MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC 281.
UFC 281 takes place Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPNews and early prelims on ESPN+.
Israel Adsanya (23-1 MMA, 12-1 UFC)
Height: 6’4″ Age: 33 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 80″
Last fight: Decision win over Jared Cannonier (July 2, 2022)
Camp: City Kickboxing (New Zealand)
Stance/striking style: Switch-stance/kickboxing
Risk management: Good
+ UFC middleweight champion
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Professional kickboxing experience (76-5-2)
+ Professional boxing experience (5-1)
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt
+ 15 knockout victories
+ 7 first-round finishes
+ Knockout power
+ Consistent pace
+ Superb feints and footwork
+ Creative striking flow
^ Variates well to the body
+ Dynamic kicking arsenal
+ Improved counter wrestling
^ Underhooks, getups, separations
+ Active and attacking guard game
Alex Pereira (6-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC)
Height: 6’4″ Age: 35 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 79″
Last fight: Knockout win over Sean Strickland (July 2, 2022)
Camp: Teixeira MMA & Fitness/Glover’s Garage (Danbury, CT)
Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
Risk management: Good
+ 5x Glory middleweight champion
+ Glory light heavyweight title
+ Pro kickboxing record: 33-7 (21 wins by KO)
+ Amateur kickboxing record: 25-3
+ Kickboxing black belt
+ 5 KO victories
+ 3 first-round finishes
+ Knockout power
^ Superb proprioception and accuracy
+ Devastating left hook and right cross
^ Times splits and counters well
+ Dangerous knees up the middle
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Underhooks, overhooks and separations
+ Shows a serviceable getup game
+/- Limited sample size on the floor
Point of interest: Kickboxing context
The main event inside The Garden features a middleweight title fight between two high-level strikers whose history stems back to their kickboxing days.
When [autotag]Israel Adesanya[/autotag] first met [autotag]Alex Pereira[/autotag] back in 2016 at a Glory of Heroes event in China, both men were at different-but-earlier parts of their respective careers. Pereira possessed all the raw power he has since sharpened, while Adesanya was clearly hitting his stride as a kickboxer.
The first two rounds were the most competitive frames of the fight, but I sided with Adesayna – who I believe perfectly game planned for that version of Pereira.
Adesanya smartly used southpaw attacks to keep Pereira’s dipping propensities in check (as the Brazilian’s boxing background definitely showed itself more back then), all while continuously scoring to the body and legs. Establishing his boxing range by the third round, Adesanya then began to pull away from Pereira, styling on him in the process.
Although I scored it fairly clearly for Adesanya, the judges unanimously awarded it unanimously to Pereira, 29-28 (as I assume they were swayed by the Brazilian’s big moments in the first two frames).
Their rematch would come a year later at Glory of Heroes 7, which took place in Pereira’s home country of Brazil.
Adesanya was obviously motivated by being on the wrong end of some suspect scorecards, and this was apparent in his performance. Starting off the first round as if were the fourth, we witnessed a more aggressive iteration of Adesanya, who seemingly wanted to make his power and presence undeniable to both Pereira and the judges sitting ringside.
Pereira remained competitive throughout, doing his best to keep his eye on the proverbial ball as he was able to tag Adesanya with the occasional counter hook in exchanges.
Adesanya, however, stunned Pereira in the middle frame with a series of right hands that he was able to sneak around high guard of “Poatan.” And if not for a suspect standing 10 count from the referee, Adesanya could have very well finished Pereira in a decisive manner.
But after surviving the remainder of the round, Pereira came out for the final frame like a bat out of hell.
Steadily stalking Adesanya, Pereira began to pick up the pressure by launching big flying knees to get his man on the back foot. And when Adesanya attempted to stand his ground and counter, he ended up punching himself too deep on the inside from a southpaw stance – setting him up perfectly for a sweeping left hook from Pereira.
After this fight, Adesanya went on to start a successful MMA career while Pereira continued to improve upon his kickboxing exploits and earn titles in multiple weight classes opposite names such as Simon Marcus and Artem Vakhitov (as well as avenging losses to longtime rival Jason Wilnis).
Point of interest: Striking in the small gloves
Sean Strickland (red gloves) and Alex Pereira (blue gloves) fight in a bout during UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena. (Stephen R. Sylvanie, USA TODAY Sports)
So, with over half a decade passed since their encounters in kickboxing, how will these two fighters stack up this Saturday within the MMA realm?
Obvious accolades and accomplishments aside, Adesanya’s striking sensibilities have effectively translated for him during this middleweight reign.
Seamlessly moving through space, Adesanya will intelligently use feints and footwork to help establish his reads and set up his shots accordingly. The current champ keeps whipping right hands and crushing check hooks on a hair-trigger, all while offering pinpoint counter-crosses when cleverly shifting to his southpaw stance on retreat.
When feeling in stride, the 33-year-old talent will unleash a dynamic array of kicks, whether they’re powerfully thrown from the rear or sneakily delivered off of his lead. And when Adesanya smells blood in the water, he will celebrate his reach by varying his punches, using extended hands to hide the kill shots to come.
From hand traps that parlay into elbows, to clinches that lead to knees, Adesanya shows solid answers at multiple ranges that will come in handy for this contest – particularly as time wears on. But for as talented as Adesanya is, he, too, is not beyond being checked or countered.
Although many will immediately point to the counter left hook, it is ultimately the proprioception of Pereira that makes him so accurate and dangerous in all that he does.
Whether he’s hitting his opposition with surprising spin kicks or splitting right hands inside of the danger zone, Pereira demonstrates a preternatural instinct to find and hit targets in motion. This could also be why his defensive layers can seem lackadaisical at times, but the Brazilian does a decent job of playing off his lowered guard and purposefully-slow prods in order to invite opponents into awkwardly-angled counters.
Pereira’s kicks, though improved (particularly when being used for returns), also come with an awkward kicking gate in tow, almost as if he’s trying to stay planted for counter-hook attachments at all times. That said, I’m not sure how much either man will be looking to kick given both of their knacks for countering said attacks.
I do, however, suspect that we see more of Pereira’s interplay with the jab considering how much Adesanya has been leaning on that tool as of late. Pereira has some solid parry work that should translate well in such a battle – he’ll just need to be mindful of his muscle memory to dust off his high guard.
Not only is Pereira’s high guard a traditional sign of him being overwhelmed, but shelling with small gloves can provide a false sense of security (particularly when facing a pinpoint striker like Adesanya).
Point of interest: Potential grappling threats?
Israel Adesanya (red gloves) fights Robert Whittaker (blue gloves) during UFC 271 at Toyota Center. (Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)
Although I’m not expecting either fighter to hit a snatch-single this Saturday, I’ll be curious to see how much clinch tactics play a role in the action.
Parlaying his kickboxing experience into mixed martial arts, Adesanya has shown a surprising amount of clinch savvy in regard to his counter grappling, all while maintaining the proper headspace to help keep strikes chambered off the breaks.
Even when revisiting his first professional MMA bout back in 2012, Adesanya was already demonstrating a surprising amount of clinch awareness, hitting hip tosses and displaying a basic understanding of whizzers and underhook leverage.
Since that time, Adesanya has made steady improvements to his defensive grappling, smartly fighting grips and protecting his hips while seeking separations, typically while using the cage for assistance. That said, when Adesanya is grounded, there hasn’t been much progress to speak of outside the same half-guard retentions and options he’s been relying on (though it’s also been a while since we’ve seen him fight for prolonged periods off of his back).
Pereira, on the other hand, has even less of a relevant sample size when it comes to ground fighting.
In his first professional MMA fight back in 2015, Pereira was surprisingly willing to test his grappling chops whenever the opportunity came about. Pereira seemed to fight to his frame in regard to back attacks and armlock attempts, but ultimately tired himself out by chasing submissions and losing positions.
Since stepping back into the MMA spotlight, Pereira appears to have his anti-grappling priorities in order.
Now under the care of former UFC champion Glover Teixeira, Pereira demonstrates improved takedown defense whenever he finds himself in tie-ups along the fence. Even when taken down, Pereira does a decent job of getting to the cage to stand (giving away very minimal back exposure in the process).
That said, it should be noted that Pereira’s clinch wasn’t necessarily a mainstay of his game during his kickboxing days, as Adesanya seemingly out-framed and out-positioned him throughout the majority of their tie-ups in the ring.
Point of interest: Odds and opinions
Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira at the UFC 281 press conference. (Mike Bohn, MMA Junkie)
The oddsmakers and public are siding with the sitting champion, listing Adesanya -200 and Pereira +180 via Tipico Sportsbook.
Perhaps it’s the fact that their history exists in highlight reels for many, but the betting line hasn’t budged much from the original openers.
As highlighted in a previous section of this breakdown, their kickboxing encounters come with a unique and entertaining context that makes those contests worth tracking down and watching. However, despite scoring the first fight for Adesanya and highlighting the ways in which he was technically superior, I still find myself siding with the challenger here.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t disagree with Adesanya being favored when looking at his MMA experience and ability to adjust, in general.
Not only will Adesanya have an inherent edge in the adjustment department due to the fact that he’s the one who came up short in previous contests, but the reigning champion is an intelligent fighter who comes from an incredibly sharp camp in regard to their game planning ability.
This, of course, is reflected in Adesanya’s rematch record, which currently stands at 2-0 in MMA and 5-1 in kickboxing (in comparison to Pereira’s 3-3 rematch record in kickboxing). I also suspect that the large octagon will slightly favor Adesanya in the sense that he’ll have more space to maneuver and defuse pressure with footwork.
With that in mind, I believe that the stage is set for a slow and technical affair that will leave a majority of fans uneasy regardless of who gets declared the winner. Ultimately, it will be up to Adesanya what kind of fight takes place, as he’ll likely be walking a fine line between conservative and competitive.
Should the elements of this matchup and Adesanya’s current trends lead to another conservative showing, then the champ could leave the door open for Pereira to steal close rounds with what appear to be more impactful offerings. But if Adesanya draws from his competitive fires and gets too aggressive or defensively falters, then he could find himself, once again, looking up at the lights.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the potent kick counters on each side force more boxing-centric stanzas, which makes me like Pereira’s chances a bit more. Although part of me is seeing Pereira shut off Adesanya with a right-handed kick counter, I’ll stick with my initial forecast of a controversial decision that goes to the challenger following a surprisingly slow fight.