Issue 203

April 2024

In a world where reality outstrips fiction, the extraordinary journey of Alex Pereira from the favelas of São Paulo to the pinnacle of combat sports emerges as a tale of resilience, transformation, and the undying spirit of a champion. Fighters Only's E. Spencer Kyte gets in touch with Pereira's support to discover that even the most unfathomable dreams can be realized with unwavering determination and grit. One day, they will make a movie about Alex Pereira’s life. The first time it gets pitched to a Hollywood studio, the executives will reject the premise because it just sounds too unbelievable. Here’s what the opening scene might look like.

A kid from the favelas of Sao Bernardo do Campo, Sao Paulo, starts working in a tire shop and drinking at 13, becoming an alcoholic, sure that life wasn’t going to amount to all that much. But he wants to quit and turns to sports to do so, taking up kickboxing at age 22, trading his addiction to the drink for an addiction to training.

Five years later, he’s competing in the biggest kickboxing organization in the world, establishing himself as an emerging force. He wins the middleweight title three years later, successfully defending it five times. He adds an interim light heavyweight title to his haul. He becomes undisputed champion 16 months later when the promotion returned from its pandemic-induced hiatus.

Along the way, he sees an old rival claim gold and become a superstar in mixed martial arts and hears him chattin’ s*** about him even though he never beat the two-division kickboxing standout. MMA had already been on his radar; he’d dipped his toes back into the water after splashing around at the pool's shallow end before going all-in on kickboxing.

He signs with the biggest promotion in the sport and wins his debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City. A year later, back at “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” he knocks out his rival, rallying to secure a fifth-round stoppage and win championship gold. They fight for a second time, and this time, he’s the one who gets knocked out. He’s the one losing the title.

But he quickly picks himself up, moves up a division, and defeats a former champion. A year after winning his first belt, he’s again in “The Big Apple,” headlining another pay-per-view at MSG, facing another former champion with the light heavyweight title hanging in the balance. He puts his opponent down late in the second round, and the fight is stopped.

In 14 years, he goes from being an alcoholic working in a tire shop to the first person to hold titles in two weight classes in the preeminent kickboxing promotion and champion in two different weight classes in the top mixed martial arts organization in the world. He’s a generational talent doing unheard-of things in combat sports, becoming a massive star all while remaining the same quiet, humble, hard worker who took it upon himself to change his life.


If you’re in the room for that pitch and you hear that narrative arc, it’d be difficult to believe one person could accomplish even pieces of that in the relatively short time that has transpired.

From poverty and addiction to success in one sport? Sure, we’ve seen it done before.

Historic success in that venture, less than a decade after training for the first time? Maybe, but it would take someone genuinely gifted and driven.

Dive head-first into a completely different sport and win at the highest level two years after committing to it full-time, a year after reaching the big stage? That feels like a stretch, but we’ve seen Olympic champions succeed in other avenues, so okay.

A second title in a second division, a year later, after getting knocked out cold by your chief antagonist?

C’mon… really?

Yes, really.

Alex Pereira’s journey from a tire shop in Sao Paulo to the top of the UFC light heavyweight division is one of the most incredible journeys in combat sports history, so we sat down with the 36-year-old Brazilian, two of the people who have helped guide him through this unbelievable adventure, Plinio Cruz, and Glover Teixeira, and one of the best coaches in the sport, Eric Nicksick, to better understand what makes “Poatan” such a one-of-a-kind force inside the Octagon.


When Plinio Cruz was an active MMA competitor, making occasional trips back to Brazil to train with his first coach and visit his old stomping grounds, he first encountered the man he now travels the globe with as his right-hand man.

“Alex used to train at our gym in Brazil, under my first coach and some friends, a long time ago, maybe even before Glory,” said Cruz, who retired from MMA in 2019 and now operates his school, Cruz MMA, in Harrison, New Jersey.

“We developed a friendship to where he said, ‘Any time I’m in America, I’m gonna come to your gym and train there.’ Eventually, he came to fight Yousri Belgaroui in his second title defense, and I started working with him there.”

That second title defense against Belgaroui in New York City occurred at Glory 55 in the summer of 2018. The two men from neighboring parts of Brazil’s most populous city have been working together ever since, growing closer through each challenge to the point where it’s rare to see Pereira without Cruz being somewhere close by.

“We’ve been together a very long time; we’ve developed a very strong bond,” added the charismatic former CFFC heavyweight champion, who often serves as Pereira’s translator and is the more gregarious, colorful counterbalance to the stoic demeanor and unintentionally menacing presence the superstar talent radiates in person.

Even before Pereira’s time in kickboxing was over, he and the people around him were formulating a plan for his transition to mixed martial arts.


During the pandemic, Glory paused operations, and Pereira got the green light to compete in a Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) show in early November 2020. He’d fought in MMA three times earlier in his career, losing by submission in the third round of his debut before earning a pair of victories in 2016. With a fight on the horizon, training camp plans had to be hashed out, and a trip to Danbury, Connecticut, to train with UFC light heavyweight stalwart Glover Teixeira emerged as the wisest decision.

“Glover and Alex have the same managers, Jorge (Guimares) and Ed Soares, and when we were thinking about transitioning to MMA, I think Glover had the fight booked against Thiago Santos, and Jorge said, ‘Alex, go to that camp,’” explained Cruz, retracing the timeline of Pereira’s immersion into mixed martial arts.

“Alex went to the Anderson Silva camp for Israel Adesanya first, got a good taste of it, but didn’t really know what was going on. When he went to Glover, strongly (encouraged) him to go because Glover is in Connecticut. I’m in Newark, New Jersey, so it’s only an hour away, and I knew Glover for a long time.

“I really pushed him to go over there because I thought they were gonna click. It was gonna be good for all of us.”

Teixeira’s fight with Santos was set for November 7 at the UFC APEX, with Pereira’s return to MMA on the calendar a couple of weeks later in Park City, Kansas.

"Yeah, he came to help me out, and he stayed at a friend’s house over here, helped me out,” said Teixeira, a 20-year veteran of the sport who made history by becoming the oldest first-time champion in UFC history when he submitted Jan Blachowicz in the second round at UFC 267 in Abu Dhabi, 51 weeks after rallying to finish Santos in Las Vegas.

“He loved the training, loved the lifestyle, everything; he was like, ‘I feel at home.’ We have the same culture, humble, like the same things, and he said, ‘I wanna stay here.’”

“I didn’t necessarily have anyone to look up to until I got to Glover’s gym,” Pereira said through a translator. “When I was back in Brazil, I would doubt myself because I didn’t know where I could go b because I didn’t have anyone to look up to; I had no one to build myself on.

“When I got to Glover’s, I could see everything he’s done, who he is in the sport, and you can really be inspired by all that.”

Pereira stuck around and won his fight under the LFA banner, knocking out Thomas Powell in the latter stages of the opening round to run his MMA record to 4-1. Just under a year later, he made the walk to the Octagon for the first time, closing out the preliminary card at UFC 268 in New York City against Andreas Michailidis.


There is a story within the story regarding Pereira’s migration into MMA and ambition to compete inside the Octagon.

At the same time, the Brazilian was defending his Glory middleweight title against Belgaroui in New York City, while Israel Adesanya was in the midst of his rookie campaign in the UFC. By the following October, “The Last Stylebender” had claimed the interim title in an instant classic against Kelvin Gastelum before unifying the belts with a second-round stoppage win over Robert Whittaker, establishing himself as the top middleweight in the sport.

Ahead of his first title defense against Yoel Romero at UFC 248 on March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas, Adesanya spoke with Sporting News Australia, reflecting on his losses to Pereira during their time as kickboxing rivals, but refused to address the Brazilian by name.

He mentioned how Pereira would time posts about beating him in the past around his fights, saying, “At the end of the day, no one knows who the f*** he is, and he’s gonna be that guy when I’m world champion, when I’m a legend, he’s gonna be that guy at some pub talking about, ‘I beat that guy one time.’”

The fictitious version of the story goes that Pereira saw the clip, heard what the man he’d beaten twice in kickboxing said about him, and decided that he would make Adesanya pay for his words inside the Octagon.

The true version of events is only slightly different.


“He motivated himself, but the talk with Izzy definitely gave him a little boost,” Cruz said when asked about the famous interview and the tale of it pushing Pereira into MMA. “I was actually with him. I’m the one that first showed him that interview years ago, planting that seed a little bit because put yourself in that guy’s shoes: he beat one of the best combat sports athletes in the world at the time.

“You beat the guy that is the champ, you beat him twice in kickboxing, you want to fight him in MMA; you want to prove to the world, show the world that you’re the best fighter,” added Cruz. “I had to show the guy and say, ‘Do you know what he’s saying right here?’”

When Pereira debuted in the UFC, the groundwork for a potential clash with Adesanya was laid immediately.

Anyone who knew of their history in the ring was already eyeing a possible matchup in the Octagon, and those who were unfamiliar with the Brazilian’s exploits in kickboxing and his history with the reigning middleweight champion were inundated with the same message: this guy beat Adesanya twice and is focused on facing him in MMA.

He beat Michailidis, dispatching the Greek fighter in the second round, and followed it up with a unanimous decision win over his countryman Bruno Silva four months later.

Only July 2, 2022, he shared the card with Adesanya, facing off with divisional fixture Sean Strickland in the final non-title fight at UFC 276, headlined by his rival defending his title opposite Jared Cannonier. Nothing is ever etched in stone regarding matchmaking in the UFC, but the expectation was that if each man emerged victorious, they would face off for the middleweight title later in the year.

Pereira detonated a left hook on the chin of Strickland midway through the first round of their contest, putting him on the canvas and bringing a halt to the proceedings with a swift right hand as the polarizing American tried to return to a standing position. Two fights later, Adesanya came through his fight with Cannonier unscathed, successfully retaining his title with a measured — some say middling — effort.

The duo was paired off in the main event of UFC 281 in New York City, with Pereira returning to the site of his debut a year early, already challenging for championship gold.

Little did anyone know that it would be the start of an unimaginable year.


“It was fast, and I knew it was gonna be fast,” Teixeira said of Pereira’s rise through the UFC ranks. “Before his debut at Madison Square Garden, I was telling people, ‘Give this guy a year, a year-and-a-half and he will be champ.’”

Teixeira turned out to be right, but somehow only halfway correct simultaneously.

On November 12, 2022, at Madison Square Garden, one year and six days after stepping into the Octagon for the first time, Pereira shared the cage with Adesanya with the middleweight title hanging in the balance.

At the close of the first round, the champion rocked the challenger, putting him on the kind of rubber legs where most believe that had there been more than two ticks left on the clock, Adesanya would have likely swarmed and finished, ending the fight and ostensibly the rivalry right then and there.

But Pereira stayed upright and made it to his corner. However, he struggled to get any meaningful offense going. Adesanya utilized his customary slick footwork, sound defensive mechanics, and swift striking to pick at Pereira and open a wide lead heading into the final round.

In the corner, Teixeira and Fernely Feliz laid things out to their charge plainly: you have five minutes to become world champion, and you need to knock him out, urging him to throw combinations.

Adesanya came out firing, but Pereira marched forward.

Just before the three-minute mark, the challenger had the champion backed into the fence and caught him with his signature clattering left hook, hurting Adesanya. Heavy artillery followed, including another left that caused the champion to wobble to the canvas, and when he rose, Pereira was there to meet him with more firepower.

One final right hand brought referee Marc Goddard to wave off the action. Pereira had beaten Adesanya again, this time in MMA, where he was supposed to be at a disadvantage, and only one year after stepping into the Octagon for the first time.

As is custom when a dominant champion is dethroned, an immediate rematch between the two was scheduled, with the familiar foes touching down to face one another again five months later in Miami at UFC 287.

Midway through the second round, Pereira appeared to have Adesanya backed into a position similar to where he had beaten him in their first dalliance — hemmed in along the fence, covering up, looking to avoid the sledgehammers coming his way — only this time, the former champion was playing possum.

Pereira swarmed, misreading the situation, and when he wound up for another left hook, Adesanya triggered a right hand inside of it, finding his chin and taking the legs out from underneath the champion. Another right and left on the way down put Pereira on the canvas, ending the contest, the belt returning to Adesanya, who pantomimed shooting a quiver of arrows into his felled opponent, aping the Brazilian’s signature walkout gesture.


In the locker room after the fight, Pereira impressed his team with his ability to take the setback in stride and almost immediately spin it towards the future.

“(He acted) like a champ, like an inspiration,” Teixeira said when asked about his reaction following the loss to Adesanya. “He acted like a champ should act.

“In the speech he gave in the locker room, he was telling us, ‘You guys are here for me. How many times do we celebrate, we party, and the other family is crying, the other family is upset? Now is our turn (to be upset). Things happen. This is the way the sport is. The only thing to do is go home, rest, be with my family, and when I come back, I promise you, I will come back stronger.’

“And he did it.”

But he didn’t come back as a middleweight.

Instead, Pereira ventures to light heavyweight, forgoing the drastic, punishing weight cut to 185 pounds to compete in the 205-pound ranks, jumping into a clash with former champion Jan Blachowicz at UFC 291 less than four months after getting stopped in Miami.

“Think about it: the dude got knocked out in his last middleweight fight, and the fight with Blachowicz was a little more than three months after that,” said Cruz, still impressed with the turnaround and effort his close friend delivered last summer edging out the Polish veteran.

After besting Blachowicz, Pereira returned to New York City again, making a third consecutive November appearance at Madison Square Garden. This time, he was stationed opposite another former light heavyweight titleholder — returning Czech standout Jiri Prochazka — in a battle for the title that was vacated after Jamahal Hill popped his Achilles tendon in the summer.

Late in the second round, Prochazka landed a clean right hand and pushed forward behind it, looking to back Pereira into the fence. As he stepped in, the Brazilian clipped him with a short left and a right behind the ear, knocking him off his feet. Prochazka instinctively tried to collect Pereira’s hips and secure a takedown. Still, the former middleweight champion began unloading a storm of punches and elbows to the side of his opponent’s head.

Prochazka took as much as he could but eventually wilted, falling backward to the canvas, prompting Goddard to step in and pull Pereira off of him.


Two years after making his UFC debut in the same venue and one year removed from winning the middleweight title, “Poatan” rose to the top of the light heavyweight division, becoming a two-division champion in seven appearances over 736 days.

“I see it as a job that has been done over many, many years in martial arts,” Pereira said when asked about his historic accomplishments inside the Octagon. “It would be hard for someone to come in without this kind of background and accomplish these things, so the way I see it is that it’s a job that has been done over many years in martial arts that has prepared me to come in and be able to do this.”

While that is undoubtedly true, it’s also an uncanny achievement, one heightened by the fact that he didn’t begin training in the martial arts until he was 22 years old.

Plenty of people have dedicated years to martial arts and competing inside the Octagon. Still, only eight people have won UFC titles in two weight classes, and no one accomplished the feat as expediently as Pereira did.

He is unique.

He is a one-of-one.

But what is it that makes him such an undeniably exceptional talent?

“His work ethic and the way that he learns techniques,” said Cruz when asked to identify what separates Pereira from the rest of the pack. “Everybody talks about how strong he is, how hard he hits, but they don’t see how much magic he has in his fundamentals.

“There are things — I have been coaching him since (he was) 25, going back to kickboxing — and there are things that he was doing back then that I’m just starting to understand now, bro.

“I’m not comparing him to Da Vinci or anything like that, but people say that sometimes the people with vision are not understood in their times, and he’s different, man. There are things that are kinda hard to understand how he thinks sometimes, but he sees things way ahead, and putting that together with as much talent as he has, with the work ethic that he has — those 15 years working in a tire shop, hitting that hammer every day — combined, built him the way that he is.”

Faced with the same question, Teixeira identified similar elements as the bits that make his pupil an atypical force in the MMA space.

“The ability to understand the game — to understand the wrestling game, the jiu jitsu game — because usually when you do a martial art like kickboxing or boxing, or a wrestler to learn boxing, learning something is very difficult because it’s different ways, but Alex just gets it,” explained Teixeira, the understanding of how uncommon that kind of uptake is evident in his tone. “You talk to him, he drills one or two times, and the next time he was doing it in sparring; it’s amazing.”

Many are quick to point to the visible elements and the measurable pieces when attempting to diagnose why one fighter can succeed differently. They often chalk up elite status to competitors' size and frame for their division, a world-class background in a particular discipline, or otherworldly dexterity and speed as differentiation points.

All can undoubtedly contribute to separating the wheat from the chaff, but for Teixeira, the totality of what Pereira brings to the gym has helped him climb to such lofty heights in such a short period.

“He came from a different sport, had the physical ability, but he’s a hard worker too,” he said, almost angry that he was being asked to point to a singular element. “He has the whole package; it’s not one thing.

“To have a guy like him, with the ability that he has — it’s easy to be lazy because you think, ‘I’m so strong, I get things so easy,’ but he’s not. He’s improving every time.”


What his coaches see as work ethic, Pereira sees as discipline — a commitment to his craft, steeped in the mentality learned from his parents and those early years fending for himself, working in a labor-intensive job at an age when most are still worrying about homework and what to do on the weekend.

“It all comes down to dedication and willpower; everything that I did, everything that I gave up in order to be able to chase this,” offered the UFC light heavyweight champion when asked what has helped fuel his meteoric rise to the top of two divisions in as many years.

“I think it’s the discipline that I learned from my parents and having started working at a very young age, 12 years old, at the tire shop,” continued Pereira. “I learned to be responsible for myself and have that kind of discipline, and then when I found martial arts, I saw the martial arts type of discipline and I was able to parlay one into the other, continue being disciplined and responsible.

“What makes me really happy is to see where I came from,” he added. “From nothing to being able to do all these things. It was really hard work and dedication.”

Another element that Cruz and Teixeira each point to when attempting to identify the different elements that not only make Pereira a formidable talent but tremendously popular and increasingly beloved as well is his humility.

Time and again, we hear tales of athletes, celebrities, and everyday folks who enjoy varying degrees of success and let it all go to their heads, suddenly eschewing the people who helped them reach those heights and adopting an air of superiority or entitlement.

"I think it’s because he’s just genuinely a good dude,” Cruz said with a laugh. “He’s just like Glover — they’re good dudes, regular guys next door. Alex is not the kind of guy that is gonna be fancy. He’s not the kind of guy that if you’re gonna pick him up at home, he wants to be in a Rolls Royce; he’s gonna hop on a moped and say, ‘Chama — let’s go!’

“The whole hero saga that he’s bringing out there, being the underdog from humble beginnings and now he’s conquering the world, I think that’s what attracts people,” he added, dropping some Joseph Campbell into the mix. “It’s like Maximus in Gladiator — from nothing to fighting the emperor. That hero saga is what captivates people, especially when the hero stays humble and remains the same person.”


Cruz recounted a story after Pereira’s win over Adesanya in New York City, explaining the team returned to the hotel in the pre-dawn hours. When he turned up to Teixeira’s that afternoon for a celebratory barbecue, he was shocked to see the new UFC middleweight champion manning the grill.

When he told Pereira — who was still limping due to the fight the night before — to sit down, he was met with a swift verbal counter.

“He goes, ‘Shut up and sit down!’” Cruz said, laughing. “Nothing changed. He cooked. He served me and everybody else.”

Teixeira sees the same things and efforts to ensure it remains that way going forward.

“He knows how great he’s done, but we just keep grounded, keep the same people around,” said the retired former champion and respected veteran. “We make the same jokes. I make fun of Alex the same way the first time he got here. We’re still the same people, the same friends.

“As far as legacy, he knows he just has to keep working. He knows he’s gifted. He knows he has this, and that he’s gonna keep doing the same things until he decides not to do it anymore, you know?

“Eventually, you realize you’re not that big. It’s not all about you,” continued Teixeira, dropping the kind of wisdom that only comes with years in the game and a well-lived life. “You see stories of Mike Tyson — it’s better to keep humble than learn (the hard way later). Either way, life will humble you, man. No matter how big you think you are, how cocky somebody can be, eventually, life will bring you down and show you we’re just a speck in this world.”


So what do you do when you’ve won UFC gold in two divisions after only seven fights?

“There is no specific greater goal, greater ambition,” said Pereira regarding future achievements he’s looking to chase. “I have a new eight-fight contract with the UFC, I want to win, I want to defend my belt, keep fighting.

“I’ve already achieved it. I’ve already reached everything that I could ever imagine, so anything that happens from now is all profit. It’s all extra.

“But that doesn’t mean that I’m gonna be careless; that I’ve already done everything, and I (am okay with losing),” he added swiftly, making sure to make it clear that potential foes can still expect the same laser-focused, driven fighter preparing to compete and stepping into the Octagon every time. “No — I’m a very competitive guy. I’m very responsible, very focused, so it doesn’t mean that because I don’t have greater goals or ambitions necessarily that I’m going in there careless.”

While Pereira doesn’t have specific goals or fights in mind, Teixeira sees some possibilities for “Poatan” going forward.

“Alex is like Conor and Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirier where they’re doing big fights all the time,” he said when asked where things could go next. “Alex has become a superstar. He reminds me of Chuck Liddell in a way because he doesn’t talk too much. He’s very confident, strong, straightforward; it’s so much like Chuck Liddell. In training too — the way he acts a little bit.

"The only difference is Chuck used to party a little more,” Teixeira added with a chuckle.

After forecasting a quick rise to the top of the middleweight division before his promotional debut, the 44-year-old Brazilian is now wondering if the two-division champion could potentially add a third title to his mantle at some point.

“Two (belts)? I did (think he could do it), but right now I’m thinking three though,” said Teixeira. “A year ago, I was thinking, ‘I want him to fight at light heavyweight’ because I saw how hard it is for him to cut to 185. I told him, ‘I want you to do at least one fight at light heavyweight.’

“I retired, he moved up, and he’s the champion. Now it’s like, ‘Oh s*** — this guy could go to heavyweight, and he can be champion there too!’ He’s got the strength, he’s got the power.”

Now, wouldn’t that be an exciting sequel to this already incredible story?


From the shadows of the favelas to the glaring lights of the Octagon, Alex Pereira's journey is not just a testament to the human spirit's indomitable will but a reminder that legends are not born; they're forged through trials by fire, with every punch thrown and every challenge faced. His legacy, etched not just in the belts he's won but in the hearts he's inspired, closes not on a chapter of a fighter's triumph but on the universal truth that within every underdog lies a champion, waiting for their moment to rise. And as the screen fades to black, we know that somewhere, in a tire shop in São Paulo, a kid dreams bigger, fueled by the legend of Alex Pereira.