Barring something completely unexpected, it looks like UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya will get to rematch former GLORY kickboxing champion and rival Alex Pereira, this time under MMA rules. Adesanya won a pretty uneventful decision over Jared Cannonier at UFC 276, preceded earlier that evening by Pereira thumping Sean Strickland with his vaunted left hook to notch his third win in as many UFC appearances.
It is not too common to see someone of Pereira’s MMA inexperience climb up the UFC ladder this quickly. He went 2-1 in his first three fights from 2015-2016, then didn’t return to the sport until 2020, when a knockout of Thomas Powell on an LFA card earned him a UFC contract. There’s no doubt that the UFC had in mind that if Pereira could recreate his kickboxing magic inside the Octagon, they would fast-track him towards a title shot and trilogy against Adesanya, whom he defeated twice in the kickboxing world.
Mission accomplished, I’d say.
Andreas Michailidis had some wrestling success early in Pereira’s debut before getting smoked by a flying knee. Former M-1 champion Bruno ‘Blindado’ Silva, who boasts a KO over former Bellator champion Alexander Shlemenko and stopped his first three UFC opponents, gave Pereira a tough fight but Alex took a clear decision. It is more likely than not that Silva will end up in the top-15 in the near future, which will only enhance the quality of Pereira’s victory.
Then you get to Sean Strickland, ranked number four and riding a six-fight win streak. Strickland’s outrageous fight strategy of standing directly in front of Alex and striking with him predictably flopped, as did he. That’s all it will presumably take for Pereira to compete for UFC gold.
Pereira has indeed cut the proverbial line by not fighting multiple ranked fighters along the way (as is common for many eventual title challengers), but that’s hardly a case of sinful matchmaking. He’s already 35 years old and when you factor in his decorated kickboxing career, he’s been in some form of combat sports for over a decade. This was no ordinary signing and Pereira can’t be treated like any other standard prospect — in other words, thrust him high up the ladder as quickly as possible to find out whether or not the investment was worthwhile.
While Pereira may be ranked at No. 6, there’s no title shot snub to be had here. Of the five ranked fighters above Pereira, Adesanya has twice beaten Robert Whittaker, just defeated Jared Cannonier, twice beaten Marvin Vettori, dominated Derek Brunson, and thrashed Paulo Costa. Other than perhaps a trilogy with Whittaker, rematches with those other four opponents range anywhere from unappealing to unnecessary. Of the five fighters ranked immediately below Pereira, only No. 10 ranked Andre Muniz has any current upward mobility towards a title shot, whereas everyone else is coming off a loss if not multiple losses. Former champion Luke Rockhold is a wild card depending on his result against Paulo Costa, but just the idea of awarding him a title shot off a single win in five years is absurd.
I respectfully disagree with my Bloody Elbow colleague Trent Reinsmith’s belief that Pereira doesn’t deserve a title shot. A tad opportunistic? Perhaps. But this is neither meritless nor egregious, rather a perfect storm of a dominant champion, a division lacking great depth, and an intriguing backstory. Adesanya simply does not have any other viable title challengers at the moment outside of Pereira. This is not just the best title fight to make for Izzy, it’s really the only one. From the fans’ perspective, Pereira is the right stylistic opponent to draw out a much more entertaining fight than the majority of Adesanya’s title defenses have been. From the UFC’s perspective, they have the best possible narrative to sell at a time when Adesanya needs fresh, interesting opponents and his recent fights have largely lacked the sort of action we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
Who cares if Pereira’s wrestling and grappling defense haven’t been tested by a ranked middleweight yet? He’s shown at least some baseline competence in his previous two UFC fights and within the context of an Adesanya fight, Israel has zero takedowns to his name and hasn’t attempted a submission since the Kelvin Gastelum fight. Consider me skeptical that the mythical figure of NCAA Adesanya will emerge any time soon. Those question marks about Pereira’s overall MMA abilities can be answered later whether he’s the new champion or a vanquished challenger. What we do know is that his elite kickboxing has successfully transferred over to MMA, and usually having even one elite skillset in this sport is enough to at least be considered a viable threat.
If anything, Pereira’s UFC success has been one of the best things to happen to the middleweight division in recent years. It took him only seven pro fights to conquer an established top-five foe, which speaks to Pereira’s exceptional talent as a fighter. His rapid rise should at least provide hope that he will not be a flash in the pan in MMA.
There will perhaps come a time when the likes of Andre Muniz, Dricus Du Plessis, and Nassourdine Imavov are all at the forefront of title contention, but they aren’t right now and Pereira indisputably is. And I can’t wait to see him against Adesanya one more time.
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