Israel Adesanya doesn’t quite consider himself an entertainer. At least that’s not his intent.
The props, the costumes, the wit, the stylish striking: all appealing to crowds, but never purposefully.
“Even the ring walks and dancing and all that, I’m not really trying to entertain, those are more expression,” Adesanya told Newsday. “Expression and the theme of the fight, that’s where it comes from.”
So when the UFC middleweight champion received criticism from those previously adoring fans after a few not-so-glorious decision victories, Adesanya said he never was bothered.
“These MMA fans are fickle anyway, by next week they’ll be onto something else and be typing something else on Twitter,” Adesanya said. “I just focus on the next guy at hand, the guy in front of me.”
The next guy will be waiting for Adesanya (23-1) inside the cage at UFC 281 inside Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The New Zealander defends his belt in the main event against Alex Pereira (6-1), a former kickboxing opponent who twice beat Adesanya in their past professional lives.
Considered a can’t-miss fighter during his rise at 185 pounds, Adesanya’s last three bouts against Marvin Vettori, Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier were easy to forget. Three decisions, all unanimous and fairly convincing, but not quite the spectacle of past fights.
That’s not a problem for the champion, who now has five successful title defenses, second-most in division history behind Anderson Silva’s 10.
“I don’t try to put on crazy fights or entertaining fights. I’m here to win and if people enjoy it and think it’s entertaining, [expletive] yeah,” Adesanya said. “With the walkouts, too, if people think it’s cringe, oh well, [stinks] to be you, but if you found it entertaining, well, you got the message.”
Set for his third fight of 2022, Adesanya takes more pride in being an active champion with ample cage time than being a popular figure in the sport. He’s learned to relish those brutal five-round bouts but isn’t sure he’ll have the same experience against Pereira.
“These last three guys were really trying to survive, not trying to win,” Adesanya, 33, said. “I know this next guy is going to try and win and try to put the pace on me to the point where no one has taken me before, but he’s going to realize pretty soon in that fight that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.”
Pereira is still learning much about the MMA world. The 35-year-old has just seven pro fights, making his UFC debut in the promotion’s last visit to the Garden in November 2021. Adesanya believes he is responsible for Pereira’s quick rise twofold.
“Without me cleaning out the division, he wouldn’t have such an open lane to get to the title shot, but also the fact that he beat me and finished me in our last fight in kickboxing, that sells, that’s part of the story,” Adesanya said. “Without me, he definitely would’ve had a harder run to the title, he definitely would have run into some killers that he couldn’t put away the way he’s put some of these people away. But yeah, it’s all me, so, he’s welcome.”
Pereira has five knockouts in his six MMA fights and is 3-0 in the UFC. Last July, he ended Sean Strickland's seven-fight win streak with a first-round knockout.
Given his recent grueling experiences, and with a familiar foe in Pereira, Adesanya’s self-expression will give their narrative a new twist on Saturday: “horror movie.”
“I want to go that place, that dark place,” Adesanya said. “I’m actually looking forward to going to that dark place, I’ve been enjoying it in training lately. I know I can thrive in the darkness.”