Sean Strickland vs. Paulo Costa prediction

The co-main event at UFC 302 is a middleweight scrap between Sean Strickland and Paulo Costa.
UFC 293: Adesanya v Strickland
UFC 293: Adesanya v Strickland / Mark Evans/GettyImages

Fighting for the first time as a contender again since losing the UFC middleweight championship, Sean Strickland will return at UFC 302 against former fan favorite Paulo Costa.

Strickland was last seen in the Octagon in the main event of UFC 297, defending his title against Dricus Du Plessis. In a competitive five-round fight, the split decision would be given to the challenger, making the South African the first representative of his country to become a UFC champion.

Strickland and his fanbase hotly contested the result and pushed for a rematch, but instead the 33-year-old will defend his no. 1 middleweight ranking against the no. 7 Costa in a five-round co-main event. Once he steps into the cage, Strickland will be fighting in his first non-title bout in nearly one year.

Costa has remained relevant largely due to his traction on social media but has struggled to find success since challenging for the title in 2020 against Israel Adesanya. Costa entered UFC 253 with an undefeated record but has since gone just 1-3, putting him at 14-3 entering his matchup with Strickland.

In his most recent outing, Costa could not build on the win he picked up over Luke Rockhold, losing a decision to Robert Whittaker at UFC 298. His performance, however, impressed fans, with many seeing improvements in his striking and believing it was the best fight he has had in his career despite the loss. As such, Costa finds himself in an even bigger fight four months later.

With Strickland's success in 2023 and subsequent increase in popularity, the former champion is billed as a moderate 2-1 favorite on most betting sites. For the second consecutive fight, Costa will be labeled as the underdog with over 60 percent of public bets being placed on Strickland according to DraftKings.

Sean Strickland vs. Paulo Costa prediction

While Costa has been in the top 10 of the division for roughly six years, Strickland did not break through that barrier until 2021 but surpassed his Brazilian counterpart and became a UFC champion with a shocking upset of Israel Adesanya at UFC 293.

Recent trends suggest Strickland will run away with a victory but in both fighters' respective careers, they have each struggled with what the other man brings to the table. Strickland has been put down and out from power strikers in the past and Costa has been out-pointed with pure volume and superior technical striking.

Neither fighter is particularly keen on grappling with both averaging less than one takedown per 15 minutes in the UFC. For as long as the fight lasts, expect it to be primarily a kickboxing fight.

Both men love to pressure and put opponents on the back foot but Strickland is almost always the aggressor while Costa has been put on his heels against a similar cardio-based striker in Marvin Vettori. Expect that trend to continue, though Costa has proven to be dangerous in all aspects.

Defensively, both are sound in different approaches. Behind parries of straight shots and defending with his arms, Strickland relies on his head movement. Costa is less active with his guard and while exemplifying stellar head movement at times, typically absorbs an abundance of strikes — avoiding just 47 percent of strikes in the UFC — through his mostly impenetrable durability.

The strike counts will almost certainly favor Strickland, who has out-landed all but four of his opponents in the UFC. That does not necessarily mean he will win.

In each of his last three fights, despite being 1-2 in that frame, Costa has had at least one moment per outing that had many believing he was on the verge of ending the fight. His wheel kick on Robert Whittaker went viral on social media but he also landed a clean head kick on Vettori that would have put almost any other middleweight out cold. To this point, Costa has found a way of landing a big shot on every opponent other than Adesanya.

The outcome will depend on whether Strickland can survive those moments as Whittaker and Vettori did. Thus far, Strickland has not fared well in similar moments, being knocked out by Alex Pereira and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and knocked down by Kamaru Usman.

With Strickland's defensive style, he leaves openings to be taken advantage of. Few fighters have been able to capitalize on them, but it has been done. He bites on almost every feint and opens his guard up but Costa, who has not been one to utilize many feints or jabs in the past, will have to be more active than he has before.

Given the improvements he showed against Whittaker in his striking diversity, Strickland will likely have to be perfect for 25 minutes to win as Costa has only been finished once in his career. He did it against Adesanya, but the motivation feels different for Costa at this stage of his career. If he finds his moment and lands one of his deceptively quick high kicks, that may signal the checkered flag.

Even if the fight goes to a decision, it is hard to see Strickland pitching a shutout on the scorecards. His fight style is often hard for judges to score and in Costa's two recent decision losses, the difference has been just one round in both fights.

Prediction: Paulo Costa by knockout in round four


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