UFC 253: Paulo Costa's incredible UFC journey, as told by those who know him

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Costa's coach says they have Adesanya figured out (1:52)

Paulo Costa and his coach, Captain Eric Albarracin, discuss Costa's middleweight title fight vs. Israel Adesanya at UFC 253. (1:52)

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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The story of the Adesanya-Costa rivalry

Brett Okamoto tells the story of how a backstage encounter in 2018 between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa developed into a rivalry that 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.