the most transparently pathetic and ridiculous men on the planet. In which case, it is either cynical career-building or actual identification with the politics of the far-right, both as contemptible as each other. In this world of Bolsonaro-lovers, UFC 253 was a moment for gleeful schadenfreude, as one of their number bit the dust in humiliating fashion.
Costa never had a chance. He seemed the more confident of the two men in the lead up to the fight, but when the cage door shut he looked nervous, pacing up and down, grim-faced and wide eyed, while Israel Adesanya looked the picture of poised predation, unblinking and ready. Costa’s plan for the fight was a perplexing one. Historically he’s a swarmer, who comes flying out of the gate with power punches and never relents, using his ridiculously athletic physique to shrug off damage on the way in and provide the snap to his punches. While understandably wanting to avoid playing into Adesanya’s mastery of counter-striking, Costa ended up making things even worse for himself by turning the fight into a measured and careful technical chess-match. Of all Costa’s potential advantages in the fight, a technical kick-boxing battle simply wasn’t one of them. Even the most ardent simp for Brazilian fascism would have conceded that. And yet this is what he turned the fight into – no wrestling, no aggression and no swarming. You’d have been forgiven for thinking he was point-fighting if he didn’t load power into the negligible offense that he threw.
Israel simply does what he does in those situations, and outclassed Costa so badly it looked more like a demonstration to students than a fight. He kicked Costa’s legs until they were a welted monument to sorrow. Costa attempted to play this off with laughing, telling him to do it again and all the usual tricks, but that doesn’t really work when the damage is glaringly visible to everyone. In the second round Israel TKO’d him with a vicious combination that had the air of an animal who has finished playing with its food. For the second time since Kamaru Usman broke Colby Covington’s jaw, a proudly and self-consciously Nigerian fighter has humbled one of the UFC’s coterie of hard right fanboys. There are echoes of Hagler’s brutal demolition of Alan Minter in all this. Long may it continue.
Elsewhere on the night, Jan Blachowicz brought the Polish Power to bear in impressive fashion against Dominick Reyes, in a result that shocked me. Reyes looked a long, long way from his incredible performance against Jon Jones – much more hesitant. A terrifying body kick seemed to smash his ribs early on, but Reyes’ hesitation seemed to me to start from the bell. Jon Jones has naturally already hinted at a move back to light heavyweight to ‘get his belt back real quick’, but he was so close to defeat against Reyes that I doubt he’ll risk it. A loss at heavyweight can be waved off as fighting at a weight which is unnatural to him, at light-heavyweight it’s a legacy-spoiler.
Finally, there is the beginnings of an elephant (or perhaps a shark) in the room in this division, in the form of Khamzat “I am the wolf brother” Chimaev. Hype train or no, the man has taken one punch in his last three fights and obliterated all of his opponents in different ways. He called out Adesanya as soon as the fight was over, and while it would be absurd to match them up immediately, it’s difficult to bet against this newest addition to the smesh-your-boy squad being far off from a title shot at this rate.