Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira: Could Izzy Really Lose?

Scott Harris@@ScottHarrisMMAFeatured Columnist IVAugust 12, 2022

Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Alex Pereira is the last man to beat Israel Adesanya at the latter's natural weight. A rematch couldn't come at a better time for the UFC middleweight champ.

After his last bout, a lackluster if convincing 49-46, 49-46, 50-45 win over an overmatched Jared Cannonier in July at UFC 276, fans and fighters alike hung the dreaded boring tag on Adesanya.

Like his idol, Anderson Silva, before him, Adesanya's striking and movement are so far above his peers that he's rarely forced to stomp on the gas pedal, allowing him to coast to victories while taking minimal damage. It's a smart strategy but a frustrating one for action junkies, particularly when juxtaposed with the trademark hype Adesanya lays down before the fact.

MMA Junkie @MMAJunkie

Bruno Silva thinks recent opponent Alex Pereira is the favorite over "boring" Israel Adesanya.<br><br>"It's putting me to sleep what he's been doing lately."<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/UFCSanDiego?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#UFCSanDiego</a> interview: <a href="https://t.co/s9XcmO15Vf">https://t.co/s9XcmO15Vf</a> <a href="https://t.co/mYFVTzVQ7K">pic.twitter.com/mYFVTzVQ7K</a>

So, the backlash was probably inevitable. It didn't start with Cannonier—for example, an underwhelming performance in a February rematch with Robert Whittaker also drew criticism —but the bout sent the detractions into a new stratum, with the Las Vegas faithful even walking out en masse toward the end of the contest.

That's not what the UFC wants to see out of arguably its most famous non-Conor McGregor fighter. Enter Pereira and the collision between these two on November 12 at UFC 281 in New York's Madison Square Garden.

The Brazilian has earned 21 knockouts in kickboxing and has five stoppage wins on his 6-1 pro MMA ledger, including a first-round knockout of well-regarded Sean Strickland on the same UFC 276 card and a spectacular flying-knee finish of Andreas Michailidis last year. Not to mention that defeat of Adesanya.

The bout in question was a kickboxing match, well before Adesanya transitioned to MMA. The year was 2017, and Pereira used a short left hook to flatten Adesanya—the only knockout defeat on Adesanya's combat sports resume—at Glory of Heroes 7 in Pereira's hometown of Sao Paulo. To add even more intrigue, Pereira took a decision win over Adesanya in 2016.

There's no question Pereira will be aggressive and wield his crushing power on the feet, essentially compelling Adesanya to up the tempo and the output. That's why it's so opportune. If the legacy-conscious Adesanya can't bring the heat for this matchup, it's hard to know what would bring back the laser-guided destruction of Adesanya's earlier years in the profession.

Adesanya is a slim but significant -165 favorite in the contest, per DraftKings. This suggests Vegas believes Pereira has a path to victory.

So…can he do it?

The fact that he's a converted kickboxer doesn't make Pereira a babe in the woods when it comes to the rest of the MMA skill set. He's training with former light heavyweight titlist and rugged grappler Glover Teixeira at Teixeira's gym in Connecticut.

Adesanya has surely evolved as well since his UFC debut in 2018. Still, don't expect a lot of double-leg takedowns and judo throws. The Nigerian-New Zealander has yet to attempt a takedown in 13 UFC contests. Meanwhile, his takedown defense stands at 81.2 percent, good for fourth among active UFC middleweights.

Pereira's stats are similar, if generated by a smaller sample size. He has no takedowns attempted in three UFC contests and a 73 percent takedown defense rate.

Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

So, in short, while it might be tempting to conclude that Adesanya, by virtue of his experience, would have a ground advantage over Pereira, it's likely this one isn't going to the mat. It's much more likely this one will be an intense stand-up battle.

Statistically speaking, Pereira takes one shot to land two. His 3.36 strikes absorbed per minute is not great, though his 6.29 strikes landed per minute is rock solid. His propensity for head-hunting is at odds with Adesanya's more conservative approach.

When one looks back at his knockout loss to Pereira, it's obvious how far Adesanya has advanced. The 2017 version of the Last Stylebender looks positively flat-footed compared with the fluid footwork and head movement he uses these days. He'll be a lot less hittable in November than he was five years ago.

But Pereira could take a page from the last man to defeat Adesanya: then-light heavyweight champ Jan Blachowicz. Blachowicz committed to stopping Adesanya's kicking game, checking low kicks and high kicks alike. Low kicks are a specialty of Adesanya's, but against Blachowicz, that part of his game was relatively quiet.

Pereira isn't known for his defense, but there's still a blueprint for success that he'd be wise to follow, especially if a win is more important to him than a war.

Now let's flip it back to the other side: Adesanya is a brilliant fighter at the peak of his powers. That can't be emphasized enough. These "boring" accusations may be valid on some level, but they aren't born out of an eroded skill set or a sudden inability or patent unwillingness to engage. He's still the champ, and he'll need to be dethroned accordingly.

If Pereira wants to do it, he'll need to avoid a protracted chess match. He'll need to commit to aggression and at least a modicum of defense against the counters that will surely come back his way. He'll need to be the hammer to Adesanya's nail.

Can he do it? He surely can. But even if this is strictly a stand-up battle, Pereira will need to take more risks. With his Q rating on the line, Adesanya should answer that call, meaning he'll need to take risks of his own. If he can maintain order within the chaos, the champ will have a good chance to win. But with Pereira's power and fearlessness, he could prove to be—again—the thorn in Adesanya's side.

Statistics via UFCStats and UFC.com unless otherwise noted.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.