Paulo Costa was just like any other kid in Brazil in the late 1990s. He enjoyed playing soccer, but wasn’t really good at it. He would get into fights at school, and in the streets of Contagem, but always dodged major consequences.
Unlike many other UFC stars, he didn’t click immediately when doing martial arts for the first time—and tragedy moved him far from it at one point of his life —but he couldn’t walk away from destiny.
The handsome fighter who now posts selfies almost every day on social media hated taking pictures back in the day (“We had the toughest times trying to take a photo of him when he was a kid,” his mother Maria Augusta said). He was a quiet kid, which didn’t help him avoid trouble, but somehow attracted it.
“I was always involved in something at school,” Costa said of his street fights. “There was this time I left school and there were 20 people waiting outside to beat me up. I can’t remember what happened, why they wanted to do that, but all I know is that I ran as fast as I could and entered a supermarket to hide. I remember there were cops there, it was a crazy mess.”
His older brother, Carlos Costa, 33, one of his main coaches today, would try his best to protect him when he was in trouble.
“We played soccer in the streets, fought our friends [laughs], but it was a great childhood,” Carlos said. “‘Borrachinha’ was one of the shortest kids on the soccer team when he was eight or nine. He was a cool kid, but was always in trouble at school.”
Maria Augusta would only know when things got ugly, she said, since “kids are always trying to cover up” for each other. “One day Paulo Henrique got home, and he had a big cut on his forehead, someone threw a rock at him,” she laughs.
Carlos Roberto, their father, worked on many different jobs after failing in his attempt to become a professional soccer player. Maria Augusta, who obviously hated watching their kids get in trouble in the streets, wasn’t a big fan of the idea of having Paulo join a Muay Thai class at only nine years of age.
“I thought that was like fighting in the streets,” Maria Augusta said of her knowledge of Muay Thai at the time. “Paulo Henrique was a troublemaker. All this explosion you guys see today, that’s who he is since a young kid. He’s very special, a lovely kid, but was always looking for trouble in the street.”
Her “biggest fear” was that spending hours per week throwing kicks and punches “would only make him even more violent,” Maria Augusta said, “but the coaches explained to me that it would be the exact opposite, that it would re-educate and give him discipline. I went there to watch one training session to make a decision if I was going let him do it or not, and then I saw it was an actual sport, not just fighting.”
She still walks by the Muay Thai gym every single day, and admits they proved her wrong on how martial arts would help him. “That really calmed him down,” Maria Augusta said. “They were able to control all that explosiveness. I guess he was finally spending all that energy in sports.”
Carlos Costa tried to follow his father’s footsteps to the soccer world, and even played in the base category of some clubs in Minas Gerais, but being so short obviously didn’t help when he was only good enough to play as a goalie.
For Paulo, their parents’ divorce played a factor on why he never really went that route.
“I didn’t have the same attention that my dad gave to my brother,” he said. “Maybe because he was getting divorced at the time and that affected a little bit, we got distant from each other.”
Carlos has a different theory, though, laughing and saying that their father also tried to get Paulo to play soccer, but his younger brother “had no talent”.
When Carlos left soccer, he and Paulo joined a jiu-jitsu gym, and “everyone noticed Paulo had a gift” when he first started training. However, the death of their father, victim of throat cancer, changed Paulo’s life days after he turned 17.
“I think he was a bit lost when our dad passed away, he didn’t know what to do,” Carlos said. “He quit training jiu-jitsu and would just work out and lift weights in the gym, something he always liked doing.”
The future UFC star only came back to jiu-jitsu two years later, when his brother was already teaching some classes as a purple belt in Contagem, so Carlos took him under his wing until he finally started competing. With no father to help and a need for money at home, both Costas had to find work to help Maria Augusta.
Paulo worked as a realtor and an IT teacher, showing people how to use Microsoft programs like PowerPoint, Excel, and Word, and some basic maintenance. Paulo said he was a “good realtor” and even sold a few properties to family and friends, and that experience helped him “talk better in public.” Working with IT was something he enjoyed doing, but struggling to do both that and training became a huge ask. At that time, Carlos tried to convince his mother to help with the bills and let Paulo focus only on fighting for one year.
“It got to a point that having a job started affecting his training, so I went to talk to our mom about it,” Carlos said. “I told her he had a future, he’s talented, that he would get to the biggest MMA promotion in the world. ‘It will be all worth it, but we have to help him now, hold tight here at home and let him train.’”
“It was really hard,” Maria Augusta said. “I told him, ‘What are we going to do? We’re poor. We have bills to pay.’ He was young, he needed his own money, but he said, ‘Mom, we can make sacrifices and it will be all worth it.’ Sometimes he didn’t have money to buy his supplements, the specific meal that an athlete needs, or even gloves and equipment to train, but God has taken care of us. I decided to believe in their dreams and help. Life is so short it’s not worth it if you’re not doing what you love. We have to give them our support.”
Costa, who was just 1-0 in MMA at the time, had 12 months to prove he could make a career out of fist fighting. With no time to waste, the young middleweight scored a pair of fast finishes in Minas Gerais. At 3-0, the UFC knocked on his door offering a spot on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil in 2014.
In the preliminary fight of the reality show, with millions watching in his home country, Costa submitted Jose Roberto in the second round. A member of Wanderlei Silva’s TUF team, Costa was matched-up against season runner-up Marcio Alexandre Jr. in the middleweight quarterfinal bout, losing a split decision.
“It was a difficult experience,” Costa said. “I didn’t do well there, I was in the wrong weight class. I was too weak (keeping my weight low). I didn’t know how to do a proper diet, but it was a learning experience. I had a loss that doesn’t count on my official record, but already gave me the experience of knowing how it feels to lose. It’s horrible. I do everything I can now to not go through that again.”
Carlos Costa, who holds a 4-0 record with four finishes in MMA—but decided to step away as a fighter to focus on being his brother’s coach—was heartbroken to see Paulo go through that.
“He was in doubt a few times, wondering if it would work or not,” Carlos said. “We were confident he would become the Ultimate Fighter winner because we knew how good he was, but being on TUF is so different. I remember he was very upset when the UFC didn’t sign him because we were so hopeful and confident, but everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t his time.
“We see many athletes go to the UFC through the show and never make it there. You can’t build experience in the UFC, you have to be ready when you get there. ‘Borrachinha’ was only 3-0, he wasn’t ready for the UFC yet.”
Months after the reality show aired on Brazil’s largest network, Costa bounced back with a first-round TKO over fellow TUF veteran Wagner Silva. They reached out to the UFC again for an opportunity, but were told he was “too green” and needed more experience under his belt.
“That encouraged me to continue,” Costa said. “Being here now, undefeated, fighting a guy that will put me in position for a shot at the title, that proves they were right. If I had entered the UFC at that moment, maybe I wouldn’t be undefeated anymore.”
By the end of 2016, after capturing a pair of middleweight titles in Brazil and holding an 8-0 record with eight finishes, Costa said his manager Wallid Ismail received an offer from Rizin Fighting Federation to make his debut in Japan on Dec. 2016. Costa agreed to it, moved to a different city and invested everything he had to prepare for his first international bout, but the fight fell through.
“I came back home completely broke,” Costa said. “I had no money. But when it’s our destiny, a path God plans for us, it will eventually happen. Rizin said they were going to send me a contract in a couple of weeks, and two days before that deadline the UFC came and signed me up. I can’t even explain, man.”
“Borrachinha” was set to make his UFC debut against Garreth McLellan in Fortaleza, Brazil. The gigantic middleweight already had bold predictions for his run inside the Octagon. Prior to his UFC debut in 2017, Costa told local website O Tempo that “with four or five good wins I can get to the title, become champion and be the greatest in history.”
Costa stopped McLellan in just 77 seconds that night in Fortaleza. After that, a trio of second-round knockouts over Oluwale Bamgbose, Johny Hendricks and Uriah Hall set up a meeting with Yoel Romero, which finally goes down at Saturday night’s UFC 241 in Anaheim. If “Borrachinha” gets past Romero in his fifth UFC appearance, it would be nearly impossible to deny him a chance for the 185-pound championship.
“We’ll turn that prophecy into reality Saturday night,” said Costa, explaining why just winning isn’t enough when your goal is to make history. “I move one step at a time, but I can see two steps ahead. My first step is becoming champion. Let’s win Saturday and then become champion, and then go after becoming the greatest middleweight of all time and then the best fighter of all time. My quest is endless.”
What he sees two steps ahead is “myself with the belt, defeating (Robert) Whittaker or (Israel) Adesanya by the end of the year or in the beginning of 2020,” but knows it’s still a long road before he deserves to be called the greatest of all time.
“I have to do more,” Costa says. “We had Anderson Silva, who remained champion for many years. We have to win the belt and be dominant. I don’t think I’ll only be champion for two or three title defenses. I’ll defend it well and leave no doubts, like Jon Jones does.”
Maria Augusta, who jokingly says she watches Costa fight “with her eyes closed”, hopes for a quick knockout win at UFC 241 so she won’t get too nervous Saturday. For Carlos, the finish will come in the second round.
“We’ve waited for this moment our entire lives,” Carlos says. “I’ve been by his side his entire career, I’ve seen his evolution after every camp. He’s 28 and he has yet to reach his peak. We’ll definitely win this fight against Romero on Saturday and then bring this belt. ‘Borrachinha’ will make Brazil very proud.”
“Romero is good, he’s tough, but so am I,” Costa says with a laugh. “I don’t think this fight gets to the third round. I definitely won’t get to the third. But if it does, I’ll be ready.”