There he was—a former champion looking to be in the best physical shape he'd seen for quite some time.
Bizarre weigh-in day antics notwithstanding, he was more taut and fit and had a training camp behind him with a new team of coaches—some of the best in the world. Give him a year at Jackson Wink MMA Academy and no one would beat him, he said.
Someone did, though. Fast. It took a little over six minutes.
That former champion was Johny Hendricks, and on the enormous stage of UFC 217 in New York City, the man to beat him was Paulo Costa, Brazil's next big thing.
Perhaps Brazil's next UFC legend.
Paulo Costa, otherwise known as Paulo Borrachinha until a sudden rebranding struck his fancy under the lights of Manhattan, is It with a capital "I." He's the man Brazilian fans have been waiting for, the fighter to take the mantle of his country's great fighting hope from names like Jose Aldo and Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort and Royce Gracie before him.
Chiseled from granite and with the looks of a model, Costa is 11-0 with 11 stoppages in his MMA career. Only two men have gotten out of the first round with him, and only one wasn't knocked out for daring to tackle "The Eraser."
His athleticism is impressive and, while he was a bulldozer in his earlier days, he showed against Hendricks that he understands the value of a measured approach to the game. For a competitor of such musculature, he did not burn himself out, waiting to finish the fight at the right time after breaking up explosive attacks with more deliberate stretches of offense.
It was the type of thing that athletes with 40 fights sometimes struggle with, that great champions have had to overcome or adjust to. To see a relatively green fighter understand his body so well, in such an environment and against such an opponent, was highly promising.
After his win, he got on the mic with Joe Rogan and, as is always well-received by the North American audience, attempted to communicate his jubilation.
The fans responded, just as they did when Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, Junior dos Santos and a host of other Brazilian stars have attempted to speak in their second language. And suddenly Costa had officially taken over the world's most famous city.
The performance was the type to get him attention beyond the fanbase as well.
It scored him an exclusive in-studio interview with Ariel Helwani on a special edition of The MMA Hour, one of the sport's foremost interview shows. The only other man to appear on that episode? New middleweight champion and living legend Georges St-Pierre.
Pretty good company to keep.
After Costa's 217 bout, top-ranked middleweight Derek Brunson—fresh off blowing Machida away on a card in Brazil a couple of weeks ago—took to Twitter to sass Costa. Emoji steroid accusations and proclamations of easy money buoyed that sass, along with a picture of Costa sporting a questionable choice of hairstyle.
Costa fired back, saying he'd make Brunson famous in his "score of knockouts."
It's the stuff great MMA feuds are made of.
But whether it's Brunson or another middleweight contender, Costa has arrived. He's undeniably a work in progress at 26 years old, but he's one of the most promising projects Brazil has had on its hands in years.
Unlike the faux prospects that came before him, filling out The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil and riding the UFC hype machine for as long as they were trying to expand their South American footprint, Costa did it the right way.
He appeared on the show, lost and then took five more regional fights to round himself out before getting another crack at the big show. This is not a creation of the UFC, a man they decided to push in the name of selling shows to Globo TV—this is a legitimate talent who built himself the way the greats that came before him did.
He showed it Saturday, when the results spoke for themselves. Continue on that path, and he may very well see his name up there next to those greats before long.