Bad Blood Between Born Rivals

Fighting for the second time at UFC 287 for the middleweight title, Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya and Alex “Poatan” Pereira have become all too familiar with each other, having bad blood boiling for over seven years.

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A rivalry years in the making: two middleweights who’ve made their way to the UFC spotlight, toured the world as young kickboxers, and are now competing at the championship level. Israel “The Last Stylebender,” Adesanya and Alex “Poatan,” Pereira have shared the ring a total of four times, in two different sports. Despite their rivalry being in the limelight at UFC 287, the bad blood between the two had been brewing for over seven years, with no love lost between the two after each of their four fights.

 Born and raised in Nigeria, Adesanya moved to Rotorua, New Zealand at the age of 12 and later to Auckland, New Zealand at the age of 21. He would later become the best kickboxer and mixed martial artist Auckland had ever seen. Growing up, he had always been a fan of anime and martial arts, which led him to pursue combat sports and eventually become a 75-4 professional kickboxer. Accumulating such a record took blood, sweat, and tears from Adesanya, a commitment that most of his competitors were unwilling to match in order to defeat him: enter Alex “Poatan” Pereira. 

Raised in the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil, Pereira was forced to drop out of school and start working in a local tire shop at the age of 12. By 13, he was a struggling alcoholic hoping that one day, he could afford a motorcycle. In 2009, he began kickboxing to help fight his addiction. By 2016, he established himself as one of Brazil’s most prominent kickboxers, a rank that would grant him the opportunity to fight Adesanya at the Glory of Heroes 1 event in Shenzhen, China. Here, the two middleweights would meet in what would be the beginning of one of the most intense rivalries in MMA history. 

April 2, 2016: Glory of Heroes 1  

In a fight that would spark their heated rivalry, Adesanya and Pereira put on a show at Glory of Heroes 1 in China. Though Adesanya statistically outstruck Pereira, “Poatan,” landed the more accurate shots, followed up with brutal combinations. Ultimately, his pummeling of  “The Last Stylebender” led to a unanimous decision for the Brazilian fighter. With the result being seen as a “robbery” by many kickboxing experts and fans, a rematch was set for Glory of Heroes 7, in Pereira’s hometown, São Paulo, Brazil. Adesanya would have an opportunity to redeem himself, but not without Pereira trying to deny him. 

March 4, 2017: Glory of Heroes 7

Almost a year removed from their first fight, Adesanya and Pereira faced off again at Glory of Heroes 7 in Brazil. With a hometown advantage, Pereira looked to end Adesanya’s kickboxing career, not leaving it in the hands of the judges. On the opposing side, the Nigerian fighter desired a win to tie up the rivalry, hoping to end his kickboxing career on a good note, with a future in MMA ahead of him. Unfortunately for Adesanya, Pereira came back even stronger than before, with his combos holding more weight than they did in China. After knocking out Adesanya in the third round, Pereira celebrated his victory, taunting his opponent in the process. With their kickboxing rivalry coming to an end, Adesanya took this as a sign to move on to MMA, with Pereira continuing to dominate in kickboxing—but was this truly the end of their rivalry? 

November 12, 2022: UFC 281 

Shortly after their second kickboxing fight, Adesanya and Pereira went their separate ways, with Adesanya taking up MMA in the UFC. Establishing himself as one of the UFC’s top middleweight contenders by beating fighters such as Anderson Silva and Kelvin Gastelum, “The Last Stylebender” got his first title shot in late 2019, where he would fight Robert Whittaker in a unification bout to unify the interim belt and the middleweight title. Putting on a clinic through two rounds, Adesanya knocked Whittaker out cold, crowning himself the king of the middleweight division. He would then go on to defend his belt five times, taking down formidable opponents, with his best performances coming against fighters such as Paulo Costa, Marvin Vettori, and Jared Cannonier. 

A common criticism of Adesanya throughout his title run was that he would always fight for points, winning rounds over a prolonged period of time instead of aiming for knockouts. Fans wanted to see the side of Adesanya which he had entered the UFC, but no fighter seemed to bring that out of him; then came Pereira. Pereira (6-1), who had just started off in the UFC, was given a title shot after just three fights, an opportunity he couldn’t miss out on. Adesanya (23-1), taking offense to this decision, took shots at Pereira, calling him out for being below his level at this point in their careers. “At the end of the day, no one knows who the [EXPLETIVE] he is, and he’s going to be that guy when I’m a world champion, when I’m a legend, he’s going to be at some pub talking some [EXPLETIVE] about, ‘I beat that guy one time,” Adesanya said. Not tolerating this level of disrespect, Pereira trained hard to take down Adesanya, which he once again had the opportunity to do. 

In the weeks leading up to the fight, Adesanya was seen as a -230 betting favorite, while Pereira came in as a +190 underdog. Through heated press conferences, many could sense the tension between the two, and it appeared that the betting odds would not encompass the bad blood between both middleweights. Come fight night in Madison Square Garden, with one of the greatest fight cards of all time, fans couldn’t wait for the main event of UFC 281. Fighting strategically, as he usually does, Adesanya was winning the fight through the first four rounds, but in the final round, Pereira unleashed his brutal combinations and punch power, something that had caught the champion off guard back in their kickboxing days. Seeing Adesanya struggle for once, the crowd erupted; with five minutes left before Adesanya would defend his belt for a sixth time, Pereira unloaded punches, with his shots hitting home, resulting in a TKO victory for the “Poatan.” With Adesanya’s reign over the UFC now coming to an end, the “PerERA,” would begin, leaving fans shocked as the middleweight king had finally been taken down. The rivalry, thoroughly dominated by Pereira, appeared to be over, but a rematch was in sight. Did Adesanya finally find his kryptonite in the UFC? 

April 8, 2023: UFC 287

Entering as the challenger for the first time in a long time, Adesanya had much to prove to all his critics and fight fans around the world. Pereira’s “stone hands” proved to be too deadly for Adesanya in their previous fights, and with an 0-3 record against Pereira, Adesanya had the whole fighting world against him. “This is my Eminem moment, my ‘8 Mile’ moment. You get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime, and this is it. This is it for me,” Adesanya said. With their last few press conferences, many words had been said, but the media run for UFC 287 was filled with too much tension, making words futile in the matter. The bad blood between the two fighters would once again boil, leaving the fight to decide who was truly the best middleweight fighter in the world. 

With a sold-out Kaseya Center in Miami awaiting them, Adesanya and Pereira were ready to put on a show, as they had always done in their previous three fights against each other. After a good first round for “The Last Stylebender,” fans were ready to see “Poatan,” take over the fight, showcasing his knockout power in the coming rounds. To everyone watching from Miami and to fight fans across the world, the second round came as a huge shock. Adesanya had done what no one thought he could: knock out Pereira. As Adesanya was backed into the corner, like he was in their last fight, he decided not to duck away this time, but to counter Pereira’s punches, delivering two straight overhands, an uppercut, and a hammer fist to put Pereira to sleep. Using his opponent’s walkout ritual as a celebration, Adesanya celebrated with the might of a king, as he returned to the top of the middleweight division. Despite taunting Pereira’s son after the fight, Adesanya showed respect to the former champion in their interaction backstage after the fight, showing fans how a true champion makes his return.  

With their rivalry coming to an end and Pereira eyeing a light heavyweight debut, fans could only imagine what Adesanya has left to prove in the middleweight division. Hopefully, the two cross paths again, in what fans hope could be a double-champion title fight for Adesanya within the next few years. As this story of Adesanya vs. Pereira comes to an end, the next chapter seems to be right around the corner. Until then, the two fighters and the fight world will remember the bad blood between the best middleweights in the world and how it shaped kickboxing and UFC history.