Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
For UFC 281, Kyte called upon highly respected head coach Eliot Marshall, formerly of the Elevation Fight Team, and Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick to provide their thoughts on four points heading into the middleweight championship bout between undisputed champion Israel Adesanya and Brazilian challenger Alex Pereira.
Best Trait of Each Fighter
At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else?
Marshall: Izzy? It’s so hard because he’s got so many. His creativity — yeah, his creativity is what I would say.
And then Pereira, just his classic Muay Thai kickboxing.
Nicksick: Izzy’s best trait for me is his feint game. I think the way that he collects data — Coach Follis always had a term for that; he called it “the space between the notes that makes the music.” When you watch him in between segments, he’s doing so much with his feints, his eyes, his body language, his rhythm and there is a lot to it.
It’s almost like a conductor that is finding the openings for where each instrument goes, and it’s beautiful to watch. When I watch Izzy, it’s really his “space between the notes” and the feint game he has; that’s his absolute best attribute.
Pereira is kind of that “calculated chaos” guy. His reads are very good — we saw him read off of Sean Strickland, rear-hand parrying that jab. Pereira is more of an in-your-face guy and that freakin’ left hook and the setup off that left hook. That to me is his best attribute — that equalizer left hook.
Path to Victory for Each Fighter
Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.
So, how does either man get it done on Saturday night?
Nicksick: For me, Izzy really needs to utilize his kicks because that will help nullify some of Pereira’s power.
Depending on what weapon he feels is going to be his biggest attribute — if it’s his left hook, then it’s Izzy throwing the right high kick to slow that hook down. If it’s the straight right, then Izzy needs to use the left head kick. It will slow him down and keep him honest in a lot of ways.
Using that length with the teeps, the calf kicks, the low kicks — I don’t think we’re going to see Pereira coming in looking to use any grappling, but I think Izzy’s full skill set should be available to him, including the kick game. That should be a layer of insulation between him and Pereira’s hands.
Marshall: I still think Izzy gets it done on the feet. I think he gets it done on the feet and the difference between this fight and their other two is just the output level that you have to have with kickboxing. The output in MMA is much different, and I think that changes the dynamic of the fight.
Because Pereira is going to be thinking, “Is he going to try to take me down?” you can’t just strike, and when you can’t just strike, it changes the game.
Nicksick: The main thing that he’s really going to have to do is find smart ways to cut the cage off and try to put Izzy in the flat part of the panel and guide him into the two corner posts by eliminating some of Izzy’s 45-degree backwards movement or his straight backs. It gives him only perpendicular movements to the right or the left.
When you allow him to go on 45-degree angles, that’s where his best offense is — he has that sniper ability off of half-beat pulls — so for Pereira, I think he really needs to get this guy backed up to the barrier and eliminate backwards and 45-degree movements. If you cut the door off on either side and say, “Hey — here’s your exit,” you know which way he’s going to go, and it’s either move that way or he has to shoot.
So you either make him panic wrestle from there or you shut the door, show him the exit, and that’s when you can set up some of those power shots and try to take his head off. I think it’s going to be very, very important for Pereira to eliminate some of the movement by backing him up to the barrier.
Marshall: He’s going to try to knock him out, for sure. The more it looks like Muay Thai, the more it favors Pereira. The more it looks like MMA, the more it favors Izzy.
If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?
Nicksick: OOOOH — it’s gotta be their history! It’s gotta be! I don’t think there is any way around it because you’re looking at a guy with an ego — and Izzy should have an ego! He’s confident more than he is cocky, but I think it irks him that this guy is the Boogeyman that’s coming to get him.
Izzy hasn’t lost in the UFC other than to Jan up a division — he’s perfect in his division — and so this is almost a tailor-made backstory that the UFC was able to build up, and this guy is here now.
I think the build-up and hype around this fight is the X factor.
Marshall: Mentally, I think it’s going to be a very, very interesting thing here because Pereira has beaten him twice. It’s a different sport and we can talk about those differences if you’d like, but mentally, is Pereira just banking on that? Has Izzy dealt with that mentally? There are some really big mental questions that I believe will get answered in the fight.
It’s that mental piece and the differences between MMA and kickboxing that are the X factors in this fight.
One Coaching Curiosity
Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.
Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.
So what is that one thing in this matchup?
Nicksick: I’m curious to see if Izzy will try to offensively wrestle if at some point he feels he’s losing the flow of the fight or he’s getting clipped up a little bit — even if he’s not.
What we wanted to do with (Sean) Strickland is wrestle early because if you can get in on his legs early, it might make him slow down and think about it throughout the round or the rest of the fight. Even if Izzy decided to go with a body-lock takedown to make him go “Hey, I have this pitch in my arsenal.”
It’s like a pitcher going, “I’ve got a cutter. I’ve got a circle change. I can throw a 100-mph fastball,’ you’re showing the batter you’ve got a couple pitches in your arsenal and I don’t think that would hurt him. So I wonder if he’s going to try to fit in or mix in some wrestling at any point.
Marshall: It’s hard to get knocked out by a guy, especially when that’s your thing. When your path to victory is striking — if I’m a wrestler and I get knocked out by somebody, I’m like, “Well s*** — I need to get in on the takedown.”
It’s hard to lose the way that you see yourself winning, which I think is an important part of an MMA fight — not only how you’re going to win the fight, but also how you’re going to stop the individual, and you base everything else off of that. “How am I going to finish this person?”
I think you see guys that don’t have a path to finishing — they’re not great submission guys, they’re not great strikers — and they get lost a little bit in their fights. Izzy has only ever won one way, and that’s with strikes, so to have that be his path to victory and having lost a striking match before, that’s the question we’re all wondering about, right?