'The stone in his shoe': Inside the rivalry between Israel Adesanya and the only man to knock him out

ISRAEL ADESANYA SAT DOWN for an interview with Sporting News Australia two years ago, ahead of his UFC middleweight title defense against Yoel Romero at UFC 248.

In that video, published March 3, 2020, Adesanya, wearing a red windbreaker with the collar up and sporting a mid-high-fade haircut, was asked about his 2017 kickboxing loss to Alex Pereira via knockout. At the time of the interview, Adesanya had already held UFC gold for nearly a year, starting with the interim middleweight belt, and was considered one of the best pound-for-pound MMA fighters in the world.

The defeat against Pereira felt like ancient history -- and Adesanya was glib about how he thought about the loss and his former foe, noting that Pereira posted on social media about him after all of Adesanya's UFC victories.

"I've never ever watched any of his fights, ever," Adesanya told Sporting News Australia back then. "At the end of the day, no one knows who the f--- he is, and he's going to be that guy when I'm world champion and when I'm a legend, he's going to be at some pub talking s--- about 'I beat that guy one time.'"

The video now has more than 200,000 views -- plenty of those belonging to Pereira. He watched and listened from 7,000 miles away in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as Adesanya said those words, and they ignited something in him. Seven months later, Pereira signed a contract with Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) and began transitioning from kickboxing to MMA.

The UFC signed Pereira after just one LFA fight, a brutal first-round knockout, and almost one year to the day after his UFC debut, Pereira will have a familiar face standing across from him in the Octagon. Adesanya will defend his UFC middleweight title against Pereira, the man who has beaten him twice in kickboxing and handed him his only knockout loss, in the main event of UFC 281 on Saturday at New York's Madison Square Garden (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV).

Adesanya calls it a "beautiful arc," a chance to take out the man who was his boogeyman in kickboxing. Pereira, meanwhile, has had Adesanya in his crosshairs since that interview, a living embodiment of the horror movie "It Follows." Former Glory Kickboxing CEO Jon Franklin said it could again be Adesanya's Waterloo, or most crushing defeat.

"I never forgot any word that he said," Pereira told ESPN through an interpreter. "I used that as motivation to climb all the way up here for this.

"I'm like the stone in his shoe."

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THE FIRST TIME Adesanya and Pereira fought was April 2, 2016, for a Chinese kickboxing promotion called Glory of Heroes.

Adesanya had won 18 straight fights between kickboxing and MMA going into the bout with Pereira. He was already regarded as one of the best middleweight kickboxers in the world. Pereira was still trying to make a name for himself in the sport. He had only 15 kickboxing matches total and had lost to every other top fighter in the division he had faced up until that point.

Pereira beat Adesanya via a very close unanimous decision. Adesanya believes he should have been given the victory and points to both fighters' faces after the bout -- Pereira looked more banged up -- as proof. But regardless, Adesanya represented Pereira's first victory over an elite-level opponent.

The win didn't propel Pereira, though. He went 1-1 in his next two fights, while Adesanya reeled off seven straight victories, including a win over Yousri Belgaroui to win the Glory middleweight contender tournament. Adesanya failed to win the Glory title, falling to Jason Wilnis via a very close unanimous decision.

It was another disappointing decision loss that Adesanya felt he had won. And the thoughts of that defeat lingered in his next fight, just six weeks later -- against Pereira again, on March 4, 2017, in Pereira's hometown of Sao Paulo. Adesanya corrected his mistakes from the first fight and completely dominated Pereira for two rounds, moving in and out and piecing Pereira up.

"From what I remember, Israel was giving him a schooling," said Simon Marcus, another top kickboxing middleweight who fought both Adesanya and Pereira in his career. "Taking him to school, landing at will. Alex wasn't really landing much. He looked like he was getting frustrated and all that."

Near the end of the second round, Adesanya was landing big combinations and letting right hand after right hand fly, most of which hit their mark: Pereira's skull. The referee stepped in at one point to call for a standing knockdown, which Adesanya has since called into question since he believed he was nearing a finish. Pereira ended up surviving the onslaught and made it to the bell.

Pereira upped the pressure in the third round, walking Adesanya down and throwing big punches and high kicks. And then the final sequence came: Adesanya ducked a right high kick and threw one of his own back. Pereira blocked it, moved forward and let rip a combination: a right hook followed by a left hook. Adesanya tried to get his right glove up to defend the left, but it was too late. Pereira connected hard and Adesanya dropped to the canvas even harder. The fight was over and Adesanya had been knocked out for the first time.

"The knockout was a shock, because Adesanya had never gotten knocked out," Belgaroui said. "That was big. That was also like a come-up for Alex."

Adesanya said the Wilnis loss and critics saying he couldn't leave it in the hands of the judges messed with his head. When he was trying to finish Pereira in the second round, he got away from what made him great -- his ability to pick opponents apart.

"I was more mad at myself," Adesanya said. "The fact that I didn't stay true to my style, the way I fight. I let some things from outside into my psyche and bother me. I had him on the ropes and I thought, I'm going to get him out of here. ... I just spammed right hands and that was not my style."

Pereira believes the two victories, including the knockout, give him a mental edge going into their fight Saturday in a different combat sport.

"Absolutely, I'm in his head," Pereira said. "It's impossible to not be. I beat him two times. If I'm not in his head, then he's not human."

Adesanya, of course, has a different perspective.

"This fight doesn't bother me in a sense like, 'What's the worst thing that can happen? He's going to knock me out?'" Adesanya said. "Bro, just go on YouTube. You can look at it. That frees me in a lot of sense. I'm like all right, the worst has already happened. Now, I just have to go out there and f--- this guy up."

ANDERSON SILVA GOT up onto a stage set up at his Los Angeles gym for a news conference to promote his upcoming fight with Adesanya at UFC 234. It was Jan. 22, 2019, and Silva, the former longtime UFC middleweight champion, had just completed a workout for the media assembled.

On the dais, to Silva's right, was Pereira, also there to answer questions. Silva's team brought Pereira into Silva's training camp a month earlier because of Pereira's experience against Adesanya. Pereira also accompanied Silva to Melbourne, Australia, where Adesanya defeated Silva by unanimous decision on Feb. 10, 2019.

Adesanya said it was the first time Pereira had been on his radar since the kickboxing knockout. The Nigerian-born New Zealander chalked it up to Silva being a "funny guy."

"I thought Anderson was trying to psych me out," Adesanya said.

That Pereira was different from the one who fought Adesanya in 2017. Following the Adesanya KO, Pereira won 10 of his next 11 kickboxing fights and earned the Glory middleweight and light heavyweight titles. During that stretch, from 2017 to 2021, Pereira knocked out seven opponents and earned two wins over Marcus, whom Pereira beat for the Glory middleweight belt.

"I think what happened with Pereira is he always had that punch power," Marcus said. "He always had it, and he was able to use it. But I feel like that fight with Israel and then my fight on top of that really gave him more confidence of what he can do with it. And then we see him go on a run of just knocking everybody out. ... He was laying out everybody in front of him."

Adesanya wasn't the same, either. He was starring in MMA and well on his way to being the best middleweight fighter in the UFC. Two months after beating Silva, Adesanya defeated Kelvin Gastelum to become the UFC interim middleweight champion, and at UFC 243 on Oct. 6, 2019, in front of 57,127 at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, Adesanya knocked out Robert Whittaker to earn undisputed gold.

Pereira was a distant memory by then. Adesanya said he barely even recalls those comments he made to Sporting News Australia about Pereira prior to the Romero fight.

"It sounds like me," Adesanya said. "I kind of remember it. I don't remember where I said it, but I remember thinking something like that."

But in Sao Paulo, those words burned into Pereira's brain. He had fought three times in MMA back in 2015 and 2016, but he decided in 2020 that he would make the complete transition. That summer, he moved to Connecticut to become part of UFC light heavyweight great Glover Teixeira's team. Pereira put Thomas Powell to sleep with one big right hand in his LFA debut in November 2020.

Once his Glory obligations were complete, Pereira went right to the UFC and knocked out Andreas Michailidis in his debut at UFC 268 on Nov. 6, 2021, at Madison Square Garden. Adesanya had not been paying much attention to Pereira up until that point, he said, but he watched that finish and knew the UFC was about to "push him."

"I could tell straight away," Adesanya said. "And I welcomed it. Because I already cleared a path for him, because I already cleared out the division anyway."

Pereira, though, had to do his part -- and he did. He beat Bruno Silva via unanimous decision back in March. He then had a featured fight with contender Sean Strickland at UFC 276 on July 2; a card Adesanya headlined against Jared Cannonier. Pereira starched Strickland with punches, finishing him by knockout at just 2:36 of the first round.

Adesanya dominated Cannonier by unanimous decision, and the stage was set. Adesanya had achieved excellence in the UFC as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet with 12 straight middleweight wins and five title defenses. And now Pereira stands in his way for a third time.

"And you probably can't get that out of your mind, you know?" said Franklin, who was the CEO of Glory Kickboxing from 2014 to 2018. "The story here could be just that. What do they call it, your Waterloo? Where you've got to make a point and prove you are at the top of your game and you have to beat your nemesis. The guy just keeps showing up -- he can't lose him. And here he is again."

BELGAROUI HAS FOUGHT Pereira in kickboxing three times, beating him once, and also has a fight in the ring against Adesanya, who defeated him. Pereira did some training in Belgaroui's home country of the Netherlands earlier this year and sparred with his former foe. Because Pereira's team was happy with the high-level work he was getting in, Belgaroui was invited to be part of Pereira's training camp with Teixeira in Connecticut.

In training, the long, 6-foot-5 Belgaroui has been mimicking Adesanya in sparring sessions with Pereira, and Pereira's team has been bullish about Belgaroui's presence being kind of a secret weapon. Belgaroui said he has been blown away by Pereira's power in training, comparing him favorably to legendary Dutch kickboxers.

"I have many, many rounds with Melvin Manhoef, Badr Hari, Alistair Overeem," Belgaroui said. "These are all hard hitters. Heavyweights, as well. But still, I'm going to tell you the rounds that we spar here -- [Pereira's] punches are harder than those three guys. It's true."

Belgaroui, who now also competes in MMA, said he's impressed with what Adesanya has accomplished in the UFC. But he believes "The Last Stylebender" has been taking advantage of fighters who don't have nearly as much experience at the highest levels of striking. Brazilian jiu-jitsu guys and wrestlers, Belgaroui said, don't check leg kicks. And that has been one of Adesanya's greatest tools, especially in a destruction of Paulo Costa at UFC 253 in September 2020.

"He chops down the legs and then they can't do anything anymore," Belgaroui said of Adesanya. "They just don't expect how much impact that can have. Like Costa, he kicked his leg to s--- and with every kick he went one belt lower. Low kick, brown belt. Low kick, purple belt. Low kick, blue belt."

Adesanya laughed when he was asked about Belgaroui's presence in Pereira's camp. He calls Belgaroui "Kris Humphries" due to his resemblance to the former NBA player and ex-husband of Kim Kardashian.

"It's the same thing Anderson did [with Pereira]," Adesanya said. "Cool, bro, you got a tall guy who strikes nothing like me. Way to go."

Adesanya downplays the notion of Pereira as some kind of boogeyman. Comparing this situation to a video game, Adesanya said Pereira is a boss, but not the "final boss." He's looking at this simply as another part of his story that "will be epically told for years to come."

"The story itself motivates me," Adesanya said. "I live my life like I'm Player One. I said that last time I was in New York. I'm the guy who's operating the s---. Everything else is just bots around me. So for me, I tell the story how I want to tell the story. That's why I look at it and I play it like a video game."

Pereira views it differently. He sees a formidable opponent he beat twice -- once by brutal knockout -- who should have left well enough alone and not brought up his name in such a way.

Adesanya's punishment for that? The only man who has knocked Adesanya out has followed him across years, continents and different combat sports right back to that exact spot across the fighting surface for battle No. 3.

"They asked about me and Adesanya said I was just a nobody, and years from now I'll be just a guy drunk at a bar with a lot of [girls] saying 'I fought that guy once,' but I'd never make it up there," Pereira said. "The day after the fight, I'll be laughing and remembering what Israel said. For some people, that can lower your self-esteem. For me, it was motivation."