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The Fights

Alex Pereira Is UFC’s Most Unlikely Champion

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: Alex Pereira prepares to enter the ring prior to his middleweight fight against Israel Adesanya at UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In a violent sport defined by the antics of a ton of outlandish weirdos, Alex Pereira’s demeanor stands out. The Brazilian fighter maintains an aura of eerie calm at all times, whether he’s knocking out former Nazis, enduring cringy banter, or celebrating a big win. He seems genuinely unshakeable. A Pereira smile is noteworthy. The other thing that stands out about Pereira, of course, is his vicious left hook, the punch he used to knock out Israel Adesanya on Saturday at UFC 281 and become the most unexpected champion on the roster.

Pereira grew up very poor in Brazil, which forced him to go work in an auto shop at age 12, where he started drinking and developed severe alcoholism as a teenager. His life turned around once he started kickboxing, which brought him financial stability, international acclaim, but also a connection to his roots, as his gym was mostly populated by other fighters with indigenous heritage. His nickname, Po Atan, roughly translates to Stone Hand in his native Tupi language.

After 40 kickboxing fights, Pereira got into MMA, joining the UFC in November 2021. He won the middleweight title in only his eighth professional MMA fight, and he did so against a battle-tested opponent who had won seven fights for the middleweight belt, in addition to 16 other ones. Israel Adesanya was the longest-reigning men’s champion in the UFC, and he stepped into the octagon against Pereira with a perfect 23-0 record against middleweight opposition. Pereira had only spent a bit over three rounds in the UFC octagon before his title shot, and none of his previous opponents were anywhere near as good as Adesanya.

All of this would point to UFC 281’s main event being a horrible mismatch, but for the history between Pereira and Adesanya. The two men were elite kickboxers at the same time, and Pereira beat Adesanya twice. The Brazilian won a close (perhaps even dubious) decision in 2016, then one year later, ended Adesanya’s kickboxing career with a knockout. Until this past Saturday, that was the only time Adesanya had ever been finished in any combat sport, across 104 professional fights, holding a 98-4 record against everyone besides Pereira and an 0-2 record against the Brazilian. Naturally, Pereira’s 2017 knockout was also with the left hook.

Their clash at UFC 281 followed the same narrative arc as their second kickboxing match. Adesanya was cruising to a decision after spending four rounds landing shots, occasionally wobbling Pereira, and generally looking comfortable winning exchange after exchange with his opponent. All three judges had Adesanya ahead, 39-37, after the fourth round. Heading into the fifth round, Pereira’s coaches were blunt with him: No finish, no win.

“I said, ‘Do I have to knock him out?'” Pereira said through an interpreter. “Glover said, ‘You do have to knock him out.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.'”

ESPN

Any fifth-round knockout is definitionally impressive, especially when someone as green as Pereira KOs someone as experienced as Adesanya. His title-winning moment was an all-timer, and all that’s left is for Adesanya to turn to professional boxing, win a title, then watch as Pereira dutifully follows him to his new sport to claim his title with a left-hook knockout.