Mark RaimondiESPN Staff Writer10 minute read
Alex Pereira stood with his back to the fence inside the UFC Octagon at Madison Square Garden just before the fifth and final round of the title fight began in front of a sold-out crowd. Pereira saw then-UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya through the cage, and the Brazilian uttered the words “ready to kill” in Portuguese.
During Fight Week in New York last November, Pereira and his team watched the 2019 match between Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum. Before entering the fifth round of that bout, Adesanya said to himself, “I am ready to die.” Pereira’s coach, Plinio Cruz, said Pereira and his teammates would joke about the statement in the days leading up to the game.
But no one was laughing at Pereira’s remarks, which clearly responded on game night.
“I think it was him talking to his inner self,” Cruz told ESPN. Sometimes in our lives we need to talk to ourselves.
Pereira, who is down on the scorecards, ended Adesanya via TKO with a punch two minutes into round 5 to clinch the UFC middleweight title.
It was not the only recent title fight won by the Challengers via stops in the final two rounds known as the championship rounds. Three months earlier, Leon Edwards shocked then-UFC Welterweight Champion Kamaru Usman by knocking him out in the head with his five-round bout remaining.
Usman and Adesanya were both high on MMA’s pound-for-pound list and were reigning champions for many years. Last month, Alexa his Grasso became his third challenger to snatch the Hall of Fame champion spot by finishing in the championship round. Grasso brilliantly defeated Valentina her Shevchenko and in the fourth rear-naked submission of her choke made her the UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion.
UFC champions rarely finish late in a round. It is unprecedented for him to have had three such cases in his seven months. Between 1997 and 2021, the UFC has changed titles only five times due to interruptions in the fourth or fifth round, an average of once every five years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the last 10 months, there are four of her records, including her UFC light heavyweight title win over Jiri Prochaska, who defeated Glover Teixeira by submission in the fifth round last June.
Fighters and coaches are divided as to whether this represents a trend and, if so, what it means. Could it be an example of a film breakdown? Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, three isolated instances of a course-correcting rematch between Pereira and Adesanya in the main event of UFC 287 in Miami on Saturday. will be
Most of the mixed martial arts community agrees that the era of dominant, year-long championship reigns and long winning streaks (Usman was on a 15-game winning streak when Edwards knocked him out) is over. It is highly likely.
“Like Leon said, ‘The belt doesn’t belong to anyone,'” said Edwards manager Dave Lovell. “And it’s been proven again. And no doubt you’ll see more of this in the battles to come.”
Lovell’s Rocky-style pep talk to Edwards during the corner between the fourth and fifth rounds of UFC 278 last August has become part of MMA lore. Lovell tells Edwards to stop feeling sorry for himself. He knew his fighter was capable of more than just coasting into decisions.
A video of the speech went viral in the aftermath of Edwards’ come-from-behind knockout victory. Another video, perhaps even more important to the win, also went viral, but not as widely.
In that clip, Lovell and coach Henry Clemenson watched Usman’s video and noticed his tendency to tilt his head to the right during batting exchanges. So, at the team’s request, Edwards began working on countering it. It’s his kick to the left head set up by feinting a jab. That exact technique is what landed him in the fifth round and knocked out Usman. Edwards won his rematch at UFC 286 last month by majority vote.
A few days after Grasso’s win, her team released a video of her drilling a back take as a counter to Shevchenko’s spinning back kick. Her coach (and uncle) Francisco Grasso saw a hole in Shevchenko’s game and worked to capitalize on it. Alexa delved into sequences throughout her training camp, mostly with her partner Diego Lopez. In the fourth round, Shevchenko threw that kick and Alexa dodged it and immediately jumped onto Shevchenko’s back.
Alexa Grasso told ESPN: “The moment I saw her go for the spinning kick, I said, ‘Okay, this is the moment you were training.’ ‘ said. ……“If you do it thousands of times, thousands of times, it will be natural.”
Extreme Couture coach Eric Nick Schick said that before fighter Francis Ngannou challenged Stipe Miocic for his second UFC heavyweight title, Miocic’s first fight with Ngannou and his trilogy with Daniel Cormier. He said he watched the tape for hours. Several coaches and fighters said it wasn’t common to see that many movies in MMA even five years ago. More videos and instructional videos are now available online than ever, including his UFC Hall of Famer Daniel Cormier’s “Learn More” program on ESPN+.
“The sport has really evolved into tape studies and trends,” Nick Sick said. [former UFC double champion and coach] Henry Cejudo and he do a great job of breaking down tape learning [on his YouTube channel]Top tier champions are looking for one little hole, one little thing that says, “OK, I can take advantage of this in my skill set.” that’s what you’re looking for. Same thing with football. If I can find a hole in their defense and take advantage of it with my best player, I’m going to use it again and again.”
Long-term champions such as Usman, Adesanya and Shevchenko have the drawback of having a huge amount of footage. Usman made five successful title defenses, three of which he reached the fifth round. Four of Adesanya’s five successful title defenses have resulted in decisions. Shevchenko has appeared in four championship rounds in seven title defenses. Every game saw growth, such as when kickboxer Adesanya used wrestling against Pereira, which wouldn’t surprise his opponents.
While these titleholders are taking on challenger after challenger, other competitors in the division are already eyeing them, and in some cases their Pound-for-pound ranking champions have more goals on their backs than most champions.
UFC welterweight contender Belal Muhammad said, “I’m always going to look at the champion. I’m always going to look and see what I need to do to adjust to beat him I think most fighters do….Especially when Usman was a man, I thought, ‘I’m the one who beats him. I want to be the one who knocks him off the pedestal.’
Usman, Adesanya and Shevchenko may ultimately be the last of a dying tribe, fighters and coaches said. Women’s MMA’s most accomplished fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes may have started a recent trend, having been strangled by Juliana Peña in December 2021 after five successful title defenses. Seven UFC champions will lose their belts in 2022, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. This is her second most in a calendar year and the most since 2016 (9).
The UFC will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2023. Compared to other major sports, MMA is still in its infancy. Like in the early days of the sport, today’s high-level fights are completely different than even ten years ago, when there are more well-rounded competitors who grew up training in MMA as a whole rather than in individual disciplines. It looks different. Fighters such as 18-year-old super hopeful Raul Rosas Jr. are entering the UFC only by living in a world where MMA was a viable avenue for athletes. Previous generation fighters were not.
The shocking defeats of Adesanya, Usman and Shevchenko say as much about them as the state of affairs at the top level of the sport.
Sayif Saud, head coach of Fortis MMA, said: “It is necessary to emphasize that these champions have been very dominant and have been able to maintain their position at the top of their division in the most competitive environment to date. “MMA is three times more competitive than it was three years ago. [are] More fighters, more gyms, more eyes, more people appear each week. It really speaks to how great these three are, their ability to hold it through all three. ”
Another possibility is that some fighters and coaches believe that these three endgame title losses were just coincidences and not any kind of pattern. but competitors may have caught up with her. Adesanya and Pereira’s situation is unique. Because Pereira has already beaten Adesanya twice in kickboxing, once by knockout. Usman and Edwards had already fought in the UFC seven years ago.
“There are always ebbs and flows,” said Santino DeFranco, Fight Ready MMA coach. “Are we going to keep seeing this? Probably not. But I think what’s going to happen in the end is these long-term champions falling from grace. Is that really what’s happening?” I think that the champion doesn’t really have an equal challenger.
UFC light heavyweight contender Anthony Smith, who fought Jon Jones in the 2019 title fight all the way to the championship round, attributes it all to coincidence and three very different fights. According to Smith, Edwards’ defeat of Usman by decision in the rematch strengthens the argument that the two men may be on different career trajectories.
Saturday’s Pereira vs. Adesanya result and the inevitable rematch between Grasso and Shevchenko add to the data. But Smith agrees that feats like Anderson Silva’s seven-year reign at the UFC middleweight title and domination of titleholders Georges St-Pierre and Jose Aldo are a thing of the past.
The 34-year-old Smith could be close to a title shot with a victory over Johnnie Walker on May 13th. The level of competition has become so high in the UFC that many fighters don’t win championships until their prime is over.
“I think age matters,” said Smith. “By the time you’re working your way through the flames to get to the title, you’re already starting to slow down. There are probably two or three things left that are really good at that level.”
Perhaps Pereira is an example of that. Professionally, his MMA fights are only his eight, but he’s now 35 years old, having had over 40 grueling fights in professional kickboxing in an eight-year career. This is the same age as Usman and Shevchenko.
Of course, Pereira’s team doesn’t think so. They hope to win this weekend’s rematch, just like Edwards did. But even if he loses, that doesn’t mean that what happened in the last seven months was some kind of fluke.
“The game as a whole is evolving,” Cruz said. “The level of the game, the level of coaching, so that everyone evolves together. The fact that we have fought Israel many times is not only good for our side, but their side as well. I believe, because you know, the age of competition is when humanity evolves the most.”