UFC 302: Sean Strickland Drags Paulo Costa Into Deep Waters

Sean Strickland and Paulo Costa, UFC 302
Sean Strickland and Paulo Costa, UFC 302 ceremonial weigh-in Credit: Dylan Napoleone/Cageside Press

The co-main event of Saturday’s UFC 302 in Newark was scheduled for five rounds or less between ex-middleweight champ Sean Strickland, and former title challenger Paulo Costa.

As it turned out, it all five rounds were needed. Which certainly favored one corner over the other.

The fight had the potential to produce a title challenger, depending on the outcome of Robert Whittaker vs. Khamzat Chimaev later this summer— though certainly nothing was set in stone.

Kicking off the action, Costa attacked the legs with a number of crisp calf kicks, while Strickland, in his usual upright stance, walked his opponent down. Strickland, seemingly feeling those kicks early, changed stances a number of times, and later in the round began checking them. He also continued to walk forward, firing front kicks to keep Costa on the outside, and out his back foot. In the final minute on the opening round, Strickland landed his right, and Costa went down, though more off a slip.

Round two saw Strickland continue on with the front kicks, and keeping the pressure up. Costa, however, found a home for a few more leg kicks, though Strickland checked others. Costa briefly came forward, but again spent most of his time backpedaling. Strickland worked his jab and right hand when not firing front kicks, with Costa either unable to modify his game plan, or perhaps waiting to set something up. Strickland easily fought off a takedown later in the round, and his Philly Shell served him well. In the final minute, he appeared to hurt a tiring Costa with a left, sending the Brazilian reeling, though they would head to the third.

The third round opened with Strickland likely up, though rounds four and five awaited as well if necessary. Costa slugged the body with a left, but Strickland, undeterred, put Costa on his heels, checking more kicks and connecting with his jab. Two minutes in, a checked kick left Costa hopping. The game plan, heavy on leg kicks, had clearly backfired after Costa was left limping. He appeared to be setting up a spin kick he simply couldn’t fire off; it was Strickland landing at the end of the round, with Costa’s corner suggesting he had lost the round but that the score was 2-1.

It could just as easily been 3-0 Strickland, and nothing through the early part of the fourth round suggested Sean Strickland would be deterred. He continued walking forward, firing front kicks, and simply draining Costa of energy. And Brazilian soon found himself landed on more and more, though he fired back with a right hand roughly three minutes in that connected, though not flush. Late in the round, Costa picked things up, going back to leg kicks that definitely got Strickland’s attention. Costa then went to the body; they’d trade to the horn in a close round.

“Let the f*cking dog out of you, and start pissing on the floor,” Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick told Strickland between rounds, suggesting the fight was closer than he liked. The resulted in Sean Strickland pressing forward early, but then, he’d pressed forward the entire fight. He was by far the fresher fighter, with the deeper gas tank, but at the same time, Costa was far from being put away, and firing back, even while retreating, with body shots.

A kick to the body landed for Costa, as did one for Strickland. The ex-champ’s jab found its mark; Costa worked his own. He would change levels in the final minute, only for Strickland to easily circle away. Strickland then connected with a combo, and landed a late head kick, dropping Costa, who might have simply been knocked down by the force of the kick while blocking it. Costa got back up, Strickland went on the attack, and was chasing the Brazilian as the horn sounded!

With five rounds in the books, on a night with some controversial dissenting scorecards, the decision was a bit of a nail-biter. As it turned out, there was another iffy scorecard, with one judge seeing the fight for Costa, thought it was Sean Strickland claiming the split decision win.

Official Result: Sean Strickland def. Paulo Costa by split decision (46-49, 50-45, 49-46)