UFC 281 takes place Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the main event is a doozy. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya puts his title on the line against Alex Pereira, the man who beat him twice in kickboxing, once by brutal knockout. This is a fight the UFC has openly courted since signing Pereira in 2021, and now “The Last Stylebender” finally has a chance to avenge the loss that sent him out of kickboxing, while Pereira gets the opportunity to claim gold in an entirely different sport in which he spent most of his career.
Whose technique will carry the day? Let’s take a look at what each needs to do to win this marquee matchup and ultimately what will happen on fight night.
Paths to Victory for Israel Adesanya at UFC 281
In my mind, Israel Adesanya has two ways forward in this fight, and one of them is substantially better. Unfortunately for him, recent trends suggest he’ll go with the other option, which can still work, but opens him up to a world of potential trouble.
Adesanya has come under fire recently for a lack of excitement in his fights. There’s no need to litigate that here, because it’s not relevant to this contest. But the reason he’s faced these criticisms is because of the overtly defensive style he’s adopted, exclusively looking to use his length to set a long range and then countering as foes step in. When opponents don’t walk headlong into the fire-field he presents, he then simply potshots with jabs and leg kicks at range, racking up points and staying safe. It’s an effective strategy, writ large, but it’s fraught with peril in this matchup.
Pereira is exceptionally dangerous at all times, technically sound, and a good kicker in his own right. He does not have to “pick his poison” with Adesanya, because he can compete in both avenues, and with his power, he’s one small shot away from swinging a round or the fight entirely. Yes, Adesanya can pull it off, but attempting to fence with Pereira for 25 minutes just gives the challenger 25 minutes to land the shots he needs. Paradoxically, I think that the best path forward for Adesanya is the one that will put him directly in the line of fire: bringing the fight to Pereira.
In their two kickboxing fights, nearly all success came from the fighter who was moving forward. Adesanya was able to use his superior footwork to create angles on the plodding Pereira and get his best shots off, while Pereira found success when Adesanya ceded ground and got cornered in the smaller, less open ring. The cage presents an ocean of space for Adesanya to move through, and given Pereira’s stiff footwork, pressing him back and/or pivoting off his advances should open huge windows for Adesanya to work in. On top of that, Pereira’s defense is heavily reliant on a high guard, which is great with the big gloves of kickboxing, but much less safe in 4-ouncers. If Adesanya can bring the fight to Pereira like he did for most of their rematch (until he got caught), while avoiding falling prey to one clean shot, he has a great chance to hurt Pereira like he did in there. And there’s no standing eight-count in MMA.
Paths to victory for Alex Pereira at UFC 281
In some respects, the best path forward for Pereira is the same as it is for Adesanya, only even simpler: set the tone, push the action, and land a fight-changing shot.
First and foremost, for someone to succeed against Adesanya, they have to stop the leg kicks. And fortunately, Pereira is an excellent defender of kicks. In many ways, leg kicks are the straw that stirs the drink for Adesanya (in his last three fights, leg kicks accounted for 42, 36, and 25 percent of his significant strikes), and if you can nullify or disincentivize those, it forces him to engage in closer quarters. While Adesanya is very good on the inside, he’s not a massive hitter, and he occasionally slacks off defensively with his hands, creating openings to land a big shot.
That big shot is the trump card for Pereira. Adesanya has power, but nothing close to what Pereira brings to the table. Aside from being ENORMOUS for the division, Pereira might be the biggest pound-for-pound hitter in the sport. He never looks like he’s trying to swing hard, and yet opponents collapse when he dings them. The man simply thuds. And when you don’t have to wind up to land a finishing shot, but merely flick it out there, that makes it substantially easier to land a fight-changing shot. And as Adesanya found out last time, often times “fight-changing” can mean “fight-ending” when we’re talking about Pereira.
Lastly and most importantly for Pereira is patience. If Adesanya comes out looking to push the action, then bite down, swing, and see who is still standing when it’s all said and done. But if instead Adesanya attempts a stick-and-move, defense-first kind of fight, Pereira can’t rush in. As the saying goes, fools rush in (Robert Whittaker learned this the hard way in his first fight with Adesanya), and Pereira need not be a fool. Kick with Adesanya, let the threat of the power shot linger, and apply steady, consistent pressure, and eventually, openings will appear. It’s incredibly difficult to be perfect for 25 minutes, so if Adesanya wants to try, Pereira should thank him for the gift and play the long game with him.
In truth, there are a number of potential X-factors at play in this fight, but there are two that I think are the most likely to matter.
Adesanya has said all the right things heading into this fight, but how he reacts once the cage door closes, remains the single-biggest question. He’s facing a man who has not only beaten him, but sent him to the shadow realm. Will he fight scared? Will he fight overly aggressive to prove a point? Will it not phase him in anyway and this will be another fight in his long career? No one knows, and we won’t until Saturday, but if the memory of that KO still lingers in Adesanya’s head, that’s a clear advantage for Pereira.
This ties into the first X-factor because though Adesanya isn’t some Olympic-caliber wrestler (in fact, he’s 0-3 in his UFC career on takedowns), he’s much more seasoned in MMA, and it’s entirely possible that he decides to test Pereira’s ability in other aspects of the sport. “Poatan” is undeniably a shark on the feet, but if you plop him onto the ground, the man becomes infinitely less dangerous.
Maybe Adesanya goes full Georges St-Pierre in this one? But even that comes with substantial risk, because Adesanya isn’t a great wrestler, and Pereira is a decent defender of takedowns. If Adesanya wrestles, we might see a Jamahal Hill–Thiago Santos situation where the champ gasses himself out shooting takedowns and wrestling, when that isn’t his game. Or hell, maybe Pereira taps him. Crazier things have happened, and if Adesanya starts wrestling, this fight could turn very crazy, very quickly.
While I don’t feel great about picking a fighter with so many questions about his game still unknown, it’s hard for me to get away from Adesanya’s performances against Yoel Romero and Jan Blachowicz. In both of those fights, Adesanya looked visibly uncomfortable facing someone who could legitimately end him with one big punch, and now he faces a man who has done that very thing to him.
My best guess is that Adensaya comes out overly defensive and allows Pereira to hang around in this fight, which allows the challenger to either land one big punch and finish it, or land enough big pieces of offense to sway the judges in rounds that are otherwise defined by Adesanya on his bike, flashing a jab. In short, Adesanya is the “better” fighter, but Pereira is the more dangerous one, and over 25 minutes, give me the one who is more likely to finish the fight.
Alex Pereira def. Israel Adesanya by KO/TKO, Round 3.
Who wins the UFC 281 main event?
87 votes total