How Alex Pereira Upset Israel Adesanya at U.F.C. 281

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Nov. 13, 2022, 2:03 a.m. ET

Nov. 13, 2022, 2:03 a.m. ETAlex Pereira celebrating in the octagon after downing Israel Adesanya in the fifth round of their middleweight title fight.Credit…Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Israel Adesanya, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s longtime middleweight champion, strolled slowly into the octagon at U.F.C. 281 against Alex Pereira, a man whom Adesanya said he would expose.

Adesanya closely walked toward Pereira before introductions and stared coldly at him, similarly to how Pereira did in 2017 when he knocked Adesanya out in kickboxing. As Pereira missed punches, Adesanya smiled and shook his head, signaling to his opponent that he felt he was superior in mixed martial arts, a discipline that Adesanya had ruled for three years.

But in fifth round, when Adesanya slipped in the middle of the octagon, Pereira saw his chance, chasing Adesanya as he retreated to the fence. Pereira peppered him with punches, nearly knocking Adesanya out on his feet. The referee, Marc Goddard, mercifully stopped the fight as Adesanya’s body briefly turned limp, though Adesanya protested the stoppage quickly as Goddard waved his arms.

Each of the judges had Adesanya ahead going into the fifth round.

Adesanya’s defeat ends one of the longest title runs by a U.F.C. champion in recent history, and knocks down another star who had seen mainstream success with the promotional company. The loss is Adesanya’s first defeat in the middleweight division and only second loss in his mixed martial arts career.

Adesanya, who entered the U.F.C. in 2019, was defending his title for the seventh time, and had received criticism from fans because of his recent performances. Adesanya had not knocked out an opponent since 2020, and his last three fights, all unanimous decisions in tactful displays of striking skills, were criticized as boring by fans. Adesanya partly blamed the results on his opponents, saying they were timid. He predicted that would not happen against the kickboxer Pereira.

But Pereira, who was noticeably bigger than Adesanya in the octagon, showed aggression in the center of the cage, something Adesanya’s recent foes had not. Still, Adesanya used his length to strike at will and also won exchanges clinching and on the ground. His slip in the fifth round started a chain reaction that he could not recover from.

In the co-main event, Zhang Weili submitted Carla Esparza in the second round via rear naked choke to reclaim the 115-pound strawweight belt, which she previously held in 2019 before losing to Rose Namajunas twice. Zhang showed more aggression in the standup exchanges and reversed Esparza’s takedown after she caught some of his kicks.

In the second round, when Esparza shot for a takedown, Zhang quickly reversed it and slipped her arm in for the choke on the side. Zhang, the U.F.C.’s first Chinese champion, will likely face Namajunas for a third time, as the two fighters are clearly the best in the division, and Esparza’s performance did not justify a rematch.

In the exciting fight beforehand, Dustin Poirier submitted Michael Chandler in the third round, also via rear naked choke. Chandler took Poirier down in the first, but Poirier stunned him against the cage and almost knocked him out. Chandler controlled Poirier on the ground for all of the second round, but Poirier reversed a takedown attempt in the third round and slipped in the choke during a scramble.

He will likely be next in line for a title shot after Islam Makhachev, the current champion, and the 145-pound featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski fight in Australia in February.

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