UFC 281 takes place Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the main event is a doozy. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya puts his title on the line against Alex Pereira, the man who beat him twice in kickboxing, once by brutal knockout. This is a fight the UFC has openly courted since signing Pereira in 2021, and now “The Last Stylebender” finally has a chance to avenge the loss that sent him out of kickboxing, while Pereira gets the opportunity to claim gold in an entirely different sport in which he spent most of his career.
Which technique is the best? Let’s take a look at what each needs to do to win this marquee matchup and ultimately what will happen on fight night.
Paths to Victory for Israel Adesanya at UFC 281
*Israel Adesanya can fight in two different ways, one is better than the other. Recent trends indicate that he will choose the second option. This can work but could lead to him into a lot of trouble.
Adesanya has come under fire recently for a lack of excitement in his fights. There’s no need to litigate that here, because it’s not relevant to this contest. These criticisms have come about because of his defensive approach. He uses his length only to establish a long distance and counters as opponents step in. He simply uses his long range to take out opponents, scoring points while staying safe. It’s an effective strategy, writ large, but it’s fraught with peril in this matchup.
Pereira is exceptionally dangerous at all times, technically sound, and a good kicker in his own right. Pereira does not need to choose his “pest” with Adesanya. He can fight in either direction and, with his power, is just one shot from winning the round. Yes, Adesanya can pull it off, but attempting to fence with Pereira for 25 minutes just gives the challenger 25 minutes to land the shots he needs. Paradoxically, Adesanya’s best option is one that puts him in the direct line of fire. That would be Pereira.
In their kickboxing bouts almost all of the success was due to the one who moved forward. Adesanya used his excellent footwork to make angles on Pereira, and get the best shots. Pereira was successful when Adesanya gave ground, and Pereira got trapped in the smaller, more open ring. Adesanya has a lot of room in the cage, which makes it easy for him to maneuver around. Pereira is a stiff footworker, so Adesanya can press Pereira back or pivot off his advances to open up huge spaces for Adesanya. On top of that, Pereira’s defense is heavily reliant on a high guard, which is great with the big gloves of kickboxing, but much less safe in 4-ouncers. If Adesanya can bring the fight to Pereira like he did for most of their rematch (until he got caught), while avoiding falling prey to one clean shot, he has a great chance to hurt Pereira like he did in there. MMA is not a standing eight-count sport.
Paths to victory for Alex Pereira at UFC 281
Pereira’s best option is in some ways the same for Adesanya. It is simpler than Adesanya: Set the tone and push the action to make a difference.
First, Adesanya must be stopped from kicking the legs. Pereira, a great defender of kicks, is a good choice. In many ways, leg kicks are the straw that stirs the drink for Adesanya (in his last three fights, leg kicks accounted for 42, 36, and 25 percent of his significant strikes), and if you can nullify or disincentivize those, it forces him to engage in closer quarters. While Adesanya is very good on the inside, he’s not a massive hitter, and he occasionally slacks off defensively with his hands, creating openings to land a big shot.
Pereira’s trump card is that big shot. Adesanya has power, but nothing close to what Pereira brings to the table. Pereira may be the largest pound-forpound hitter in the sport, aside from his size for the division. Pereira doesn’t seem to be trying hard but his opponents crumble when he hits them. The man simply thuds. And when you don’t have to wind up to land a finishing shot, but merely flick it out there, that makes it substantially easier to land a fight-changing shot. And as Adesanya found out last time, often times “fight-changing” can mean “fight-ending” when we’re talking about Pereira.
Lastly and most importantly for Pereira is patience. If Adesanya comes out looking to push the action, then bite down, swing, and see who is still standing when it’s all said and done. Pereira cannot rush into a fight if Adesanya tries to stick-and-move and defend-first. As the saying goes, fools rush in (Robert Whittaker learned this the hard way in his first fight with Adesanya), and Pereira need not be a fool. Kick with Adesanya, let the threat of the power shot linger, and apply steady, consistent pressure, and eventually, openings will appear. It’s incredibly difficult to be perfect for 25 minutes, so if Adesanya wants to try, Pereira should thank him for the gift and play the long game with him.
In truth, there are a number of potential X-factors at play in this fight, but there are two that I think are the most likely to matter.
Although Adesanya may have said the right words heading into the fight, the most important question is how he will react once the door opens. He’s facing a man who has not only beaten him, but sent him to the shadow realm. He will fight fearlessly? Will he fight overly aggressive to prove a point? Will it not phase him in anyway and this will be another fight in his long career? We won’t know until Saturday, no one, not even us, what is the truth? Pereira has a clear advantage if Adesanya still holds onto that KO.
This ties into the first X-factor because though Adesanya isn’t some Olympic-caliber wrestler (in fact, he’s 0-3 in his UFC career on takedowns), he’s much more seasoned in MMA, and it’s entirely possible that he decides to test Pereira’s ability in other aspects of the sport. “Poatan” is undeniably a shark on the feet, but if you plop him onto the ground, the man becomes infinitely less dangerous.
Maybe Adesanya goes full Georges St-Pierre in this one? However, even this comes with significant risk because Adesanya doesn’t have the best wrestling skills and Pereira can defend takedowns well. Adesanya could be seen wrestling and we may see the Jamahal Hill-Thiago Santes situation, where the champ is able to get gassed up for takedowns or wrestling when it’s not his thing. Or hell, maybe Pereira taps him. There have been worse things, and Adesanya could start wrestling. This fight could quickly turn crazy.
*While it is not great to pick a fighter with so much information about his game, I can’t help but be impressed by Adesanya against Yoel Romero and Jan Blachowicz. In both of those fights, Adesanya looked visibly uncomfortable facing someone who could legitimately end him with one big punch, and now he faces a man who has done that very thing to him.
My best guess is Adensaya being defensive, which permits Pereira to continue the fight. This allows Pereira to land one big punch to finish the round, and Pereira can land enough offense to win the rounds. In short, Adesanya is the “better” fighter, but Pereira is the more dangerous one, and over 25 minutes, give me the one who is more likely to finish the fight.
Alex Pereira def. Israel Adesanya by KO/TKO, Round 3.