Alex Pereira knew he was going to win a UFC title when he left Teixeira MMA & Fitness in Connecticut to go to New York City for UFC 281. The last person Pereira said goodbye to was Glover Teixeira’s wife, Ingrid, and according to “Poatan,” he told her, “This is the last time I set foot in this gym without being a champion.”
Those words proved prophetic as Pereira completed a stunning comeback in the fifth round to wrestle the middleweight belt away from Israel Adesanya.
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“I’ve been talking to some people, and through that fight, I gave a special moment to people,” Pereira told UFC.com. “To me, that special moment was the fight. But a lot of people still remember that fight. They say they were at a bar or at a meeting and that they had to stop, get their phones and watch the fight, so it was a special moment, and I got to give them that.”
Despite the grandeur of the moment – fighting perhaps UFC’s biggest star in Madison Square Garden, also known as The World’s Most Famous Arena – the big stage didn’t faze the former two-division Glory Kickboxing champion.
Alex Pereira Post-Fight Interview | UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira
Alex Pereira Post-Fight Interview | UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira
Throughout the week, Pereira remained calm and composed through all his fight-week duties and media obligations. Part of that comfort came from his previous victories over Adesanya in the kickboxing world, and part of it came from Pereira’s general ability to keep an even-keel demeanor while still drinking in the scenes around him.
“We were doing everything right,” he said. “I already knew my opponent and had a specific game plan. I was doing great in the sessions as well. During fight week, the staredowns, we could see (Adesanya) wasn’t very confident, unlike me. It felt as if the show had been done for me, you know? I was dressed nicely, and (UFC) allowed me to have my face painted (during weigh-ins) representing the indigenous people from Brazil. The show was basically for me. I just needed the cherry on top, which was the fight and that win.”
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Each element of Pereira’s victory seemed written for a movie. From Adesanya’s UFC success in the years before Pereira transitioned to mixed martial arts to his own accelerated track to the title shot, it all built to a legendary kind of night.
Add the knockout into the mix – particularly following Jiri Prochazka and Leon Edwards pulling off 5th-round turnarounds themselves – and you have a potent formula for a star-marking moment. However, Pereira’s stone-faced manner refuses to crack. He is aware of the dangers of fame and money changing a person for the worse, and he remains steadfast in staying true to himself.
“I don’t think anything has changed for me as a person,” Pereira said. “Before I was the champion, I had this feeling and then after I became the champion, I woke up the next day and realized nothing had changed. I’m more famous now. Everybody can see that. That has been changing. I’m growing every day financially speaking as well. I think it’s a lot of things that have changed, but my priority is to be myself. I think I haven’t changed. I know I’m biased, but the people around me that know me can tell you.”
Although it seems like Pereira finds more joy in hearing other people’s experience of watching him win the title, he did experience a special moment when he took the belt to the Pataxó tribe in Bahia.
The tribe is who Pereira honors when he mimics shooting an arrow during his walk to the Octagon as well as the reason for the face-paint and headdress he donned during ceremonial weigh-ins ahead of UFC 281. Spending time with the tribe further humbled Pereira despite accomplishing a major dream.
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“The energy of these people, their humility, that’s something I can’t even describe,” he said. “It’s good to be surrounded by these people. We know how things go when you get famous. I see a lot of people changing, and that’s really important to me - to remain the same person I am.”
There’s a saying that says something to the effect of a champion is not solidified as such until they defend their belt. Disputed logic aside, most assumed Pereira would have to beat Adesanya twice (or a third and fourth time, if you’re counting those kickboxing duels) in order to truly start his reign as champion. Given Adesanya’s run as the champion, a rematch seemed like the most likely outcome for Pereira’s first defense.
That proved true as Dana White announced the matchup as the headliner for UFC 287. Basing predictions off their war in New York City, one could argue Adesanya should project as the favorite given each judge had him up on all scorecards heading into that final round. Had Adesanya lost the fifth round, the judges would’ve still had Adesanya retaining his belt.
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Even so, as Pereira recalls the fight, he never felt in much danger other than when Adesanya caught him to end the first frame. Then, Pereira believes Adesanya had a good chance of finishing him if the moment happened with more time left in the round. Other than that, though, Pereira felt good about his performance. When Adesanya got him into clinches, Pereira felt like he broke out of the exchange with ease. Even when Adesanya took him down and controlled him in the third round, Pereira said Adesanya’s ground-and-pound didn’t hurt him much.
Pereira knows people have doubts about his ability to best “The Last Stylebender” for a second time, but to those using Adesanya’s moments of success in their initial bout as proof for Pereira’s demise, the newly minted champ offers a warning.
“People also say, ‘Oh you keep saying things, but you’ll fight (Adesanya) again.’ Ok, no problem,” Pereira said. “What is he going to do? Is he going to change his strength? ‘Next time, (he should) use (more) force in the clinch… Next time, he said when you were landing on the ground, he wasn’t feeling it, so now hit him harder so he can feel it.’ So does that mean he wants to do that now and in the first fight he didn’t? He couldn't do that. I can implement a game plan where he can’t do it once again.”
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“Poatan” knows he can’t give too much thought to what fans and pundits are saying about the fight, though. He hears the noise about how other middleweight contenders like Robert Whittaker are poor matchups for him should he get past this chapter against Adesanya, but such is life as the champion. People love you or look for ways to tear you down.
More than anything, he is focused on doing his job and performing in the Octagon when it comes time to stand across from anyone looking to take the belt away from him. Beating Adesanya once in MMA was Pereira’s initial breakthrough toward a new kind of fame and success. Moreover, the victory was a life-changing one, but now starts the fleshing out of his story as champion.
Pereira teased the possibility of challenging for light heavyweight gold after Jamahal Hill recently bested Teixeira, but a move up to 205-pounds – one Teixeira himself predicts happening at some point – is more of a down-the-road type of thing. First comes Adesanya in April and adding another chapter to this journey Pereira built for himself.
As champ, Pereira knows he can touch a lot of people’s lives for the better. When he pens another page of his legacy at UFC 287, he wants to further inspire those who came from similarly difficult circumstances as himself. That’s what it is all about for UFC’s middleweight champion. That shiny belt just makes his message even more impactful than those signature left hooks that launched him to the brink of superstardom.
“I’m a simple guy that comes from very humble beginnings,” Pereira said. “A lot of people in those same conditions don’t believe in their dreams and in what they can achieve, and I’m here to change that idea. I come from those same conditions, and today, I’m the UFC world champion. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind. You have to believe, but not just believe, you have to make it happen. You have to believe and make it happen, and you will achieve it.”