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Paulo Costa’s incredible UFC journey, as told by those who know him

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In February 2012, a 20-year-old realtor from Contagem, Brazil, made a quiet professional debut in mixed martial arts inside a modest gymnasium in nearby Santa Luzia. His name: Paulo Henrique Costa.

Costa’s skills were raw, but he took his opponent down and won via first-round TKO. A ring girl appeared and placed a medal around his neck. Costa kissed her cheek. He was paid 100 brazilian reals — about $20.

By chance — or fate — UFC 147 had to be moved from Rio de Janeiro because a United Nations conference monopolized the hotel rooms, so the June 23, 2012, event was moved to Belo Horizonte, Brazil — 12 miles east of Costa’s hometown. Costa and his older brother, Carlos, begged their mother to let them attend. They didn’t have the money to purchase tickets themselves.

“I was like, ‘You’re going to spend money like this to watch fights?'” Costa’s mother, Maria Augusta, recalled. “They replied, ‘We need to see what it is like and be close to the emotion.’ I saw they really needed it and got the money from my mom.

“They came back and said, ‘This is what we want to do with our lives.'”

On Saturday, Costa will challenge middleweight champion Israel Adesanya at UFC 253 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. It will mark a milestone on the journey for Costa, a former realtor and IT specialist who quit his day jobs shortly after that first UFC experience in 2012 to focus on MMA.

Augusta says she believes it is her son’s fate to hold a belt. His girlfriend, Tamara Alves, calls it his dream. One of his best friends says he’s a “psychopath” in his pursuit of it.

The 185-pound title fight is one of the most anticipated bouts of 2020, as both Costa (13-0) and Adesanya (19-0) are undefeated and genuinely do not like each other. UFC president Dana White has predicted it will be the fight of the year.

But who is Paulo Costa beyond a top-tier middleweight with a chiseled physique? ESPN spoke to those who know him best to get the answer.

‘A future in fighting’

Maria Augusta, mother: He always had that swag in him. His brother had to get him out of trouble sometimes, normal things. However, once he put a little bomb in the pipe that led to my neighbor’s balcony. The bomb exploded inside the pipe. I was about to go to work and the neighbor called me. I went home and beat him with a stick.

When he got older, he had an internship as a computer assistant, and also worked in a telemarketing company. He would come home late, like midnight. Then he started working as a realtor. He was making good money, but he had no time to practice. His brother told me, “Mom, Paulo doesn’t have time. He has a future in fighting. We need to support him.” But he likes the best clothes and the best sneakers — I said I would support him, but under my conditions. I worked, and everything I did was for them. He quit his job to focus on sports.

‘We’ll fight for free!’

Carlos Costa, brother: My father always liked sports. I remember he made a little weight from a can of tomato paste. He put cement in there and a little iron in the middle, to make two dumbbells. My brother would stay at home, on the ground, and do biceps exercises when he was 9 years old. He already liked to work out.

My father was very fond of soccer and encouraged us to play. Paulo started in soccer when he was 8, and started Muay Thai at that age, too. Soon after, he started jiu-jitsu, but then he stopped after a while and focused a lot on bodybuilding. I asked him to come back to training jiu-jitsu when he was 16, and that is when he started competing.

There was a time when it was just me, my mother and my brother. Our father was no longer with us. I worked with computers and taught jiu-jitsu as well. The situation was a little difficult, and my mother told Paulo that he was going to have to help. He worked for a telemarketing service, but it took up a lot of his time and he was no longer able to train properly. That was when I talked to my mother and said he had great potential in the fight business. I told her that he wanted to be a professional MMA fighter and we had to support him because I believed in his potential and she said, “Oh Junior, if you believe that, then it’s OK.”

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Brett Okamoto tells the story of how a backstage encounter in 2018 between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa developed into a rivalry which will be in the spotlight at UFC 253.

When he told me he wanted to do MMA, I said, “OK, let’s make the transition.” We arranged for a fight in Santa Luzia. The purse for the event was 200 reals. Paulo won in the first round and after the fight, the owner said he didn’t have 200 reals, he only had 100. He said he would give us the extra 100 later, but it never happened. At the beginning, it’s hard because you don’t fight for the money, you fight for the experience. That is the truth.

To get on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil in 2014, he needed to have three fights and he only had two. There was an event in Belo Horizonte, and I went to the promoter. He told me it was already booked, that he already had the 13 or 14 fights he needed. I said, “We need a fight! We’ll fight for free!” He accepted. He won the fight and managed to get on TUF: Brazil.

‘I don’t think he’ll become a champion, I know.’

Tamara Alves, longtime girlfriend: I met Paulo in 2013. My cousin’s husband trained with him at the gym. He said, “Wow, Tata, there is this very handsome guy at the gym. I think you’d like him.” The gym was hosting a jiu-jitsu championship and he told me to stop by. Paulo was competing there. We greeted each other but didn’t talk. He was really focused.

Everyone talked about how good he was, and I remember I thought, “Is he that good, or do they just not know other people? Paulo could just be the only good fighter at the gym.” But that day he impressed me. You saw in his face that he was so cool, and you didn’t see that in anyone else. That night, there was a party for the gym staff and we met there. He asked my friend for my number — didn’t even ask me.

Paulo does not go 50 percent or 80 percent. When his mother and I go and watch him spar, we feel like crying because he leaves everything out there. That is something that people don’t see. I don’t think he will become a champion, I know. I’ve never seen anyone go after their dreams like he does. I don’t see his life ending without this.

‘He looks like a powerlifter’

Chael Sonnen, coach on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil: I met Paulo on the set of TUF, and the way that works is Wanderlei Silva and I were coaching, and the fighters have to fight to get into the house. So Paulo walks through the doors, and I’ve got a stack of papers in front of me with all the fighters’ résumés, and most of these guys had fought in [Brazilian fight promotion] Jungle Fights or they’re a black belt in jiu-jitsu, or they have a few boxing matches — and Paulo’s simply says: powerlifter. And I go, ”OK, well yeah, he looks like a powerlifter.” But he didn’t stand out. I don’t remember when he got picked, he was just one of the guys, is what I’m saying.

He lost his first fight, and you kind of have a couple options when you lose on the show. You can be down and depressed, which is the most common and most logical. It’s devastating to have to live in the house and be around the guys who are still chasing the dream once you’ve been eliminated. Or you can treat it for what it is, which is the best training camp you can ever get, with the finest coaches in the finest facilities. And that’s what he did. He worked so hard.

He was very curious. He would come to my team, even though he was on Wanderlei’s. He would ask Wanderlei permission and get it, which surprised me because Wanderlei hated everything about me. He would come over and say, “Can you show me this? Can you explain that?” He did that with everyone, and no one was overly eager to help him because he just seemed like this guy who was in the wrong spot at the wrong time in his life. He was in a sport that was so complex and so sophisticated in terms of trying to catch someone up — and it’s like he was this 9-year-old kid. It just felt like it wasn’t going to work out for him. But he certainly had the effort. There would be so many days my team would have to delay training, because Wanderlei’s team was in the gym before us and Paulo would be in there late, hitting something, working on something, asking someone something. He was the last one to leave every day.

He’s still a bull in a china shop today, but he’s a bull who understands power and has perfected defenses to keep a fight standing if that’s where he chooses it to be. I value those memories of him coming into the sport and really being nothing more than curious. I don’t think he was thinking about a world championship at that time, he just really liked the techniques and the different setups. I remember that time in my career, and it goes away. What you like to do becomes what you have to do. But even talking to his coaches now, Paulo hasn’t lost that.

‘This kid is special’

Eric Albarracin, coach: When we first met, I was training him in wrestling. He was watching and he said, ”Hey, I want to learn that move.” So, I taught him the move, but I said, ”Hey, let’s get back to the basics. This is more of a black belt move, and this is only your first week.” And he said, ”OK, you’re right, you’re right.”

But then I saw him sparring, and he does the move I told him he shouldn’t be doing, and he looks over at me like, ”Oh, man.” I said to myself, ”This kid is special.”

One thing I’ll tell you about Paulo though, whenever I go somewhere with him, the energy changes inside the room. All eyes go on him, and it’s not because he’s a fighter. It’s the way he looks.

I’ll give you an example. Now, I had taken a little medicine on this day, some 420, OK? We went to Costco, and we’ve been in there for about two hours when I’m like, “Wait a minute,” — because I had thought we were going to WalMart. So, we’ve been in Costco for two hours and I go, ”When did WalMart start selling everything in bulk? Oh God, we’re in Costco. We don’t have a membership here. They’re not gonna let us buy this.” I said, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. Paulo, use your accent and just say you didn’t know.” He goes, “OK.” He goes up, and of course he picks a cashier who is like, 70 years old. And this 70-year-old lady lets him pay, and writes her number on the receipt, with the words, “Come back any time.” He came back and said, “We have her number. Now we can come back.”

He is a ‘psychopath’ when it comes to competing

Allan Hugo, friend: He is a very simple guy. To this day, he lives in the same house he was born and raised in, even though he could be living a more comfortable life.

Just a while ago, we did not have that good of a life, financially. Money was short. Paulo has even paid for me to compete. He paid for me to compete in the Minas Gerais State Jiu-Jitsu Championship, which was a dream of mine. He didn’t say anything about it. He just went there and paid for it anonymously.

“He paid for me to compete in the Minas Gerais State Jiu-Jitsu Championship, which was a dream of mine. He didn’t say anything about it. He just went there and paid for it anonymously.” Allan Hugo, friend of Paulo Costa

He helps people and doesn’t tell anyone. I work at the city hall, and I found out once he was helping a homeless person. He studied the guy first, to see if he was messing with the wrong thing. After he realized the guy wanted to change his life, Paulo started to help him. He doesn’t give away things, he gives opportunities so the guy can change. He helped him get an ID, and had even given him a roof to sleep under. Paulo rented a house for him and paid in advance. The man even started working at the gym. That didn’t last long, but Paulo got him a job at a restaurant.That’s the kind of person he is.

Brazilian soccer star Romario said, ”The heavenly father pointed at me and said this is going to be the guy.” In MMA, we can say he did that for Paulo. Ever since he was young, he has stood out. He’s won every championship. I’ve never seen him lose. And he is a psychopath. He doesn’t accept “good.” He tells us that “good” is very close to “bad.” He wants to be the best.

I already consider him the champion. The guy is a phenom. He amazes doctors. His genetics are completely different. The UFC itself had some doubts. He was drug tested twice in one day. Everyone talks about his striking, but no one has seen him on the ground. We’ve had great Brazilian champions — Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort — but he is the most complete of them all.

‘I’ve never seen someone work like Paulo’

Henry Cejudo, friend and mentor: I met Paulo right before he fought Johny Hendricks [November 2017]. Met him through my coach, captain Eric Albarracin. Paulo knew there was a missing piece in his arsenal, so he decided to go with the best guy for wrestling in MMA, which is Eric. He came down to Arizona and spent a couple months here, if I’m not mistaken, and we became friends. I knew he was striving to be a world champion even then, and he would come and pretty much stay at my house. Eat, sleep, train, we’d film promos at the house, we became friends right away.

Paulo really is a specimen. People think Yoel Romero is a specimen, but there really is no comparison to Paulo. He’s a jiu-jitsu player who fell in love with MMA, and has become one of the most vicious knockout artists the UFC has right now. Most people probably don’t know this but both of his parents used to be pastors. His mother and father, who passed away when he was younger, unfortunately, but they were both pastors in the Christian church and there is a lot of purpose with Paulo. He goes into fights knowing what’s behind “The Eraser,” the principles he has, the passing of his father and wanting to honor his older brother.

He works so hard. I’ve never seen someone work like Paulo, and that says a lot, I’ve seen everything under the sun, from the wrestling world to MMA.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

play

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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