It is no easy feat to rise to the top of any sport. The physical dimensions of someone or the resources that someone has to train can give them an advantage, but never guarantee that they will become one of the best in a sport. Many spend their entire careers chasing a certain level of excellence, and those who do reach that level do not tend to do so in a short period of time.
Few can say they are the one of the best in MMA currently. The list of people who can justifiably make this claim include all of the Knockdown News Fighter of the Year nominees this year. But the story of Alex Pereira sets him apart from the pack, and makes him the official 2022 Knockdown News Fighter of the Year.
Over the course of just more than a year, Pereira tore through the UFC middleweight roster and became their champion. It took Pereira precisely four fights to get gold around his waist, with three of those performances coming in 2022.
While Pereira’s MMA success has been quite short and sweet, it is not fair to label him as an overnight success. The 35-year-old entered the sport following an extensive and successful career as a kickboxer from 2012 to 2021. He was a two-division champion in GLORY Kickboxing, and overcame now-UFC fighter Israel Adesanya under kickboxing rules in two instances – and we’ll get back to that in a moment.
Pereira fought briefly in MMA from 2015 to 2016, attaining two wins and one loss in that time. After focusing strictly on kickboxing for a few more years, he returned to MMA in 2020. His sole performance for U.S. regional promotion LFA showed that he was much above the skill level of other fighters at that level – he stopped opponent Thomas Powell with a scary first-round knockout to earn his third MMA victory.
Pereira made his UFC debut just over a year later, beating Andreas Michailidis via stoppage at UFC 268. This was a good start to his UFC career, but at the time he still had a long way to go before he could even be considered for a title fight. Michailidis entered the fight with only one prior UFC victory (his promotional record now sits at one win and three losses).
Quality of opponent became much larger for Pereira in 2022. His year started in March with a fight against Bruno Silva, who boasted a strong three-fight winning streak of finishes in the UFC before then. Pereira went the distance for the first time in his MMA career that time, taking a unanimous decision victory.
That made it two wins for Pereira. People started discussing a fight against rival Adesanya, but then it still seemed like a fight that wasn’t ready to be made yet.
Pereira took another deserved leap in the rankings this summer when he fought Sean Strickland. Opponent Strickland has been in the UFC since 2014, but was on somewhat of a recent tear, having put together six consecutive wins, with two of them being five-round main event victories. This bout was undoubtedly going to send either fighter into a title shot position.
Under mixed martial arts rules, Strickland opted to stand on the feet against kickboxer Pereira. This allowed Pereira to set up a highlight-reel first-round finish win, diffusing Strickland in the third minute with a left hook knockout. Later that night, Adesanya defended his belt against Jared Cannonier then called for a fight against Pereira. Their third meeting became an inevitability at that point.
Pereira and Adesanya was eventually made official for UFC 281 on November 12th. Many things about the event made it poetic. Pereira was getting his first MMA title shot in the same building that he made his UFC debut in just over a year before (Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, USA). It was the third meeting between Pereira and Adesanya, but the first in MMA. Adesanya was the king of middleweight for many years, and since the beginning of this era Pereira essentially worked his way up the chain of a new sport to track down his rival once again.
And what felt more poetic than anything was the way in which Pereira won the belt. The fight was certainly close, but saw Adesanya with a comfortable lead of three-rounds-to-one against Pereira heading into the final five minutes of action. Pereira was able to erase this lead with a late finish.
Pereira stayed aggressive on Adesanya late in their fight, charging forward with punches against the tired and worn down champ. Clean punches, in particular right and left hooks which landed consistently, caused Adesanya to shell up against the cage. Adesanya showed no plan to stop Pereira, forcing the referee to step in and end the fight. And just like that, in his eighth ever MMA fight, only a year after joining the UFC and in only his fourth contest for the promotion, Pereira became one of the top names in the sport.
2023 will prove if Pereira can last in the division. We are coming out of an extensive reign from Adesanya – one that you could certainly consider an “era” for the weight class. Can Pereira be able to carve out his own section of the 185-pound history, or will he have a shorter reign than the previous top talent?
Another question is how Pereira can be tested when facing other types of fighters. While he is an incredibly talented fighter, at the end of the day he is someone who comes from a striking background and has less experience in other prominent styles that are seen in MMA. Whether his next opponent can utilize this for a victory will be seen.
2022 will certainly be remembered as the year of Pereira. Many top names went undefeated this. Many earned belts and made history. But when considering all of the factors, it simply adds up for Pereira. He became the first man to finish Adesanya in MMA. He nearly started and finished a campaign towards a title within a year’s time. He went undefeated in 2022 and is now one of the sport’s champions. He is entirely deserving of the Knockdown News Fighter of the Year award.