Amid Hall of Fame UFC career, Israel Adesanya faces a different challenge in Alex Pereira

Israel Adesanya’s credentials are already set. If he retired today, he’s done enough to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. He’s 23-1 in his MMA career, and he’s closing in on all sorts of records.

In just over four years in the UFC, he’s gone 12-1, with eight of those 13 fights being for a world title. He’s gone 7-0 in middleweight title fights and lost a challenge at the light heavyweight title when he moved up to face Jan Blachowicz at UFC 259 in Las Vegas on March 6, 2021.

For the next few months, though, you’ll hear that Adesanya’s career is going to be defined by his next fight, a title defense against Alex Pereira on Nov. 12 at UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

You’ll hear that title defense will define his legacy, that the public view of Adesanya will be shaped by how he performs in that fight.

It’s all bunk, though. John Cangelosi, a journeyman major league outfielder for seven teams from 1985-99 with a career .690 OPS, batted .455 with a 1.016 OPS against Hall of Famer John Smoltz. Bill Virdon, a great defensive outfielder who had a career .696 OPS in 12 seasons from 1955-68, batted .404 with a .958 OPS against Sandy Koufax, arguably the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

Koufax is remembered as the most dominant pitcher of his era. Smoltz is remembered as a great pitcher on some great Atlanta teams. Nobody remembers what Virdon and Cangelosi did against them.

And while the UFC will play the knockout that Pereira scored against Adesanya on Jan. 20, 2017, perhaps 50,000 times while promoting the fight, that bout has nothing to do with Adesanya’s legacy.

Nor will a loss by Adesanya to Pereira in UFC 281 impact it, either.

Israel Adesanya, right, kicks Jared Cannonier in a middleweight title bout during the UFC 276 mixed martial arts event Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Israel Adesanya, right, kicks Jared Cannonier in a middleweight title bout during UFC 276 on July 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Now, I’m not so sure Adesanya is even going to lose that fight. Adesanya is nothing if not one of the greatest minds in combat sports, and he understands fighting at a level few on this planet ever have.

And so he knows the mistake he made in that bout and what he needs to correct.

What makes the story bigger is that the 2017 KO wasn’t the first time Pereira defeated Adesanya. He also scored a unanimous decision over Adesanya on April 2, 2016, in Shenzhen, China.

Periera fought on that UFC 276 card that Adesanya headlined against Jared Cannonier. And while the main event was a yawner that had a good number of fans booing by the end, Pereira’s bout was anything but a yawner. He knocked out Sean Strickland with one devastating punch to earn the right to meet Adesanya.

At a July 16 news conference following UFC Long Island at UBS Arena, UFC president Dana White went way over the top when talking about the Adesanya-Pereira bout that was made official Friday for UFC 281.

“When you’re sitting in my position, you can’t give too many guarantees,” White said on July 16. “But I can say his next fight … I f**king guarantee you. I absolutely, positively guarantee you, that the next fight that Israel Adesanya fights will be batsh*t nuts.”

Adesanya is everything White could have dreamed of getting in a champion. He fights regularly, he seeks out the best challenges, he pours his heart and soul into promoting the events and he, mostly, puts on great shows.

The Cannonier fight wasn’t one of them. Nor was his 2020 victory over Yoel Romero.

But there has rarely been a champion like Israel Adesanya. He won the interim middleweight title by scoring a decision over Kelvin Gastelum in one of the best fights of this century. He then knocked out Robert Whittaker to unify the belts in his next outing in front a crowd in excess of 57,000 people in Australia.

Of the top six ranked fighters in the UFC’s middleweight division, he’s already had seven fights against them, with Pereira being the eighth.

Pereira is a vicious finisher and has the comfort of knowing he’s beaten Adesanya twice. There’s a chance he has Adesanya’s number, just like Cangelosi had Smoltz’s and Virdon had Koufax’s.

But there’s an even better chance that Adesanya makes a very loud, very definitive statement in the fight. He performed superbly in the Pereira rematch before he was caught and put out.

Give Pereira credit for that. He did what he had to do.

But Adesanya is no yokel who will repeat the same mistakes. MMA, for one, is a different sport than kickboxing. Kickboxing is a part of MMA, but there are other elements in the sport that don’t exist in kickboxing.

Adesanya has mastered those. He’s one of the UFC’s greatest fighters of all time.

And something tells me he’ll find a way to remind everyone of that on Nov. 12 in New York.