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UFC 281: Adesanya v Pereira

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Gameplanning for Greatness: How Israel Adesanya lost to Alex Pereira

An old series returns with a new twist. Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch breaks down the strategic missteps in Israel Adesanya’s UFC 281 title defense against longtime nemesis Alex Pereira.

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

What makes a good gameplan? Is it security? Should a fighter focus his attention on avoiding whatever it is that the opponent does best? Or should he resolve to stick to his own strengths, whether or not it affords the opponent some opportunities?

Last weekend, at UFC 281, middleweight champion Israel Adesanya faced his own personal boogeyman. In his former life as a kickboxer, Adesanya fought Brazilian knockout artist Alex Pereira twice, and lost both times. Five years and five title defenses later, Adesanya entered the Octagon at Madison Square Garden to find his nemesis waiting for him. New sport, new rules–same old nightmare.

It was an epic fight, full of momentum swings and unexpected twists, and when it ended, Alex Pereira had his third victory over Adesanya. It took the Brazilian all of 22 minutes to find the final blows, but he found them in the end, making him the first man to knock Adesanya out–again.

In past instalments in this series I have always fixated on the gameplan used by a challenger to win the title. It’s always good to see preparation pay off on the biggest night of a fighter’s career, and fascinating to reverse engineer their process.

This time, we’re going to do something different. A fight may be won by a good gameplan, but it can just as easily be lost by a bad one. Often, both things happen in the same fight, only in opposite corners.

UFC 281: Adesanya v Pereira
Pereira’s power on full display at UFC 281.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Alex Pereira’s gameplan is kind of… unchanging. Built in. He’s a very large man, he hits really hard, and he’s good at finding the right combinations to put that size and power to use. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but as long as Pereira is able to hang around searching for his one big punch, he has more or less succeeded in getting his fight.

The correct gameplan to beat Pereira, therefore, is any gameplan which does not give him the better part of 25 minutes to clean your clock. In other words, the best way to stop Pereira crushing you may just be to crush him first.

And by that metric, it is hard to deny that Israel Adesanya’s gameplan was a failure, even before it ultimately failed.

The Plan

Let’s sum up Adesanya’s approach last weekend as best we can.

  1. Extend the fight. Drag Pereira into the championship rounds.
  2. Chip away from long range. Chop Pereira down with leg kicks, keep him at bay with the jab.
  3. Tie up when necessary. Clinch when Pereira gets too close, and take him down.
  4. Stay away from the left hook.

And that’s about it.

It is possible that what we saw on Saturday was not, in fact, the fight for which Adesanya prepared. Mike Tyson said every man has a plan till he gets punched in the face–but for Adesanya, that punch landed five years ago. Whatever its lingering effects on his psychology, we have to assume that Izzy did what he had prepared to do, that, for all of 21 minutes, everything was going according to plan.

Obviously, the plan didn’t work–so what should Adesanya have done instead?

Lessons Learned

Adesanya spent a great deal of the lead-up to UFC 281 trying to correct the record. Go back and watch those fights, he told everyone, and you’ll find that I kind of won both of them. And he wasn’t completely wrong. There’s a good case to be made that Adesanya should have taken the first fight, and he was undoubtedly dominating the second right up to the moment Pereira put him to sleep.

Despite the 0-2 record, Adesanya had every reason to believe that the keys to his revenge were contained in those two fights. The question was never, can Adesanya beat Pereira? but, Does he realize–really realize–how close he was to beating him last time?

Of all the rounds Adesanya has shared with Pereira, the second round of fight number two remains his best. It started like this (backup link).

First of all, look at how assertive Adesanya is here. The round starts and Pereira comes forward naturally, looming being a specialty of his. Adesanya respects the danger, but only allows himself to be backed up a few steps before giving Pereira something to think about. That something is a simple feint. It doesn’t draw any big reactions out of Pereira, it doesn’t compel him to throw a wild punch or scurry backward. It puts just the tiniest hitch in his forward momentum, for a split second, and that’s all Adesanya needs.

As soon as Pereira stops advancing, Adesanya gives him a more aggressive feint, stepping right into him and threatening with a jab. And how does the fearsome puncher respond? He backs off! Pereira throws a high kick; easily avoided. His timing is off going backward. He’s uncomfortable. And Adesanya doesn’t let him get away with the miss, either. He does what he has been doing all night: he steps in the moment after Pereira kicks, rushing the big man while he’s still unbalanced.

In this way, the tone for the round is set. Pereira wants pressure, Adesanya doesn’t let him have it. Pereira wants space to kick, Adesanya denies him that, too. This follows the guiding principle of all good gameplans: don’t give the opponent what he wants. Make him squirm. The more time Pereira spends worrying about Adesanya’s offense, the less time he has to think about his own.

But wait, I hear you saying, what about the left hook?!

Yes, Alex Pereira has a devastating left hook. It is, everyone agrees, the most dangerous weapon in an already fearsome arsenal.

Take a look at how Adesanya dealt with it back in 2017 (backup link).

If you were searching for the right word to describe Adesanya’s attitude toward that left hook, “disdainful” would not be far from the mark.

This is late in round two, and the effects of Adesanya’s pressure are clear. Pereira is cornered (a position he in which he rarely found himself last weekend). Adesanya pokes him with a jab and Pereira lunges off the ropes with a 2-3. He throws the punches as if fully expecting Adesanya to flee in fear. Adesanya doesn’t move an inch. Doing so would have only made him a target; instead, both punches go wide. Adesanya checks the left hook with the palm of his right hand. Easy, and effective.

After the break, Adesanya goes right back to pressuring, keeping Pereira nervous. The Brazilian gets tetchy. He bites on a harmless range finder, winging the left hook with no setup and nothing to follow. Adesanya leans back–a worrying tendency, at times, but perfectly effective here; he watches the punch whizz past his nose, and starts firing back before Pereira even has time to realize he’s missed. One, two, three, four punches, none landing clean but every one of them helping to drive Pereira back to the ropes, where, after another brief clinch, he has nothing to offer but the meekest of jabs. No monster left hook. He’s too worried about the right hand Izzy keeps slinging at him. Adesanya slings it at him again, regardless, nailing Pereira on the temple, and again, and again.

Make no mistake: what follows would have been a stoppage win under different rules. The moment the referee stepped in to give him the count would have otherwise been the moment the fight ended.

And that is what Israel Adesanya was able to do when he committed to pressuring Pereira, swaggering up to him time after time, daring him to throw his meanest punches, triple-dog-daring him: go on, big boy. Just try it.

There are plenty of things to be scared of in a kickboxing bout; even more in MMA. But a fighter who lets that fear dictate his approach is doomed, one way or the other. Did anyone ever beat Ronda Rousey by obsessing over armbar defense? No. What grappling defense Holly Holm trained was largely preventative, and otherwise she focused on sticking Rousey where she was least comfortable. Amanda Nunes simply went out there and beat her ass before she had the chance to even think about an armbar.

Whatever frightens you about your opponent, you don’t try to avoid it all costs. That only lets him figure out how to make it work. Instead, you make him go for it, and punish him for trying. You turn that fear around on him, make him think, this is my best shot, and I can’t get away with using it. If the opponent has a gun in his hand, you don’t step back 20 feet and practice dodging bullets. You walk right up to the man and take the gun away.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Now it’s time to address the 185-pound elephant in the room.

After all, how can I lavish praise on Adesanya’s 2017 performance and condemn the one last Saturday? How can I repeatedly say that this was the right approach, not the other, when both fights ended in exactly the same way?

Because, yes–of course, Pereira knocked Adesanya out just 42 seconds into the third round of that 2017 kickboxing rematch. Knocked him out worse than at UFC 281, in fact. No referee stoppage there; just one punch, then Adesanya lying stiff on the canvas, Pereira leaning over to talk shit in his unconscious face.

I would turn the question around, however. If playing it safe got Adesanya knocked out anyway—ultimately disproving the idea that it was a safe approach in the first place—then why not go for it? Why not make Pereira as uncomfortable as possible? Why not make him think about safety?

It’s not just the fact that Adesanya all but stopped Pereira in 2017–certainly would have stopped him under MMA rules. It’s the fact that he looked perfectly calm and relaxed doing it. He didn’t let Pereira knock him out; he made him do it. That may seem like a meaningless distinction, but it isn’t. Confidence is important in all forms of competition. For fighters, it is vital. At the end of the day, the best gameplan is one the fighter can believe in, one that lets him believe in himself.

A question: did the Adesanya you saw at UFC 281 look like he was having a good time? Did he look confident? Relaxed?

I’d argue the most comfortable Adesanya looked all fight was just after he hurt Pereira in round one. A visible release of tension that bled into the next round and continued right up till he realized that Pereira wasn’t going away, and was not, in fact, remotely afraid of getting hit again. It wasn’t a swell of confidence, but a sigh of momentary relief. Phew, I’m ahead–for now.

That’s because the lesson Adesanya took away from his and Pereira’s first rematch was the wrong one.

Perhaps he was too disdainful of the left hook, swollen with the bravado of a young man still several minutes removed from his first ever KO defeat. But the broader strategy was working brilliantly, and a big punch is only ever a singular, tactical problem. A few tweaks ought to have been enough to solve the problem of Pereira’s hook. Adesanya’s training camp could have been spent deepening his pool of defenses and counters, ways of preventing and punishing that one, big threat, of asserting his authority as champion.

Instead, he proved himself a true MMA fighter by doing what far too many MMA fighters do following a hard loss: he over-corrected. He gave Pereira too much respect, and too much space, hoping to chew him up with kicks the way he has other middleweights, forgetting that Pereira is himself an accomplished kickboxer capable of defending himself at kicking range. He focused on keeping Pereira at bay, allowing the big man—who naturally loves to pressure—to walk him into the fence again and again. He even tried to wrestle, pinning his hopes for victory on Pereira’s least effective phase of the fight, disregarding the fact that he himself is not a wrestler, and dooming himself to moments of escalating panic when the takedowns failed to materialize, while failing to fully capitalize on the one that did.

In short, Israel Adesanya threw out an effective strategy for the sake of a single, tactical error, and in the process allowed Pereira a long, comfortable fight in which the same error was all but certain to recur.

Adesanya can say Pereira was lucky to find the knockout when he did; I say, fighting the way he did, Adesanya would have been lucky to survive.


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