He came to Danbury to train with Glover Teixeira. Now Alex Pereira is headlining a UFC fight at MSG

He came to Danbury to train with Glover Teixeira. Now Alex Pereira is headlining a UFC fight at MSG

Updated: 17 days, 4 hours, 34 minutes, 31 seconds ago

BETHEL – Fifteen years ago, on the other side of the world, Alex Pereira walked into a kickboxing gym because he wasn’t any good at playing soccer.

Pereira was a 21-year-old kid in Sao Paolo, Brazil, who’d worked at a tire shop for nearly half his life, drinking after work with truckers and other guys he worked with because “it made me feel good.”

He wanted to start training because he wanted to stop drinking. He remembers drinking champagne at 11 years old – around the same age his son is now, he notes – and continuing for over a decade. He walked into a gym and quickly earned the nickname Poatan – literally, “stone hand,” a most fitting nickname for a man who’s made a career out of dynamic power, most of it contained in a left fist that’s covered with tattoos of stones.

That career will reach its apex on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, where Pereira will meet Israel Adesanya for the UFC middleweight title in the main event of UFC 281.

“We’re going to take the belt,” said Pereira’s coach, Fernely Feliz. “We’re going to take it from him.”

If Pereira does that, it’ll be a win not just for his native Brazil but for Danbury – where Pereira has lived for the last two years – an opportunity for a seemingly unlikely place to become the home base of a second UFC champion in as many years.

Moving to Connecticut

Pereira first came to Danbury in 2020. Glover Teixeira, the legendary former UFC light heavyweight champion, was preparing to fight the dynamic striker Thiago Santos and needed a sparring partner. Teixeira shared a manager with Pereira, a feared kickboxer who was just starting to transition into MMA. The two Brazilians had never met, but they quickly became friends once Pereira made the move.
 
Teixeira has lived in Danbury for decades, originally opening Teixeira MMA and Fitness there before relocating the gym to nearby Bethel. As his star has grown, so have the fighters who come to Danbury to train with him. That’s evident in the fact the gym has three fighters – Pereira, Dominic Reyes and Wellington Turman – on Saturday’s marquee New York City card.

UFC middleweight contender Alex Pereira, talks with Glover Teixeira after a training session. Pereira, who headlines UFC 281 in November, trains with the former UFC champion Glover Teixeira at Teixeira MMA and Fitness in Bethel, Conn. Monday, October 3, 2022.

H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticut Media

Pereira helped Teixeira beat Santos, then earned a knockout win of his own a couple weeks later. That pushed his MMA record to 3-1, still a career in its infancy but supported by a dynamic kickboxing career that now comprises 40 fights. He took two more kickboxing fights in 2021, went 1-1, then signed with the UFC and prepared to make a much-anticipated debut on the UFC’s annual trip to New York City in November 2021.
 
The UFC signs plenty of fighters at all times during the year, and so a kickboxer with a 3-1 record signing with the promotion doesn’t necessarily call for any kind of fanfare. But Pereira’s legend had been growing almost in absentia for years, buoyed by his history with Adesanya.
 
“I’m not going to talk trash,” Pereira said through a translator last month. “What Adesanya does is he loves to talk trash, but he doesn’t back it up in the ring. What I do is I keep my mouth shut, but I prove myself in a way Adesanya can’t.”

A rising contender

The two men first met inside a kickboxing ring in China in 2016; Pereira won by unanimous decision. In their rematch, almost a year later, the two men traded heavy blows before Pereira’s famous left hook rendered Adesanya unconscious, ending the rivalry for the time being and sending Adesanya to MMA.

Kickboxing doesn’t have nearly the same popular appeal as boxing or MMA, so it’s fair to say most sports fans, even most combat sports fans, didn’t watch the fight. It would be the last time Adesanya appeared inside a boxing ring.

But then the New Zealander – known as “The Last Stylebender for his dynamic striking and his affinity for Avatar: The Last Airbender – committed himself fully to MMA, taking the sport by storm and tearing through a middleweight division that has never seen a fighter with anything close to his skillset. Save for a loss challenging for the light heavyweight title, Adesanya has never lost an MMA fight – an undefeated record of 23-0 at the 185-pound middleweight limit.

Since he won the title from Robert Whittaker in October 2019, he’s barely looked mortal, dancing around opponents that don’t want to engage and picking off those that do with violent counters. He’s had the kind of title reign that started to feel stale because his last few fights have been a smorgasbord of rematches and fights that feel like a forgone conclusion.

Since he won the title, Adesanya has been inevitable. But what’s also been inevitable, as he’s risen through the ranks of the sport, has been the noise in the background, growing louder and louder with both his and Pereira’s star.

"Did you know there was a guy that beat Izzy? Knocked him out?"

For a while that question was irrelevant because Pereira was still a kickboxer or an MMA fighter finding his groove on the regional scene, but in November 2021 Pereira made his emphatic UFC debut with a flying knee knockout win and announced himself as a legitimate MMA threat. One more win followed before the UFC – ready for an Adesanya fight that had real stakes – booked him against Sean Strickland on the undercard of Adesanya’s last title defense in July.

UFC middleweight contender Alex Pereira, listens to Glover Teixeira after a training session. Pereira, who headlines UFC 281 in November, trains with the former UFC champion Glover Teixeira at Teixeira MMA and Fitness in Bethel, Conn. Monday, October 3, 2022.

H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticut Media

It amounted to a title eliminator, even though Pereira was unranked in the UFC rankings and Strickland was No. 4. It represented the first time a lot of casual UFC fans had seen Pereira fight.

And Strickland came out with a curious strategy, standing right in front of Pereira with his hands high.

In Pereira’s corner, Feliz told Teixeira: “Get ready, because this guy is going to get hurt.”

Less than three minutes into the first round, that same left hand – Poatan – connected on Strickland’s chin. One follow-up shot later, the fight was over, Pereira was celebrating, and the UFC was rushing to book an Adesanya-Pereira title fight.

'I never believed I was going to be a champion'

Pereira liked Danbury right away. The first thing he says he likes about it is the arvores – the trees. He’s still working on his English, and he gets frustrated when he walks into a grocery store or a doctor’s office and he needs someone else’s help to communicate with people.

But there are also plenty of Portuguese speakers, lots of them Brazilian fighters from the gym. They train together, barbecue together, run together. His children go to a school where they can speak Portuguese. For Pereira, the quaintness of this Connecticut city is a major selling point. One of his favorite things about Danbury is that there are no nightclubs.

In the past, he was a self-described alcoholic, continuing to drink even as his kickboxing career started to take off. He would quit for two months, then relapse, then four months, then relapse, always drinking more than he had before.

“I never believed I was going to be a champion,” he said. “I believed this was just something that I do. Something that was a job.”

UFC middleweight contender Alex Pereira, who headlines UFC 281 in November, trains with former UFC champion Glover Teixeira at Teixeira MMA and Fitness in Bethel, Conn. Monday, October 3, 2022.

H John Voorhees III/Hearst Connecticut Media

But he was also losing fights, even with his obvious talent and strength, and that’s what ultimately helped him get sober: if he wanted to be the best in the world, he had to be the best version of himself.

He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in 10 years.

Danbury, with Teixeira, Feliz and an atmosphere that helps bring out the best in him, is supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle that ends with a photo of Pereira and a UFC belt around his waist.

A puzzle that started with a 12-year-old boy dropping out of school to spend his days making tires. A kid who wanted to play soccer but wasn’t good enough. An emerging fighter who struggled with alcoholism. A world champion kickboxer with legendary power.

“I didn’t imagine that it would become what it is now,” he said.

UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira starts Saturday at 10 p.m. on ESPN+ Pay Per View.

Jonah.Dylan@hearstmediact.com, @TheJonahDylan