Back when Anderson Silva was untouchable as the UFC’s middleweight champion, I’d occasionally find myself thinking about guys like Daiju Takase. Takase submitted Silva at some distant point way, way earlier in his career, and it was novel enough that — in the heat of Silva’s 16-fight unbeaten streak in the UFC — I could imagine him getting free beers at his local lushing crib for having that singular claim to fame. I’d do the same thing with the anonymous Tony Rubalcava, who beat Luke Rockhold before Rockhold went on a six-year win streak, and Luciano Azevedo, the guy who beat Jose Aldo eons before his featherweight reign.
In each of the cases, I knew a rematch would end in something close to decapitation for these woodwork figures of yore, but still…it was fun to think about some old fighter out there who could lean over to a stranger at the bar and say, “You know, I beat Anderson Silva one time out in Japan. No, it’s true! You can look it up.”
The unique thing about UFC 281 is that we have an actual haunting on our hands. Israel Adesanya has never lost a middleweight fight in MMA, yet a ghost from his past is making light fixtures pop each time he shows up. Alex Pereira follows Izzy everywhere. The B-roll is like surveillance footage of the haunting. It’s on camera, and fairly difficult to debunk. From what I can tell, it actually happened.
Pereira didn’t just beat Adesanya at some early juncture of Izzy’s career, he beat him twice in the arena of expertise from which today’s champion hailed and is broadly celebrated — that is, the kickboxing ring. The ghost has followed him to Madison Square Garden this weekend to take away everything. He won’t rest until Adesanya is either an afterthought or in a strait jacket.
This is the rare instance where everything worked out perfectly for a larger story to unfold. When Adesanya debuted four years ago against Rob Wilkinson in the UFC, it was as a raw, lengthy, sniping kickboxer, and people fixated on that aspect of his game as he climbed the rungs into becoming a champion. Yet with each moment of glory, there was the reminder of Glory. Namely, Pereira, beating Adesanya in China, and then knocking him out less than a year later in Brazil. At some point after Adesanya left the world of kickboxing and stole all the attention in MMA, Pereira slipped into the cage himself.
And the room got colder. And colder. And colder.
He’s fought just four times since really committing to MMA, yet with each win he crept closer to Adesanya atop his lofty throne. When Pereira knocked out Sean Strickland in July, it was clear that Adesanya was going to have to exorcise some shit he’d rather not being dealing with. He was going to have to face off with a guy he didn’t dare deign to mention. The guy who spooked him out of kickboxing in the first place. The guy who could change the historic arc from Israel Adesanya’s story to Alex Pereira’s story. If Pereira wins to take the 185-pound belt from Adesanya, he isn’t just Stylebender kryptonite. He owns the rights to Izzy’s life story. And his fate.
He takes everything.
And that’s not a common set up for the UFC. Usually what happens in the pre-UFC past stays obscured in the past. A superstar champion’s blemishes are usually coughed up to either circumstantial settings (“it was early in his career!”) or the F-word that people love to use to underscore the result (“fluke!”). Thing is, there is no such thing as a two-time fluke.
I visited Pereira this past week at Teixeira MMA in Danbury, and I have to say, I doubt he’s spent three seconds thinking of anything I’ve written above. He is indeed a corporeal being who was smacking the hell out of his training partners. Guys like Dominick Reyes, and Glover Teixeira, and Fernely Felix Jr. His eyes are dead black pools that only see targets. There are no feelings involved. No sense of fate. No superstition. Nothing resembling a smile, at least not while I was there. In fact, he seemed displeased to see me. Displeased to answer questions. Displeased to need a translator (in this case, a joyful Glover) to speak in the kinds of earthy bromides where the words themselves fade in transit, because he understands how meaningless they are without the action.
The thing he repeated to me again and again was a variation of something simple: He believes he’s superior to Israel Adesanya. What he didn’t need to say was also simple: He is where hype goes to die.
Izzy said this week that he’s the reason Pereira is there. That is true — at least while it’s still Izzy’s story, anyway. But the opposite could also be true. Izzy is in the UFC because of Pereira. And if he beats Izzy on Saturday night, what will materialize won’t just be a new champion of the middleweight division. What will come clear is that it was Pereira’s story being told all along.