How do you block out the sound of all your detractors reminding you that the man you’re about to step into battle against left you laying in the center of the ring the last time you crossed paths?
How do you combat repeatedly being sent the clip of a left hook sending you to the canvas with a thud, knowing that the man responsible for putting you there will be standing across the Octagon from you in a matter of days, looking to replicate the result and force you to abdicate your throne?
“I don’t block it out; that’s the thing,” Israel Adesanya said when asked those very questions.
Saturday night, the reigning UFC middleweight champion faces Brazilian challenger Alex Pereira in the main event of UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It’s a fight a year in the making under the UFC umbrella, but with a much richer backstory.
The two fought twice during their kickboxing days, with Pereira winning each time; first by decision, and then by knockout.
From the time the former Glory Kickboxing two-division champion committed to making the transition to MMA, this fight has been the one everyone has wanted to see — the dominant UFC middleweight titleholder putting his belt on the line against the man that just might be his own personal brand of kryptonite.
Those that dislike Adesanya (or simply find enjoyment in trolling famous athletes) have reminded him of what happened the last time he stood opposite Pereira at every turn, not that it bothers him.
The 33-year-old City Kickboxing representative made peace with that result a long time ago.
“Why would I (pretend like I’m not listening)?” Adesanya asked, pantomiming plugging his ears and trying to avoid the noise. “It’s reality. It happened. I accept reality for what it is, and I’ve accepted it a long time ago, so those that are bringing it up now are late to the party.
“I’ve dealt with that emotion a long time ago,” he added. “It evokes no feeling inside me, watching it or seeing it. I don’t block it out — I’ll hear it or see it, and just let it pass through me. You can’t hold onto these things because they’re worthless, so I don’t hold onto them.”
Some are bound to question the sincerity of Adesanya’s words, wondering how one could put such a jarring defeat behind him and not allow the memories of it to infiltrate his thoughts as they ready to meet again this weekend.
It’s understandable, given that so many of us struggle to move on from past mistakes, hold grudges, and dwell on slights from weeks, months, or years earlier.
But Adesanya genuinely isn’t wired that way, and the three-fight winning streak he carries into Saturday’s clash with “Poatan” helps illustrate that point.
In March 2021, the middleweight champion ventured to light heavyweight, taking on Polish titleholder Jan Blachowicz in the main event of UFC 259 in a bid to claim a second title and join Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Amanda Nunes, and Henry Cejudo as the fifth fighter to hold championship gold in two weight classes simultaneously.
It didn’t happen.
Not only did Adesanya land on the wrong side of the results, losing a unanimous decision in a bout where he spent the majority of the final two rounds with his shoulders pressed to the canvas, unable to extricate himself from the position, but it was the first loss of his mixed martial arts career.
A setback like that can shift a career, especially when you’ve been as successful, as dominant, as Adesanya had been prior to that contest.
Three months after the contest, “The Last Stylebender” was back in the Octagon, successfully defending is middleweight title for the third time, defeating Marvin Vettori by unanimous decision. He’s added additional wins over Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier already this year, calling out Pereira following his most recent triumph.
Main Event Preview | UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira
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Main Event Preview | UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira
“I didn’t know he was cageside until after the fight,” Adesanya said when asked about his decision to take aim at the Brazilian challenger. “I decided to call out Alex because he’s that guy that people think can beat me, because he has already has, in another code, in kickboxing, in the past — way back when — so it’s one of those things like (Paulo) Costa, like (Yoel) Romero. I call out the toughest guys at the time.
“People think he’s the guy to beat me, and I’m like, ‘Okay, well let me show you.’”
It’s been a minute since Adesanya put his full, dynamic arsenal on display inside the Octagon, which is another reality his detractors won’t let him forget.
His last finish came more than two years ago against Costa, whom he dispatched with ease in the second round at UFC 253, and after three straight wins where he’s used the full 25 minutes allotted to him, the criticisms have come flooding in.
The same way he’s heard all the talk and seen all the messages containing highlights of Pereira’s knockout win from March 2017, the engaging middleweight champion has heard the gripes and complaints about his recent efforts — about how he wants to be a superstar, headlining massive events, only to work his way through 25-minute contests where he’s seen as not taking enough risks — and while he’s willing to shoulder some of the blame, Adesanya wants to make sure the piece of the puzzle is accounted for as well.
“For my last three fights, they came in there with good intentions — they’re trying to kill me — but after Round 1 or Round 2, they kind of realize, ‘F***! This is not what I was expecting. He’s starting to build momentum. He’s touching me a lot sooner,’” he began. “Then, they go from trying to win to trying to survive.
“They might throw some strikes out there, throw some shots to try and keep me on the fence, but me and them know. You know. If you know, you know, and me and them know ‘now you’re trying to survive.’ It’s really hard to try and kill someone when they’re fully focused on trying to survive and fully focused on ‘At least I didn’t get knocked out. At least I didn’t end up on his highlight reel.’
“It takes two to tango, and I’ll take some of it,” continued Adesanya. “Yeah, maybe I didn’t find the right shots, maybe I need to go back and re-evaluate what I could have done better, but I’m the champ. I’m beating you, I’m touching you up, I’m up on points.
“If you really want the belt, bite down on your mouthpiece and come get it.”
That’s one thing he shouldn’t have to worry about when he steps in there with Pereira on Saturday night.
Not only has the challenger shown his willingness to engage through his first three UFC triumphs, but Adesanya also points to their second fight, where he was up on the scorecards and Pereira rallied to score the third-round knockout victory, as a testament to the resolve and strong will his familiar foe carries with him into battle this weekend.
“I’m actually expecting him to fight,” Adesanya said quickly, when asked his thoughts on how the challenger will approach things when the two step into the cage inside Madison Square Garden. “I’m expecting him to come and try and take my head off.
“One thing I respect is his will. In our last fight in kickboxing, most people, after (what happened in the first two rounds) would be discouraged, but he came back in the third round and got the job done because of his will.”
But while he has a certain degree of respect for his rival and has put the results of their previous meetings behind him, this one is still personal for Adesanya.
“I never asked for this, but the almighty universe blessed me with this opportunity, so I’m gonna take it,” he said with a smirk. “God said, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ and I said the same thing.”
As for how he sees things playing out this weekend, the middleweight champion made his prediction about more than just himself.
"UFC 281, my prediction?” he said quizzically, pausing to find the right words. “We’ve got four of us fighting on the card — Brad Riddell, Carlos Ulberg, Dan Hooker, and myself — and I think New Zealand is going to take over New York.
“NZ takes over NY. Tune in. You don’t want to miss this one. Trust.”
Listen to the man.
UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 12, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!