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Sports Illustrated Notebook: Alex Pereira unafraid to take MSG stage and Israel Adesanya's title at UFC 281

Saturday's stacked card is sure to deliver heavy blows and leave plenty to chew on by the end of the night.
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NEW YORK – Alex Pereira (6-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) is ready for his date with fate.

In only his eighth MMA bout, Pereira challenges Israel Adesanya (23-1 MMA, 12-1 UFC) for the middleweight title at UFC 281. And just like their prior two bouts, Pereira plans to win.

Pereira has already defeated Adesanya twice, with both wins taking place in kickboxing. The first victory came in 2016, a bout that took place in China and Pereira was awarded by unanimous decision. The second is even more noteworthy, a 2017 victory in Brazil that ended when Pereira knocked out Adesanya with a left hook.

That remains the only time in his storied combat sports career that Adesanya has been knocked out.

"I'm in his head because of that knockout," says Pereira, speaking through a translator. "I respect him and the work he's done. But I'm here now. What he has will soon be mine."

This trilogy bout comes five years after that knockout, and it will headline Saturday's pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden. If Pereira is victorious, he would complete one of the most successful transitions ever into MMA. This is only his fourth time stepping into the octagon, and it is rare to receive a title shot that quickly. Adesanya attributes that quick rise to their history, which is accurate. If Pereira doesn't possess two wins against Adesanya in kickboxing, with the added caveat of one of those being a knockout, there is no chance Pereira jumps the line for a title shot. But Adesanya has lapped the division and lacked a true rival in MMA, creating an opening for this fight against Pereira.

Pereira made his UFC debut one year ago at Madison Square Garden against Andreas Michailidis, where he put forth a "Performance of the Night" showing and effectively ended the bout with a flying knee. Twelve months later, he is one win shy of becoming champion. While Pereira did not disagree that the shared history with Adesanya played a role in his quick ascent, he did add his own twist to the point.

"He helped me get here, says Pereira. "That makes sense. But I helped myself get here when I knocked him out."

This is a fight that has the potential to be extraordinary. It does not seem wise for Adesanya to stand and trade with a striker of Pereira's ability, and he will also need to be cautious of those vicious knees. It should be exciting, with Pereira promising to push the action. The key to winning this championship bout could be decided, surprisingly, by grappling. Pereira opted not to speak about the difference in grappling skill, a realm that favors Adesanya.

"My training has made all the difference," Pereira says. "I'm 100 percent focused, and I'm ready."

Pereira has a history of big fights in kickboxing all over the globe, so he is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the raucous atmosphere at the Garden. History beckons, and the veteran fighter fully comprehends the need to seize the moment against Adesanya.

"This is the biggest fight of my life, but I've been here before," Pereira says. "Winning the belt, that's my only focus, and I'm doing it at a place that feels like I'm fighting at home."

UFC 281 card runs deep

UFC 281 is overflowing with compelling storylines.

Adesanya seeks to overcome his past and finally defeat Pereira in the main event, as well as retain his middleweight title. On paper, this is a fight that favors Adesanya – he is a far more well-rounded, complete mixed martial artist.

Adesanya proved again in his last fight against Jared Cannonier that he fully comprehends how to combat a vicious striker. Pereira has a left hook, one that Adesanya knows well, as well as combos with his knees that can quickly end this bout – but he will be tasked with finding an approach that works against Adesanya. Attacking Adesanya is a dangerous proposition. When Paulo Costa tried it, for example, he paid a severe price. Pereira is a high-level kickboxer, and he invites opponents to throw, but Adesanya is excellent at landing – and not allowing his opponent to land back.

An interesting dynamic will be if Adesanya shows off his grappling, which is a major advantage. If Adesanya pins Pereira against the cage, plus remains successful in avoiding the great equalizer that is Pereira's left hook, then he should find a way to retain the title.

Carla Esparza (19-6 MMA, 10-4 UFC) also defends her strawweight title at 281 against Zhang Weili (22-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC). Esparza is the favorite, but Zhang is a difficult, physical matchup for her. Zhang's striking was nearly the difference in her two bouts against Rose Namajunas. Even though Esparza has defeated Namajunas, this is a prime example of how MMA is all about matchups. Esparza is a better target for Zhang, much different from the elusiveness of Namajunas. This has knockout written all over it, with Zhang reclaiming the title – and potentially setting up a trilogy bout against Namajunas.

Another must-see bout is Dustin Poirier (28-7 MMA, 20-6 UFC) against Michael Chandler (23-7 MMA, 2-2 UFC). Neither fighter can afford a loss. Chandler is coming off a victory against Tony Ferguson that featured a front-face kick that went viral, but Ferguson is clearly no longer the feared competitor he once was. Poirier lost in convincing fashion last spring to Charles Oliveira, and he has now dropped his last two title bouts. A win here opens a window for either fighter to challenge new champ Islam Makhachev or Alexander Volkanovski, depending on the winner of their showdown. Chandler needs to lean on his wrestling here, but this should be explosive – and a victory for Poirier.

UFC 281 will also contain some sentimentality, as Frankie Edgar (24-10-1 MMA, 18-10-1 UFC) steps into the octagon for one final time. Edgar's last dance takes place against Chris Gutierrez Chris Gutierrez (18-3-2 MMA, 6-1-1 UFC), who has not tasted defeat in his last seven appearances, six of which were victories. Edgar has crafted an iconic career, with his UFC 112 victory for the lightweight title forever living on in his highlight reel. But the curtain eventually closes for every fighter. Even with the crowd behind Edgar, this fight against Gutiérrez, who is hungry to break into the top-15 bantamweight rankings, will be a reminder why it is time for him to retire.

The main card opener is Dan Hooker (21-12 MMA, 11-8 UFC) against Claudio Puelles (12-2 MMA, 5-1 UFC). Hooker desperately wants to avoid losing a third straight fight. After fighting bulldozers in Makhachev and Arnold Allen, he has a great chance to reassert himself against Puelles. There is also some excitement to the prelims, beginning with Molly McCann (13-4 MMA, 6-3 UFC) facing her toughest test in the women's flyweight division against No. 12 Erin Blanchfield (9-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC). A light heavyweight bout pitting seventh-ranked Dominick Reyes (12-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) against No. 12 Ryan Spann (20-7 MMA, 6-2 UFC) is also an exciting fight with a chance to make noise in the division. The final fight of the prelims is Renato Moicano (16-5-1 MMA, 8-5 UFC) seeking to further elevate his standing in the lightweight division in a tough test against Brad Riddell (10-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC), which is another reminder of the depth of the 281 card.

Sterling, Cormier on Edgar's retirement fight

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As previously mentioned, UFC 281 will be the farewell fight for Frankie Edgar.

Aljamain Sterling, who is the reigning bantamweight champion, is looking forward to watching Edgar conclude a brilliant 17-year mixed martial arts career.

"I'll always remember his Gray Maynard fight," says Sterling, recalling the knockout victory for Edgar from 2011. "The way he beat B.J. Penn, when Penn was a juggernaut and no one was going to defeat him – and then beat Penn again – that showed, ‘Yo, I'm Frankie Edgar, I'm ‘The Answer', and I'm here to stay.'

"I always wish I had the opportunity to train with Frankie. That would have been magic. I respect him a lot, and I'm definitely going to be dialed in for that one."

Daniel Cormier, who will be part of the UFC 281 broadcast, is grateful to help call one more Edgar fight.

"We always called him ‘The Little Engine That Could,'" Cormier says. "He was always too small. He never should have been a lightweight champion, but he was. And he fought for the featherweight championship. Now he's a bantamweight, which is probably where he always should have been. He's always been fun, he's always exciting, and he's always been a gentleman."

Gutierrez seems to relish the chance to end Edgar's career, but Cormier explained that is a natural part of the fight game.

"You've got to be licking your chops when you look at a guy on the way out," Cormier says. "They say when you start talking retirement, one foot's out the door. Plus, Gutierrez lost his UFC debut, and that's it. He's looked like an absolute savage. He is a phenomenal striker, he's tremendously tough, and he has a massive opportunity in front of him."

Cormier also marveled at the fact that Gutierrez, who is in the midst of an impressive seven-fight unbeaten streak, is not yet ranked as a bantamweight.

"For all the winning he's done, it speaks to the depth of the division that he isn't ranked," Cormier says. "There's not another weight class in the UFC where you could fight as well as Chris has and not rank in the top 15."

Prochazka not entertaining title defense vs. Adesanya

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Even if Adesanya retains the middleweight title at UFC 281, his next opponent will not be reigning light heavyweight champion Jiri Prochazka.

Adesanya suffered his only defeat when he moved to light heavyweight, losing to Jan Blachowicz in March of 2021. It was an infuriating loss, with Blachowicz using his size to pin Adesanya to the mat. With Adesanya again considering a move back to light heavyweight, he would seemingly make a perfect opponent for reigning champ Prochazka or Glover Teixeira, who fight for the belt next month at UFC 282.

But that fight will not take place if Prochazka is the champ.

"A fight with Izzy, I am not interested in this fight," Prochazka says. "We share the management and the people around us."

Prochazka did not elaborate beyond that comment, stating only, "I respect him."

The management company Adesanya and Prochazka share is Paradigm. Considering they do not train together, it is odd that there would be such a strong stance against fighting one another. But a lot can change in the coming months, especially with both men defending their respective titles.

Anik on Contract Extension: 'This is the Job I Want'

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Jon Anik will be the lead voice on commentary at UFC 281, and that will not be changing for future pay-per-view cards any time soon.

Anik just signed a new four-year deal to remain with the UFC, extending his run with the company.

"This is the job I want," Anik says. "My employer knows this is my dream job. Thankfully, I get the chance to do it for another four years."

Anik's duties also include being the lead desk host on all pay-per-view and post-show content, live event host for the official and ceremonial weigh-ins, and host of the annual UFC Hall of Fame ceremony. Additionally, he is the host of "The Anik and Florian Podcast," cementing his place as the UFC's signature voice.

"Dana White is the type of leader you want to break through a wall for," Anik says. "He's also a demanding boss, but I accept that challenge. When I left ESPN in 2011, people said, ‘You spent a big chunk of your career trying to get to Bristol, Connecticut – now you've been there for a cup of coffee and you're leaving.' I felt like I knew what I was doing when I hitched myself to this wagon. I'm thankful to be 11 years in, and I hope it's the last job I ever have."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.