Former UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya is looking to deliver a moment for the ages as he faces his biggest challenge at UFC 287.
Adesanya has been almost flawless since his arrival in the UFC, with just two notable exceptions. A move up to challenge for the light heavyweight title proved to be a little too much to handle, as then-champion Jan Blachowicz was just too big and too strong for “The Last Stylebender,” who suffered his first career defeat in MMA.
But it’s his second defeat that forms the backdrop of his return to action at UFC 287 this weekend.
Adesanya was still undefeated at middleweight when he faced former kickboxing nemesis Alex Pereira at UFC 281 last November. “Poatan” had been fast-tracked to a title shot after just three wins inside the Octagon, thanks to a backstory with Adesanya that saw him twice defeat the Nigerian-born Kiwi inside the ring, once by devastating knockout.
It meant Adesanya had a fascinating challenge to his reign at the top of the UFC’s middleweight division, and the ghosts of that knockout defeat came back to haunt him again as, after looking comfortably the better fighter through four rounds, Adesanya was eventually stopped by Pereira in the final round as he suffered a TKO defeat – his first as a middleweight – and lost his UFC title to his old rival.
Now, less than five months after that defeat, Adesanya is back to face Pereira in a championship rematch in the main event of UFC 287 in Miami, and the 33-year-old said that he’s ready to handle the pressure as he faces his old rival for the second time in the Octagon, and the fourth time overall, still chasing his first win against the Brazilian.
“It’s always pressure. There’s always pressure,” he told reporters during media day in Miami.
“I’m Israel Adesanya, there’s always pressure on me. But yeah, I don’t feel that the pressure is off my shoulders or anything. It’s more pressure on me now. You know, because I’m me. I’m not him. I am me. So, yeah, there’s always going to be that. But again, like I said since my debut, pressure makes diamonds, and I’m going to shine.”
There were plenty of positives for Adesanya from that UFC 281 bout. He rocked him early and almost stopped him, and comprehensively outfought him through four full rounds before Pereira eventually turned up the power, caught Adesanya, then stopped him with strikes against the cage.
Both of those facts are uppermost in Adesanya’s mind as he heads into the fight, with the former champion well aware of the danger Pereira possesses, but also sure of his own ability to outperform his rival.
“How do I break down a fight like that? I know what works for me. I know how I can beat this guy,” he said.
“I know every time I fight this guy, I’m dominating him. I’m beating him. And then he has this special ability to recover and put his foot on the gas. So I have to find a way to take him out of the driver’s seat. Which I will.”
That brief jump up to light heavyweight aside, Adesanya’s career in the UFC was one of consistent success as, fight after fight, he demonstrated his ability to solve the puzzle of each opponent at 185 pounds. But in Pereira he faces someone who has been described as a nemesis, as a bogeyman. It has given the rivalry an added edge, especially with Adesanya still chasing his first win over him. It’s a rivalry unlike any other he’s had in his career.
“I’ve had a couple, but none like this,” he said.
“It’s probably one of, if not the greatest storyline in MMA history. And not many people get the opportunity to show how great they are, to rise to the occasion, when all the odds are stacked against them, when people have counted them out.
“And for me, this fight, I feel like the underdog. I feel like everyone’s counted me out. I feel like, because of the result of the last fight, people were just like, you know, goldfish memories. They forgot what I’ve done in this game, they forgot who I am. And it’s time to remind people how great I am.”
It’s undoubtedly the biggest fight of Adesanya’s UFC career, as he looks to overcome the biggest, toughest challenge of his career, against a man who he’s failed to defeat three times already. It’s a challenge he’s clearly relishing, and he said it’s the sort of fight that could elevate him to new heights. And he set the stage perfectly as he described the stakes, and his mindset, ahead of fight night in Miami.
“It’s spanned across years, across two different combat codes, spanned across different countries, the history of matches between me and Alex,” he said.
“In the way that’s in his head, he’s the protagonist. In my view, my POV, I’m Player One, I’m the protagonist, he’s the antagonist. And I’m just doing so much better in life.
“He kept on trying to chase what he already had, and then got to this point, I made it easy for him to get to the title. I didn’t make it easy for him to get the title, but to get to the title I made it easy for him because he already had that win over me in kickboxing so he dodged all the gauntlet. I didn’t dodge the gauntlet, and I went through every different style you could to get to this point – Sambo guys, jiu-jitsu guys, wrestlers, strikers, MMA guys. So yeah, it was an easy layup (for him).
“But now this is the point where it’s like I’m down two fights in kickboxing, and one fight in MMA. So I’m down three. This is like my Eminem moment, my 8 Mile moment, you know? ‘You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime.’ And this is it. This is it for me.
“Imagine what if I get it done? What if I get it done better than he’s ever done it? What if I butcher him and beat the f**k out of him? Because I always do. But I just ramp it up now. And I don’t let them get any breath and I take him out. I put him on his back. You know, we’ll find out? I do all this s**t and I beat his ass, do some damage to him. And it’s just like, wow, amazing. Like I said, I don’t keep score. I settle them. And he who laughs last, laughs best.”