In his five years of fighting in the UFC, middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has built a reputation as one of MMA’s most creative and technical strikers. After making the move from a full time kickboxing career, the former GLORY world champion blitzed the middleweight division, rattling off six straight victories in just over 12 months time, including capturing an interim title with a win over Kelvin Gastelum.
That kind of success put Israel Adesanya in the sights of then-champ Robert Whittaker, for his first true crack at bragging rights for the label of ‘best middleweight in the world’. Adesanya walked away with his hand raised, and seemed an unstoppable force at 185 lbs. That is, right up until the moment he met a familiar foe on a familiar trajectory. In the sixth defense of his crown, Adesanya faced off against former kickboxing opponent and fellow GLORY champion Alex Pereira. Despite winning the majority of the rounds, and hurting Pereira badly, the ‘Last Stylebender’ would fall in the final frame, victim of a TKO stoppage.
Israel Adesanya is adamant that he was playing possum at UFC 287
It was a result that Israel Adesanya protested, at least a little bit, at the time. He claimed that he had been playing possum with Pereira when the ref stepped in to wave it off. Not many bought his explanation, but it just might hold a little more weight now. That’s after the rematch went down this last Saturday, April 8th, in Miami, FL.
After a hot start from Pereira, behind a bevvy of powerful low kicks, the Brazilian appeared to have Adesanya on the ropes, up against the fence, covering and hurt once again. But as Pereira opened up his defense to put Adesanya away, he found himself on the receiving end of a series of power right hands that knocked him entirely unconscious.
Had Israel Adesanya been playing possum again? In a recent video uploaded to his Twitter account, the newly reclaimed middleweight champ not only reiterated his conviction that he wasn’t actually badly hurt by ‘Po Atan’, but he even gave fans a glimpse behind the scenes to quell the doubters. Paired with the footage of his UFC 287 highlight knockout, Adesanya showed off some sparring film from the gym, where viewers can see him practicing fighting his way off the cage with heavy right hand counter shots. Exactly the kind of offense he landed to finally surmount his greatest foe.
“I wanted him to get comfortable, so he thinks I’m a punching bag now,” Adesanya said, watching the footage of his latest victory. “‘Oh, I can just tee-off on him, like all these other guys I fight with.’ Bro, I’m not these other f-ckin’ blood clots.”
Adesanya now claims rivalry with Pereira settled
Even for those unconvinced that Israel Adesanya wasn’t on his last leg before knocking Pereira cold, the above video shows an impressive level of opponent-specific preparation for that exact scenario. The kind of training that may only come from having fought against, and lost to, the same opponent time and time again. Despite that success, and despite still being down 1-3 in their career rivalry, Adesanya now seems to feel the score against Pereira has been settled.
“I don’t keep score, I settle them,” Israel Adesanya told reporters after his win. “Now it’s settled. Look, I gave him a fast track to the belt. I could’ve said, ‘Nah, f-ck no. Who has he fought?’ He fought one top-five fighter. But no. He did well, fought some alright guys and beat f-cking Strickland and I was like, ‘Okay, fine. There’s no one else.’ But also, I was looking for that challenge—the guy that beat me in kickboxing. I was looking for that challenge. That’s why I took that fight,” he continued, dismissing the idea of an instant rematch with the Brazilian.
Despite being nearly a year since Israel Adesanya has faced anyone other than Pereira for the title, the middleweight division hasn’t exactly established any new contenders. At the moment, Robert Whittaker is the only man with a clear grip on the no. 1 spot at 185. Dricus du Plessis is the only new face on the horizon and he still seems at least one, possibly two fights away from the belt. That fact didn’t deter UFC president Dana White from backing up Adesanya’s feelings that another bout against Pereira was off the table. To hear White tell it, Pereira is actually headed to the light heavyweight division.
Pereira confirms he’s headed to light heavyweight
It didn’t take long, either, for the 35-year-old Teixeira MMA and Fitness fighter to confirm those rumors. In a post to his YouTube channel just a few days after the loss of his belt, Pereira made the move official.
“My next fight will be at 205!” Pereira announced. “I think I did my job at 185 and now I’m feeling good to go up to 205. Like I told you, when I’m feeling good, I will go up. This will be something natural, and now I think it is.”
What does that leave next for Israel Adesanya? Jan Blachowicz has called out both men, suggesting he’d not only be willing to welcome Pereira to light heavyweight, but that he’d even be willing to try and make the cut to middleweight for a chance at gold there. Blachowicz and Adesanya already faced off at UFC 259 back in 2021, with the Polish fighter taking a unanimous decision from the City Kickboxing talent. For his part, however, Adesanya’s team seem to have their sights more firmly focused on trying his luck up a division once more. Not against the former champ, but against current title holder Jamahal Hill.
“Let’s do it. Let’s do it,” Israel Adesanya’s coach, Eugene Bareman exclaimed about the possibility of a matchup with Hill.
No telling which way the UFC may want to go next for the middleweight belt, but without a clear challenger waiting in the wings, it might just be that this is the time to try and get creative. Then again, with Khamzat Chimaev reportedly set to face off against Paulo Costa in the fall, a win for the Chechen could rocket him into top contender status and have the UFC brass leaning on their Nigerian-born star to take a bout against ‘Borz’ to see if the top prospect can’t live up to the absurd amount of hype he’s built.
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