Alex Pereira, Mr. Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere — and maybe Anyweight

UFC LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT champion Alex Pereira and his coach, Plinio Cruz, were preparing to board a plane from Newark, New Jersey, to Australia on the morning of June 3 when they saw the same news as everyone else in the fight world. The UFC 303 news conference scheduled for later that day in Dublin, Ireland, between Conor McGregor and Michael Chandler to promote their bout on June 29, had been canceled. No reason was given.

The news piqued Pereira and Cruz’s curiosity, but they didn’t give it much additional thought. He was about to embark on a two-week trip filled with appearances and seminars in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. And he was already booked to fight Jiří Procházka in August at UFC 305 in Perth, Australia. Pereira’s team was expecting the UFC to announce the bout during his visit to the country.

“We didn’t have a bout agreement, but the fight was agreed on,” Pereira’s manager Jorge Guimaråes told ESPN. “[UFC chief business officer] Hunter Campbell knew we were going to Australia and had said, ‘Oh great, we’ll take advantage of that and start promoting it while he’s there.

“So, when Alex got to Australia, I texted Hunter and said, ‘OK, he’s there. We’re all set to announce.’ And Hunter got really quiet for several days. That’s when I said, ‘Oh s—, something’s going on.'”

During the second week of Pereira’s visit, Guimaråes received the call he’d begun to suspect was coming. McGregor was out of UFC 303 due to injury and the promotion was scrambling for a replacement. On June 12, Campbell offered Perreira a 205-pound title defense against Procházka, who Pereira defeated by knockout at UFC 295 in November. Ironically, Pereira and Procházka filled in for the main event on that card as well in New York City, when Jon Jones pulled out of a heavyweight headliner due to injury.

Guimaråes called Pereira and got a lukewarm response. UFC 303 was in 16 days and he was on the other side of the world. He’d been training, but not fight training. He wasn’t on a fight diet. He also really wanted to headline the Perth card. Australia had given him a wonderful reception, and he loved the idea of fighting Procházka there.

“Being there and getting to see the love of the fans, everybody screaming ‘Chama,’ everybody screaming my name,” Pereira told ESPN. “I started to imagine myself in that arena with everybody chanting my name like that.”

Pereira’s team never gave Campbell an outright “no,” but did indicate they weren’t in love with the idea. The next day, Campbell called again. He understood their hesitancy, but the company needed Pereira to step up. McGregor’s withdrawal put the UFC in a bind. This wasn’t just any pay-per-view. It was International Fight Week in Las Vegas. Behind McGregor’s name, UFC 303 had already produced a $20 million gate, according to UFC CEO Dana White, and the UFC Hall of Fame ceremony and fan expo was scheduled that same week.

Guimaråes reached out to Pereira again. By the end of the day, Pereira and the UFC had agreed on financial terms for the unique circumstances of the fight and White announced the new main event.

“I told him, ‘Hey, Hunter is even thinking about canceling the event, they don’t have a main event,” Guimaråes said. “He said to me, ‘Is this for sure going to happen if I say yes?’ I knew then that he was willing to fight because his mind had already started working on whether to take an early flight back to the U.S.”

Ultimately, Perreira chose to fulfill his obligations in Australia and flew home to Danbury, Connecticut, on June 16. That left one week of “camp,” before he’d board another plane for Las Vegas. He would also have little time to adjust to jet lag. And, of course, the matter of making championship weight.

“Once he agreed, I could see a massive change in him,” Cruz told ESPN. “We still honored our commitments in Australia, but in the quiet moments, there was a lot going on in his head. It’s a lot to process in two weeks. But hey, you want to be a hero, you’ve got to do heroic s—.”

PEREIRA’S ENTIRE LIFE is a ballad of heroism.

He was born into poverty in the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil. At 17 years old, one of his older brothers died from drug use. He battled alcoholism during his teens and early 20s, only managing to break the addiction by throwing himself into kickboxing, which he began training at the relatively late age of 21. He became the first kickboxer to hold GLORY titles in multiple weight classes simultaneously and won two UFC championships within his first seven appearances in the promotion.

Behind the scenes, he’s performed plenty of heroics already this year.

Originally, Pereira’s 2024 was supposed to start at UFC 301 on May 4 in Rio de Janeiro. Pereira has never fought in his home country in the UFC and that event was an opportunity to check that box. However, the promotion needed a main event at UFC 300 and Pereira was the best option available.

“Available” being the key word. He was willing to take a title fight against former champion Jamahal Hill on a timeline that was less than ideal.

“He’s the only champion I see doing this,” Cruz said. “Usually, champions will say, ‘I want this, I want that. I need a few months off.’ Some want to pick their opponents. The good thing about Alex is that he’s a kickboxer, and kickboxers fight a lot. He’s fought three times in one month before. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”

Two weeks before UFC 300 on April 13, Pereira broke his toe during a training session in Connecticut. Cruz was out of town for a commentary gig on the day it happened. Pereira’s training partners called Cruz, panicked about the injury. Knowing Pereira so well, Cruz was skeptical it would jeopardize the fight, but he called Pereira immediately to find out.

“I said, ‘Bro, how’s your leg?'” recalled Cruz. “He just changed the subject. I saw a photo of the toe and it was sticking in the opposite direction, but he’s just a savage, man. He’s fought with a broken foot, a torn meniscus. I know when he’s hurting, he’s human after all, but it goes along with the whole ‘Stone Face’ persona he has. He just doesn’t show it.”

Pereira went on to knock out Hill in the first round at UFC 300. Initially, he wanted to fight in Brazil so badly that he considered fighting at UFC 300 and UFC 301 in just three weeks. But with his broken toe in the lead-up to UFC 300 and a second broken toe suffered in the Hill fight, there was no chance of turning around for UFC 301.

He still attended UFC 301 as a guest fighter, however, and sat down with Campbell for an informal dinner meeting that week in Rio de Janeiro. Pereira wanted to fight again as soon as possible, but Campbell said the UFC didn’t have any openings until October, perhaps in Salt Lake City. Pereira objected because waiting until October likely meant he’d only fight twice in 2024.

Even though the UFC already had a solid middleweight title fight between Dricus Du Plessis and Israel Adesanya planned for its August card in Perth, Campbell offered Pereira the date. He accepted immediately.

“He turns 37 in July, he knows his clock is ticking,” Guimaråes said. “He wants to fight. He wants as many big fights as possible.”

IN EARLY 2023, Pereira and Cruz flew to Lebanon for a series of appearances and training opportunities. One of their first stops was a small cafe in Beirut. Neither had posted anything about their location on social media.

Within 20 minutes, three small children approached their table to ask Pereira for an autograph. The interaction sent Cruz’s head spinning.

“Where did you kids come from?” Cruz asked. “Did you pop up from the ground? How did you even know we were here?”

Pereira’s team has always known of his potential in the sport. His fighting style is incredibly entertaining, and Guimaråes believes his fight intelligence exceeds the likes of Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and Patricio Pitbull — Brazilian champions he and his business partner, Ed Soares, have managed over the years.

This star power, though? The way Pereira has resonated with fans on a global scale? That has been a surprise. Fans mobbed Pereira at a UFC event in Toronto in January. He required security at times in Australia due to the size of crowds. Guimaråes is in the process of renovating his home in Bali this year and has been frequenting shops in a local village. He can’t believe how many locals have approached him regarding his connection to Pereira.

“These people don’t live in poverty, but it’s a super humble way of life over here,” Guimaråes said. “They see me in Alex’s shirt and will yell, ‘Alex Pereira!’ He’s becoming well known amongst people I never thought would have even seen MMA.”

Pereira will cap an eight-month stretch on Saturday in which he will have headlined the UFC’s annual megacard at Madison Square Garden, its landmark UFC 300, and UFC 303 at International Fight Week, in which he stepped in for the biggest star in MMA history in Conor McGregor. UFC commentator and ESPN analyst Daniel Cormier recently posed the question, ‘Is Alex Pereira the face of the UFC?’ Whether he is or not, he’s become arguably its most reliable champion.

Big moments tend to feed into even bigger moments in combat sports, and Pereira has expressed an interest in eventually testing the waters at heavyweight. He is one of 10 fighters who have won UFC titles in two weight classes. No one has ever won a championship in three. The defending heavyweight champion and greatest fighter of all time, Jon Jones, has already said a fight between him and Pereira could be “the most massive fight the UFC could make.”

One-to-two years ago, the thought of Jones vs. Pereira as the biggest fight in UFC history would have felt silly. But this weekend, when Pereira carries an event that was supposed to be the return of McGregor, it won’t feel laughable. He has become the “big moment” champion of the UFC. He’s been willing to take risks others won’t, and his stardom is growing because of it.

Could it eventually lead to a heavyweight fight against Jones? That would be some heroism.

“He doesn’t like to get his mind too far ahead, but I think he would like that challenge,” Cruz said. “If we get to that point, I think that’s a fight everyone involved is going to want. It would be good for the entire sport.”

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