NEW YORK (AP) — Israel Adesanya interrupted a question about the feeling of getting knocked out by Alex Pereira inside a cage by making a pivotal clarification:
That’s right, Adesanya, the UFC 185-pound champion, has never been KO’d by Pereira inside the octagon and the fighter better known as “The Last Stylebender” has only lost once in his MMA career. But it’s two losses to the Brazilian knockout artist Pereira in their old kickboxing days that Adesanya simply can’t shake -- and has raised the specter that the middleweight challenger can win again, only this time for the championship in the UFC 281 main event.
The lopsided history between the two fighters is one reason UFC fast-tracked Pereira to a title match after only three fights for the organization since his November 2021 debut.
“I’m getting the vibes. I can just see it,” Adesanya said. “This is the one I have to win.”
Pereira (6-1) get his first crack at UFC gold when he fights Adesanya (23-1) on Saturday night in UFC’s return to Madison Square Garden. UFC has largely eschewed the Northeast since the pandemic but returns to MSG for the sixth time since New York in 2016 became the 50th state to legalize MMA.
Adesanya, the Nigeria-born, New Zealand-raised fighter, earned performance of the night honors when he scored a TKO win over Derek Brunson four years ago at the Garden. His dominant destruction of the veteran was considered Adesanya’s breakout performance.
And in many ways it was -- he won the interim middleweight belt two fights later, unified the division with an October 2019 win over Robert Whittaker and hasn’t lost a 185-pound fight yet over that span, including two this year.
The Adesanya who won over the New York crowd with a knee to the face and then a big left to finish off Brunson -- and celebrated by dancing in the middle of the octagon -- has largely turned into a stylistically unpleasant performer. The elbows and head kicks that littered his method of victories early in his career have been replaced by a string of unanimous decisions.
The dullness has seeped into his quotes.
“The fight’s already sold,” he said. “I don’t need to say much.”
Yes, a win is a win, and Adesanya has never been knocked down over his UFC career.
Adesanya, though, has yet to consistently turn in the highlight-reel efforts that could help him make the mainstream leap in much the way Conor McGregor did in his prime, or, at the very least connect with a greater percentage of MMA fans like Anderson Silva or Jon Jones did at the top of their games.
Adesanya insists he’s not searching for that kind of outside fame.
“I never chased the belt, I never chased anything,” he said. “All I ever chased was bodies. Put them in front of me and I take them out. I don’t chase anything. They all chase me.”
Pereira did exactly that as he followed him to UFC following a wildly successful kickboxing career that included an April 2016 unanimous decision win over Adesanya and he used a left hook in the third round of a KO victory in March 2017 in Brazil.
“We all know what happened in the last two fights,” Pereira said through an interpreter. “I forgot about them. I hope (he) forgot, as well. I’m going to fight (him) like it was first time I was fighting in my life.”
Pereira bent down and appeared to trash talk Adesanya after the kickboxing KO and gestured at his fallen foe as he celebrated in the ring. Pereira won his kickboxing fights inside darkened arenas and in front of a smattering of fans.
Pereira will try and make it 3-0 inside another packed house at MSG.
“Hey man, he’s got bragging rights, so he can talk all the (smack) he wants,” Adesanya said.
The oddsmakers seems to care little about past history and made Adesanya the betting favorite, per FanDuel Sportsbook.
“Why am I the favorite on this? I never check them, but I just happened to see something on Instagram,” he said. “I feel like we should change that or something. How can you change that? Fake an injury? But I think you should bet on him for this fight. See what happens.”
Adesanya and Pereira headline a card that also sees Carla Esparza (20-6) defend her 115-pound belt against former champion Zhang Weili (22-3) and Dustin Poirier takes on Michael Chandler in a lightweight bout. Frankie Edgar, who rose to fame in 2010 with back-to-back lightweight victories against UFC Hall of Famer B.J. Penn, announced his retirement and will fight for the last time against Chris Gutierrez.
Edgar, a Toms River, New Jersey native, made his debut in 2005 when mixed martial arts cards were still illegal in New York fighting in the Bronx for the old Underground Combat League. Edgar said he made $160 for that fight (he made $10 off every ticket sold) and joked he probably used that cash as beer money. As the wins, championships, and, yes, paydays exploded, the spoils have mostly stayed the same.
His likely final post-fight meal?
“Cheeseburgers,” he said.
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