Going the Distance: If Costa is a 205’er, where does it leave middleweight?

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks Contributor

After a week full of weight-cutting controversy, Marvin “The Italian Dream” Vettori (18-4-1, 8-3-1 UFC) won a gutsy unanimous decision over Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa (13-2, 5-2 UFC), in which 353 total significant strikes were landed. This fight was expected to take place at  middleweight, but Costa and his camp made it clear early on in the week that he would not be able to make the 186-pound limit. The fight was moved to 195, and eventually 205. After the fight, Costa cited his reason for the change as an issue with his left bicep during training camp that made it hard and ultimately prevented him from cutting more weight. To Vettori’s credit, he stayed committed to making the fight happen, regardless of the weight class, and backed up that confidence with his performance in the Octagon. Vettori outboxed Costa in most rounds, and was able to absorb some massive body and head kicks from the visibly larger Costa, while keeping his composure throughout the full 25 minutes. Costa came on late in the fifth round, but Vettori ultimately walked away with a clear win over Costa, who was much more explosive than many expected.

This was a great rebound for Vettori, who was outclassed in every round of his last bout against Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title. Vettori has proven his durability at this point, having never been finished in 12 UFC fights, and can hype himself up as a title contender if he can string together a couple more wins at the top of the division. For Costa, this was an unfortunate outcome. One of the biggest prospects — and undefeated prior to his title fight against Adesanya last year — the Costa hype trained has slowed to a near halt, as he is now on a two-fight losing streak with the possibility that he may have fought his last fight in the middleweight division. For my money, I’d love to see Costa fight up at light heavyweight (205 pounds) in the future, because it’s becoming increasingly clear he would have a better career there. Let’s take a look at some possible future matchups for the top Middleweights.

Middleweight Landscape

Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (C) vs. Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (No. 1): (From June) — A rematch of the 2019 unification bout between these two men is the only fight to make at the top of the division, and Dana White has already said as much. Since taking his loss to Adesanya at UFC 243, Whittaker has rebounded impressively, winning unanimous decisions over some of the division’s best in Till, Cannonier, & Kelvin Gastelum. Whittaker is the true No. 1 contender, and of all the top fighters in the division, he poses the biggest threat to Adesanya. While the champ may not have anything to prove, a second win over Whittaker (who is currently listed as No. 12 in the UFC pound-for-pound rankings) would go a long way toward cementing Stylebender as one of the best middleweights to ever do it. We should expect to see this bout headline a PPV event in late 2021.” 

Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa (No. 2) vs. Johnny Walker (No. 10, LHW division): I’m not going to bury the lede here. While this is supposed to be about the middleweight division, I (and Dana White as well) believe that Costa’s time as a middleweight is over. Not only did Costa do himself no favors with the UFC after all the weight-cutting antics leading up to the Vettori fight, but Costa also looked pretty good in the fight, and had enough cardio to go all 25 minutes with Vettori. Going forward, his best performances will come at 205 where he doesn’t have to cut as much weight. If he does move up a division, I’d love to see him take on Johnny Walker, who is coming off of a narrow loss to Thiago Santos. Both men are explosive and will try to walk the other down, making for a fantastic fight and possible Fight Night main event in the future. Most importantly, we’ll learn something valuable about each fighter: How will Costa look at 205? How much is Johnny Walker actually capable of?

Jared “Killa Gorilla” Cannonier (No. 3) vs. Derek Brunson (No. 4): I talked about why I thought this matchup made sense after Brunson’s win over Till in September, and since then the matchup has been announced for early 2022. Here is what I wrote a few months ago: “With Whittaker vs. Adesanya II still unannounced, I would be very surprised if the UFC doesn’t make Brunson fight again before earning a title shot. Cannonier is the only fight to make in that case, as these two men are clearly the most deserving after Whittaker. If Adesanya retains his belt, he will surely want the winner of this fight. Stylebender has long wanted to fight Cannonier, calling him the division’s “dark horse”, but if Brunson were to win and add to his current five-fight win streak, his shot at UFC gold would be undeniable. Plus, surely Adesanya — the fighter who last beat Brunson and did so via first round TKO — would oblige. If Whittaker does somehow manage to win the belt and a trilogy isn’t immediately made with Adesanya, the UFC can sell either Whittaker-Cannonier or Whittaker-Brunson as rematches in which the title challenger has previously lost to the champion and is seeking redemption a second time around.” 

Marvin “The Italian Dream” Vettori (No. 5) vs. Sean “Tarzan” Strickland (No. 7): Vettori is as tough as they come, having never been finished in the UFC. A win over Costa in which he was significantly smaller in terms of weight does a lot for Vettori’s stock after the loss to Adesanya earlier in the year. I’d love to see him matched up against Strickland next. Strickland has been surging up the division over the last year, is on a five-fight winning streak and was supposed to fight former middleweight champ Luke Rockhold at UFC 268 before Rockhold pulled out with a back injury. Strickland has only three losses in his 14-fight UFC career, and he could find himself in the title-contention picture with a win over the Italian Dream.

Jack “The Joker” Hermansson (No. 6) vs. Darren “The Gorilla” Till (No. 8): (From September) — This is one of those “process of elimination” matchups, as both of these fighters are in some kind of Middleweight no-man’s-land right now. Hermansson was tough in an ultimately decisive loss to Vettori in late 2020, and rebounded with an equally tough victory against Edmen Shahbazyan in his next fight. Till is 1-2 as a UFC Middleweight, his only victory coming in a decision over Kelvin Gastelum in 2019. While a loss to Whittaker in his next fight was nothing to be ashamed of, he was extremely disappointing in this bout against Brunson, who many thought would be completely outmatched on the feet (and he kind of was), if only Till could keep the fight standing. I still believe that Till is capable of special moments in the Octagon, and of being one of the UFC’s top U.K. fighters. But in order to do that, he needs to drastically improve his takedown defense, as well as his defensive grappling. A fight against Hermansson will force him to do absolutely that. Hermansson is a great wrestler and a beast on the ground. Yes, we just saw Till get outclassed by a superior wrestler/grappler, but he should be tested again, to see if he can rise to the occasion.

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