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Paulo Costa explains why he’s not fighting Ikram Aliskerov at UFC 291 — and how he knew ‘long time ago’

For most of the lead-up to UFC 291, Paulo Costa was on the marquee.

Back in May, the UFC announced a matchup between Costa and up-and-coming middleweight Ikram Aliskerov for the main card of the July 29 pay-per-view. So why isn’t that fight happening? On Wednesday, the fan-favorite Brazilian told MMA Fighting that he knew “five weeks ago, six weeks ago, long time ago” that he wasn’t going to be fighting Aliskerov at UFC 291. The announcement, Costa said, was simply part of a negotiation tactic by the promotion as the two sides were locked in a standoff over Costa’s new UFC contract.

“It’s all about negotiation way,” Costa said on The MMA Hour. “At some point, this [negotiation] took very hard way. But since the day one they talk about Ikrim, I can tell you it was like 99 percent chance of not happening. It was that kind of, ‘Let’s see, we have this, we don’t have any other fighter available to fight you now.’ Something like that.”

“I think he’s a very talented kid,” Costa added. “I didn’t take too many time watching his fights. I just watch his fight in UFC against Phil Hawes, and I have trained with Phil Hawes in 2015 when Vitor Belfort invited us to his fight camp against [Chris] Weidman a long time ago. And yeah, I just watched that fight, but not disrespect to him. I just think he needs to do more steps [to climb up the ladder] and to fight the big names.”

Costa, 32, and Aliskerov were both ultimately pulled from UFC 291 and booked in separate bouts on Oct. 21 at UFC 294. Costa faces two-division terror Khamzat Chimaev, while Aliskerov squares off against top-15 ranked middleweight contender Nassourdine Imavov.

With his new contract signed and the Chimaev fight officially on the books, Costa isn’t holding a grudge over the UFC’s eagerness to advertise a fight he knew wasn’t happening.

“I think I’m a fighter for UFC, you know? So it doesn’t bother me or annoy me,” Costa said. “I just think this is kind of the company [and what it] can do, and they do this, so I’m cool. I’m OK with that.”

For Costa, the Chimaev fight represents a long-awaited resolution to a back-and-forth negotiation that will have kept him sidelined for 14 months by the time UFC 294 rolls around. “Borrachinha” hasn’t competed since defeating former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold in a wild fight in August 2022. Costa said the October date against Chimaev in Abu Dhabi was proposed to him at the beginning of 2023 and was a fight UFC president Dana White advocated extensively to make.

Costa said he always liked the matchup, in part due to his ongoing feud with Chimaev. It was just the timeline that bothered him about White’s pitch for UFC 294.

“I just thought, ‘Bro, it’s so long. Why am I going to wait for this guy until October? So give me a fight. Give me a fight, UFC,’” Costa said. “And they say, ‘We have no other fighters available to fight you.’ I say, ‘Yes, you have. You have [Sean] Strickland or [Jared] Cannonier.’ They say, ‘We have other plans for you guys. Not to [book] each other against [each other].’

“So I was waiting for some fight, and then they suggest [Jan] Blachowicz at 205 around May. I say, ‘OK, let’s do that,’ but Blachowicz was not training, he was on vacation. So they asked [Magomed] Anklaev, he told UFC he was not training as well, he has no time, because it was short notice, like two weeks to the fight. So after that I was in limbo. No fighters, no fights to do.”

Costa said as the negotiations dragged on regarding a new contract, he prepared himself for the idea of what a post-UFC life would look like as a free agent. He credited veteran MMA manager Tiki Ghosn for stepping in and helping to smooth tensions over once talks between Costa and the UFC became “stuck,” but admitted that — at times — he was close to leaving the only promotion he’s called home since 2017.

“Yeah, I think so,” Costa said. “I think we push a lot on both sides. I think they push a lot as well. And yes, what I can say for you and for everybody who understands very well the situation that happened, is we were able to do everything. ... I was able to do wherever the situation moved us to do, like get out [of the UFC], renew [the contract]. So we were 100 percent of the time 100 percent convicted that we could not be part [of the UFC] anymore or continue. But I think we did the best way.

“I think the UFC is happy. I’m so happy, Hunter [Campbell], Dana [White], I think they are happy because Dana personally asked for this fight against Chimaev.”

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