Israel Adesanya has been “Player One” in his own personal video game adventure since touching down inside the UFC Octagon a little over five years ago, and for the longest time, the Nigerian-born, Auckland-based standout rolled through the middleweight division without losing a life.
Nine consecutive opponents fell before a side quest to light heavyweight produced the first setback of his professional MMA career, but when he returned to the main game, Adesanya picked up where he left off, further solidifying his standing atop the division with three additional successful title defenses.
But seldom do you press “Start” on a game and navigate the world, complete the tournament, or take on every opposing team without suffering a setback, and this weekend, “Player One” is returning after running into a boss he just can’t seem to beat.
“To be honest, that plays directly into this,” Adesanya said when asked about rarely finishing a game on one credit or one life just days before stepping back into the Octagon with Alex Pereira in the UFC 287 main event. “Whenever you play a game and you lose to a certain character or certain battle, it’s back to the checkpoint or start again, but you only have so many lives before it’s game over.
“And this is my last life on this part of the game.”
While his loss to Pereira last November at UFC 281 may have been Adesanya’s first loss in the middleweight division, it’s not the first time he’s failed to get by the Brazilian powerhouse.
The two met twice during their kickboxing days and Pereira earned victory both times — first by decision, and then with a stunning knockout that appeared repeatedly on social media in the build to their highly anticipated middleweight title clash at Madison Square Garden last year. In the preamble to the matchup, Adesanya brushed off their previous history, drawing a distinction between kickboxing and MMA, confident that switching disciplines would bring him a measure of vengeance and a victory over Pereira.
Through the first four rounds, he was largely correct, as the two reached the final five minutes with Adesanya ahead 39-37 on all three scorecards, needing only to survive to the buzzer in order to retain his middleweight title, secure a win over his two-sport rival, and clear the level.
But once again, Pereira showed himself to be too powerful a level boss for “The Last Stylebender” to dispatch, pressing the action to begin the final stanza and securing the finish two minutes into the frame, forcing Adesanya to return to the last checkpoint and make another attempt to conquer the level this weekend in Miami.
Israel Adesanya | From Debut To Superstardom
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Israel Adesanya | From Debut To Superstardom
“It gives me an opportunity to show and remind people how great I am because we live in this time of goldfish memories where people forget what I’ve done and what I’ve brought to the game,” he said of running it back with Pereira on Saturday. “ Because of the recent performance, they just think — even that fight, I was winning until I wasn’t, but people only care about the result, so it gives me an opportunity to show and remind people how great I am.
“It is tantalizing,” he said of being the hunter instead of the hunted this time around. “It is very appealing because now — it’s not even about the belt, bro; it’s about taking this guy out.
“It’s about taking this guy out and putting his head on my mantle, looking at it from time-to-time and thinking, ‘Yeah, I did that’ because he’s done it to me. So I have to do it to him, and that’s the only way I’ll be satisfied.”
While their shared history is woven into the fabric of this fight and continues to become an increasingly fascinating part of the conversation each time they prepare to face one another, it’s not something the 33-year-old former champion clings to as he readies to step in with Pereira for the second time in the UFC and fourth time in his career.
“History is history — you have to look at our past to learn from it, but we can’t dwell on it,” began Adesanya, who makes his ninth consecutive pay-per-view main event appearance this weekend. “That is in the past — there is nothing I can do — and dwelling on it won’t serve me now.
“There is no past, there is no tomorrow, only right now, so I’m focusing on the moment and staying in the present.”
As much as the middleweight challenger is locked into the here and now, Saturday’s main event and the opportunity before him really does connect to his past, in more ways than just the “Player One” approach.
Following his successful debut against Rob Wilkinson at UFC 221 on February 11, 2018 in Perth, the charismatic UFC newcomer cut a dynamic promo during his post-fight interview with Jon Anik that made it immediately clear what type of competitor had just touched down in the middleweight division.
“Middleweights, I’m the new dog in the yard, and I just pissed all over this cage,” he said before walking off, making it clear that he was marking his territory.
Then Pereira turned up and took that away from him, and he’s eager to get it back.
“Yes, definitely,” he said when asked if a victory this weekend carries a greater weight, greater significance for him than any of his previous conquests. “I have to get this done; there is no other way.
“I like when my back is against the wall, when I’m the underdog,” he added. “If you put a dog with its back against the wall, it’ll bite you and won’t let go.”
“Time to remind some people whose yard it is?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he said, nodding. “The big dog in the yard.”
UFC 287: Pereira vs Adesanya 2 took place live from Kayesa Center in Miami, Florida on April 8, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!