In 12 tries, no MMA middleweight has been able to defeat Israel Adesanya. Luckily for fans and maybe unluckily for Adesanya, then, is that a kickboxer was able to do it—and then make the jump to the UFC.
That fighter's name is Alex Pereira, and in its own way, that emphatic knockout of Sean Strickland on Saturday at UFC 276 in Paradise, Nevada, might have been even more impactful than Adesanya's dull-but-convincing middleweight title defense against Jared Cannonier in the evening's main event.
After the card, if not also before, the pairing seemed like a fait accompli, so much so that Adesanya, in his post-fight interview with color commentator and podcasting luminary Joe Rogan, called out Pereira before Rogan even had a chance to ask the question.
"We all know who is next: Poatan," Adesanya told Rogan, using Pereira's nickname. "Trust me, the first time I told you, it was an error on my part, spamming the right hand. But that was in kickboxing. … But like I said at the press conference: next time I'll put you on skates. You're gonna get frozen like Elsa."
Adesanya was a substantial favorite coming into the bout versus Cannonier, and people who played a dollar or two—or in Drake's case, a million—on the champ never had much reason to sweat.
That said, this was not a high-octane fight. While some may have foreseen Cannonier pulling a shocker out of some white-hot slugfest, Adesanya was able to maintain distance and decorum throughout.
The champ's key weapon was the jab, which he fired from perfect range, particularly as the fight wore on and he became more comfortable and Cannonier lost his stamina. As the champ switched stances, he threw the jab as a straight without missing a beat. Cannonier, a former heavyweight, was chiseled out of granite in there, but at 6'4" with an 80-inch reach, the champ had five-inch and 2.5-inch height and reach advantages, respectively, on the challenger.
Although striking numbers are admittedly and literally a one-dimensional way of examining an MMA fight, they may be useful here given that neither man attempted a submission, and only Cannonier tried a takedown, going 0-of-4 for his efforts, per official UFC stats. To put it simply, this fight didn't spend a second on the ground.
After 25 minutes of action, Adesanya took a unanimous decision on the judges' scorecards by a margin of 49-46, 49-46, 50-45.
Even for a fan or contrarian or adventure-seeking better, it was hard to find a round for Cannonier, with the possible exception of the third. He was on the end of Adesanya's jab all night and, for the most part, was not able to get inside and do damage with his trademark power. He made some hay for stretches in the clinch but wasn't able to string enough success together to make a significant difference.
Meanwhile, Adesanya continued to pick and pick. He outlanded Cannonier in significant strikes in every round except the third, where they tied 17-17. This was also the round that saw the challenger rack up the most control time, with 1:29 in the clinch.
But it wasn't enough. With about two minutes to go in the contest, the boo birds rained down in earnest. It's a tough way to watch the brilliant Adesanya win a fight over a game competitor in Cannonier. At the same time, you also understand that people want to see Adesanya, who is never shy around the microphone, walk his talk.
Enter Pereira. His place farther down the main card—and his ability to capitalize on that placement—brought drama to the main event regardless of what happened.
Let's say more about that capitalization.
This was only Pereira's third bout in the UFC, but he has 33 pro kickboxing wins under his belt. Two of those wins came over Adesanya, the first by decision in 2016 and the second by left-hook knockout in 2017.
Pereira is dangerous with both hands and showed it Saturday against Strickland. Halfway through the first round, he crushed Strickland with a left hook from outer space and then followed up with a curtain-closing right. The end came at 2:36 of the very first round.
For his part, Pereira said before the fight that he believed a Saturday win would get him a title shot.
"Yeah, this is the fight that's going to give me a chance for the title," he told Cageside Press through a translator.
Light heavyweight might still provide interesting pastures for Adesanya, but not before he defeats a formidable opponent and readymade rival in Pereira. Even as he rid himself of another challenger in Cannonier, an even more worthy foe appeared in the MMA personage of his old kickboxing adversary. Before there's any talk of 205 pounds again, Adesanya has fresh business down at 185.