UFC 302: Strickland Seeks Bounce Back Against Reinvigorated Costa

Sean Strickland and Paulo Costa, UFC 302
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - MAY 31: (L-R) Opponents Sean Strickland and Paulo Costa of Brazil face off during the UFC 302 ceremonial weigh-in at Prudential Center on May 31, 2024 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Sean Strickland will be looking to get back to the title when he takes on the popular and reinvigorated Paulo Costa at UFC 302.

Saturday is the kind of fight that fans have been waiting to see for Sean Strickland.  The brash middleweight in the last two years has become a magnet for attention behind his outspoken demeanor, but he’s proven he’s one of the most difficult puzzles to solve at a time when the division is enjoying one of its best moments in years.  None of that was more evident than last year when he routed the highly regarded Israel Adesanya to claim gold and become one of the most unlikely champions in UFC history.

UFC 302 provides a different backdrop for Strickland.  Not usually one to play into the politics of the sport, the former champion has been vocal about not getting a shot to reclaim the title he lost against Dricus Du Plessis in January.  After victories over the likes of contenders like Jack Hermansson and Nassourdine Imavov to his credit, a victory on Saturday would propel him to the short list of title contenders.  But perhaps the biggest difference is that Strickland has now spent even more time being the high level contender being hunted as opposed to the up-and-coming hunter, and as such the level of preparation from the competition is higher than ever before.

When discussing “The Eraser” Paulo Costa, the numbers certainly don’t tell the whole story.  There was a time when it appeared that Costa almost leaned too far into the facade of undisciplined contender.  His disheartening loss in a title fight to Adesanya that he blamed on too much alcohol consumption and his subsequent weight fiasco against Marvin Vettori all played out like a hot mess rather than the behavior of a dialed in professional.  He was a recognizable name, to be sure.  But at a time when the rest of the division was delivering inside the cage, Costa was very much not one expected to be in the mix.

But similar to Strickland, things have taken a turn in the last two years.  For one, his war of attrition in which he prevailed against former champion Luke Rockhold was much needed.  Secondly, his complete rebrand on social media has taken on a life of its own with the fanbase to elevate his profile and demand to see him compete.  None of this was more apparent than when he received a hero’s welcome in Anaheim earlier this year for his fight with the highly regarded Robert Whittaker.  Most impressively, Costa turned in a superb performance that even in a loss showed the extraordinary strides he has made in his game.  Now seemingly in a place in his career where it’s all coming together, he has a huge opportunity against another former champion who could propel him back to a title shot.

The middleweight division is expecting a fight between champion Dricus Du Plessis and Israel  Adesanya later this year, and a high stakes fight between Robert Whittaker and Khamzat Chimaev later this month.  That leaves the winner between Strickland and Costa to see how things shake out.  Victories for Strickland and Whittaker would likely lead to a matchup between those two late this year.  Costa could find himself in a title fight if Du Plessis and Whittaker win, or facing the winner of the headliner taking place next week between Jared Cannonier and Nassourdine Imavov.