UFC 281: 'Bored' Israel Adesanya relieved to resume rivalry with nemesis Alex Pereira at New York City

Despite five straight title defences amid a near-historic reign at middleweight, Israel Adesanya still shakes his head when he stumbles across the betting odds for his main-event grudge match with Alex Pereira at UFC 281 on Sunday (NZ time).

"I saw last night... I'm like, 'Why am I the favourite in this on the betting odds?'," Adesanya wondered at the pre-fight press conference. 

"I never check them, but I just happened to see something on Instagram and I was like, 'How the f**k am I the favorite?' 

"I feel like we should change that. How do we change that or something, fake an injury?

"I don't know, we’ll see. I think we should bet on him this fight." 

As you'd expect after his dominance at the 185lb (83.9kg) class, the world No.2 pound-for-pound fighter has the comfortable edge with sports books across the planet against relative mixed martial arts newcomer Pereira, a fellow kickboxing convert.

While 'The Last Stylebender' may not give any specific reason for his shock, it speaks volumes about the esteem in which he holds the Brazilian, as he tries to rewrite history at Madison Square Garden this weekend.

That history dates back to 2016, when the two first shared a ring under the Glory Kickboxing promotional banner. That night in China, Pereira emerged with his hand raised in a highly contentious decision win.

One year later in Brazil, Adesanya had a chance to pull that loss back on the ledger and - by the third round - seemed on track to do exactly that, until Pereira's searing left hook sent him stiff and flat on the canvas.

The YouTube clip of that knockout has now been viewed more than 14 million times, serving as a rare reminder of Adesanya's mortality - the only time he's been finished in his 14-year combat career.

Now he has an opportunity to redeem those defeats at one of sport's most iconic venues and with the eyes of the world watching in one of the most stacked pay-per-view cards on the UFC calendar, where he'll share the stage with teammates Dan Hooker, Brad Riddell and Carlos Ulberg.

All fights are important, but this one is personal, says Adesanya.

"Just the fact that we have that history, I feel like if there's any fight... ," he admitted. "Every other fight was important to me - the Whittaker fight part one, Brunson, Tavares, Costa, whatever, but this fight I feel like, when I'm standing across from him each round, I just know.

"I just see it, I’m getting the vibes. I can just see it - this is the one I have to win.

"Crush your enemies totally. If you leave any sign of life, they'll come back for revenge. 

"You should've killed me in Brazil. Now it's my time and I'll crush him totally - or maybe I'll just jab and leg kick him... we'll see."

Capturing instant attention with a showstopping flying knee knockout in his UFC debut, Pereira has earned his shot at Adesanya with just three wins - most recently a head-turning first-round knockout of Sean Strickland - leveraging his kickboxing record against the Kiwi-Nigerian to excellent effect. 

'Poatan'  - Portuguese for 'Stone hand' - is adamant those losses still haunt Adesanya, who he claims is "mentally shook" and "doesn't want this fight".

Adesanya disagrees, adding he's a much more skillful striker than the "skinny boy" who took the ring with Pereira five years ago, especially in an Octagon.

"I've seen the shots I was hitting him with back then, but he was just able to eat them," he recalled. "I was a skinny boy, skinny clown back then, but I can find those same angles on him.

"My game is a lot different. My striking has always been better suited for MMA, I've said that from the jump. 

"I'm just really good at striking, so I dominated in kickboxing, but my striking has always been better suited for MMA."

"I let [the knockout loss] go a long time ago, but like I said, the universe blesses you to rewrite history the way you want to rewrite it, so I will."

With a scarcity of genuine contenders in his division, Adesanya says Pereira's emergence and rapid rise to title challenger is exactly what he needs.

Alex Pereira knocked out Sean Strickland in his most recent bout.
Alex Pereira knocked out Sean Strickland in his most recent bout. Photo credit: Getty Images

The City Kickboxing product has often seemed on auto-pilot over the past couple of years, dispatching a familiar cycle of opponents with technical prowess, but without the flashy finishes he made his trademark earlier in his UFC tenure. 

Pereira may prove the ideal antidote. In a bout where the threat of a takedown in either direction is minimal to zero, there could be fireworks inside MSG.

"I was making things look too easy," Adesanya insisted. "Even I was getting bored with it, having to lap the division again. 

"For me, I set the way. I lay the table out.

"The UFC knows what they’re doing. They brought him up right, they gave him the right fights.

"I don’t think he fought a wrestler, he beat one top-five guy. I fought a top-10 guy in my third fight in the UFC, and I’ve just headlined since and stole the show, so my run is different.

"I appreciate my run, because of the way I did it. Let him enjoy his time right now, let him enjoy his 15 minutes."

If he has his hand raised for the 13th time in 13 middleweight fights, Adesanya would likely look to make another run at the light-heavyweight division.

Adesanya on his way to a second win against Robert Whittaker.
Adesanya on his way to a second win against Robert Whittaker. Photo credit: Getty Images

His unanimous 2021 decision defeat to Jan Blachowicz in his bid to become a dual-division champion is still the only blemish on his UFC record.

That would likely be a brief flirtation, particularly as he inches ever closer to the legendary Anderson Silva's record mark of 10 middleweight title defences.

“I'll lap the division again and I'll go back up [to light heavyweight] at some point," Adesanya said. "Just for my own - maybe a little bit of ego - but just because I can do it.

"For me, it's doing what I’m doing - beating everyone up in my way. I never really chased these accolades or these records or whatever.

"I just put a guy in front of me, we knock them down. Everything else follows.

"I've said it before, I'll say it again - I've always said [the UFC title] is a fancy tiara you wear.

"All I wanted to do was beat the best in the world and I've been doing that. This came, the money came, everybody came."

Join us at 2pm Sunday for live updates of UFC 281: Adesanya v Pereira