NEW YORK — Alex Pereira maneuvered Daniel Cormier into position. They were in a ballroom and Cormier, the UFC Hall of Famer, was preparing to film some content with Pereira, the former middleweight champion who on Saturday challenges Jiří Procházka for the vacant light heavyweight title in the main event of UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden.
Pereira has a stern countenance on his face as he's holding a golf club in his right hand and pushing Cormier closer to a wall with his left. An avid golfer, Cormier is uncomfortable because he's not sure what Pereira is up to, but he's shrewd enough to know it's no good. As Cormier argues briefly and asks for information, Pereira motions him to stand close to the wall.
Pereira takes a golf stance, but then quickly turns and swats Cormier's hand quickly, barely missing Cormier's head. Pereira just as quickly turns back and is holding the golf club in his hand.
Cormier sees that and is convinced Pereira has just missed hitting him in the head with the driver.
"What did you do?" Cormier shrieked, his hand on his heart like Fred Sanford. "What did you do?"
Pereira gets a kick out of Cormier's reaction, and you quickly realize that this is the real Alex Pereira. He's scary looking and mean looking and is one of the hardest hitters in UFC history. He doesn't fool around when he fights, and he's a vicious finisher.
At BetMGM, Pereira is a slight -125 favorite over Procházka, the former light heavyweight champion who is +105. If Pereira wins, he'll become the quickest UFC fighter to win championships in two divisions. He won the middleweight title at MSG a year ago by scoring a final-round knockout of Israel Adesanya. After losing the belt to Adesanya in the rematch in April, he's come full circle and is back in the Garden once again looking for another championship.
It's heady stuff for a guy who has overcome much to succeed in life. Born in a favela in one of the most economically depressed areas of Brazil, he dropped out of school before he was a teenager in order to get a job. He hung with men much older and began drinking, with the problem getting so bad that he became an alcoholic.
He turned to training in kickboxing as a way to beat his alcoholism and not only did he beat the drinking problem, he became one of the great kickboxers of recent vintage. He won two world titles in Glory Kickboxing and is on the verge of a second in MMA.
Through it all, he's a guy who has never let his ego get the best of him and always enjoys getting a laugh. He tricked his mentor, and head coach, former UFC champion Glover Teixeira, when the two were at a Japanese restaurant. Pereira tightly rolled up a napkin to make it look like a piece of sushi. He picked it up with chopsticks and offered it to Teixeira, who bit into it as Pereira was cracking up next to him.
"He loves to have a good time and joke around, but when it's time to get to work, he gets to work," Teixeira said.
Pereira said training camp can be dreary and boring, and filled with aches and pains. Joking around, pulling pranks and keeping things light-hearted makes it more bearable.
Whether pulling pranks is really helpful is up for debate, but if he believes it, it's true.
"Glover was hungry and so it was just a way for me to have some fun by doing that, because he never expected what I had done," Pereira said. "He's such a nice guy and I love to prank him. When I'm training, I love being around people with good energy and positive and that's the kind of camp we have. That's one of the things so great about training with Glover.
"We do our work and we put the time in. For that hour-and-a-half, two hours we're training, it's total focus. But we leave it there and I think it makes it better for me because I am enjoying myself more than if I were [being so intense] all the time."
Teixeira helped fuel him in the final round of the Adesanya fight last year, delivering an all-time speech between the fourth and fifth rounds in which he urged Pereira to pick up the pace and go for the knockout. It was a moment that thrilled UFC CEO Dana White, who couldn't stop talking about it afterward.
Pereira expects a fierce battle with Procházka, whom he described as "incredible," and Teixeira may well have another between-rounds moment.
But Pereira is a superstar on his own, with or without the likable Teixeira. A win over Procházka will not only put him into the championship picture but also will raise his profile considerably. And it may not be his last. He was one of the biggest middleweights ever, and he's a huge light heavyweight. It's not out of the question that he may one day find himself fighting at heavyweight in the UFC.
With far larger weight disparities between classes in MMA than there is in boxing, it's not generally possible for a fighter to win a title in three weight classes. It's never been done, or event attempted, in the UFC.
Pereira is not much for records and he isn't buzzing with the possibility of one-day becoming a three-division champion. If it happens, he'll be proud of it, but he won't let that define him.
"Making middleweight became so hard," he said. "It was just about [impossible]. I feel good at light heavyweight, like this is where I should be. Now, if my body tells me I need to go to heavyweight, OK, but I think I'll need to put on a lot more muscle mass. So we'll see."
We'll see, indeed. If he does it, though, he'll be laughing and joking all the way.