UFC 281: Alex Pereira must conjure up the old magic one more time to claim middleweight title

Alex Pereira has already done the hard part, as he knocked out Israel Adesanya in 2017 in a now infamous Glory of Heroes kickboxing match.

The tough part for him is, he's going to have to do it again.

It's hard to beat a good man twice, but even more difficult to do it three times. If Pereira wants to become the middleweight champion in the main event of UFC 281 on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, however, that's the task confronting him.

The question surrounding the fight has been Adesanya's mindset. He's got to find a way to turn the tables on a guy who has beaten him twice. But for Pereira, there is a problematic question for him: How do I do it again, in a much larger fighting area where Adesanya's lateral movement and quickness is better served, and in which the tactics are different not only because of the smaller gloves but because of the wider ruleset?

A little over a year ago, on Nov. 6, 2021, at Madison Square Garden, Pereira made his UFC debut with a brutal knockout of Andreas Michailidis. Pereira blasted Michailidis with a leaping knee and finished him quickly on the ground.

It was a reminder of the kind of violence he's capable of creating. He is one of the rare fighters in MMA with one-punch knockout power, and that will make him dangerous through a 25-minute championship match.

Only heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou may be a harder pure puncher in MMA than Pereira, but it's all about doing it on the big stage when the lights are brightest. Ngannou had that power when he fought Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight belt at UFC 220 on Jan. 20, 2018, in Boston, but he didn't know how to use it properly against a skilled opponent.

He lost a one-sided decision to Miocic and it sent him spiraling into a dark period of his life. But to his credit, he rebuilt his game and came back to stop Miocic at UFC 267 in Las Vegas on March 20, 2021.

Though Pereira won the first two fights against Adesanya, including the second by knockout, he's got to show he can do it again.

"I know what he can do," Pereira said, "but he knows what I can do, as well. I know how to fight him and I know what I need to do to win the fight."

Pereira is an easy-going sort who doesn't trash talk much and is as likely to stop on a street in New York and take a selfie with Elsa, a character from the Disney film "Frozen," as he is to snarl at an opponent and hurl an insult.

He does, though, get a bit annoyed at the notion that he's some kind of newbie to MMA. Though the fight with Adesanya on Saturday is only his fourth in the UFC, he's been training in MMA for more than seven years.

He's not some rube who is going to need to be told the rules before he makes the walk to the Octagon for his date with destiny with Adesanya. He had his first fight in MMA in 2015 and has been pointing to this moment for a while.

"Everyone tells me it's a different sport, not the same, as if I didn't [realize it]," he told Yahoo Sports. "I knew at some point this day would come, but I am a full mixed martial artist now. I am comfortable doing whatever is necessary to win the fight."

But, he also knows that there are few in the history of the UFC who ever had the crushing left hook he possesses. Adesanya could be controlling the fight beginning to end and one small mistake and he could wind up flat on his back again.

Adesanya is ranked No. 2 pound-for-pound by the UFC and is one of the company's biggest stars. UFC president Dana White more often than not doesn't like immediate rematches, but if Adesanya were to lose to Pereira, it's likely he'd green light one in this case given the way Adesanya has cleaned out the division.

Pereira gets that, meaning in a way he'd have to defeat Adesanya twice to be perceived as the real or legitimate champion. He's chill, but sometimes all the adulation for Adesanya can make him fed up. And when he answered that question at media day, he showed perhaps his real intentions.

"He'd deserve [a rematch]," Pereira said at media day. "But after this, he isn't going to want it."

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 02: Alex Pereira of Brazil reacts to his win over Sean Strickland in a middleweight fight during the UFC 276 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Alex Pereira (above) has already knocked out Israel Adesanya in a kickboxing match, but he'll have to beat him again on Saturday at UFC 281 to win the middleweight title. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images) (Jeff Bottari via Getty Images)