UFC champions are no slam dunk to win once they earn a belt, as Israel Adesanya learned the hard way

Heading into his grudge match title defense against Alex Pereira in the main event of UFC 281 on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York, Israel Adesanya was an outlier among current UFC champions. His five successful title defenses heading into the bout with Pereira were the most among UFC men and were second only to women's flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko's seven in the UFC.

Before Pereira, badly behind on the scorecards in his final round knocked out of Adesanya, current UFC champions to that point in their most recent reigns had 21 successful defenses. Sixteen of those, or 76.2 percent, were among Shevchenko, Adesanya and featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski.

With Adesanya's stunning knockout loss, the 12 fighters who hold UFC belts (including interim flyweight champion Brandon Moreno) have just 16 successful defenses in their most recent reign.

Those 12 champions have a combined MMA record of 252-34-4, an 87.6 percent win percentage. In the last two years, champions have only defended their titles at a 59.4 percent clip. In 2022, the record is 8-7, while it was 11-6 in 2021.

In the last 10 years, UFC champions have compiled a record of 112-45 in title fights, a more than acceptable 71.3 percent victory percentage. (For these purposes, I did not count any fights for a vacant title and if a champion met an interim champion, I only considered the result for the champion.) That number, though, was buoyed by two unusually strong years for champions. In 2013, UFC champions went 15-2 and in 2020, they were 14-0. Eliminating that 29-2 mark from the overall 112-45 record puts the champions' record in title fights at 83-43, a more pedestrian 65.9 percent winning percentage.

The champions' record in title fights over the last decade by year is:

2022: 8-7, with one more title fight to go

2021: 11-6

2020: 14-0

2019: 10-6

2018: 10-3

2017: 11-4

2016: 9-9

2015: 12-6

2014: 11-2

2013: 15-2

Over that 10-year span, champions' winning percentages have been under the 10-year mark of 71.3 percent five times and over it five times. The worst year for champions was 2016, when they went 50 percent in 18 title fights and the best year was 2020 when they won all 14 they took part in.

Their winning percentage in title fights lags considerably from their overall winning percentage, down 16.3 percent.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12:  Alex Pereira battles Israel Adesanya during their Middleweight fight at UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
A right hand to the chin from Alex Pereira (R) helped end Israel Adesanya's reign as middleweight champion Saturday in the main event of UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

A large part of the disparity, obviously, is that the champions are facing better opposition than before they were champions. That, though, isn't totally it. If we look at the non-UFC title fight records for the 12 fighters who currently holds UFC belts, their winning percentage only improves to 88.1 percent without title fights, just half a percentage point better than 87.6 with the title fights included.

So it's not necessarily the better opposition that's causing their success in title fights to be less than one might expect.

Some of it is attributable to luck. Adesanya felt referee Marc Goddard stopped the fight early, but even if one accepts that, no one can deny that Adesanya was severely compromised. He still had three minutes left to fight in the round and given how hard Pereira hits and how hurt Adesanya appeared to be, it's likely that Pereira would have stopped him eventually.

Still, Adesanya maintains he could have gone on.

"I was fine," Adesanya said at the post-fight news conference. "I could see everything. My eyes might have rolled back a little bit, but I was lucid."

Luck, though, isn't going to be a significant factor over a period of 10 years and so many bouts.

The nature of MMA plays a huge role, though, because there are so many ways to win, and lose. A dominant boxer, say, who is outboxing his/her opponent badly usually doesn't have much trouble because there is little the struggling boxer can do to change the outcome. Sure, a fighter could land a knockout punch or combination, but in cases where one fighter is so controlling another over a lengthy period, things rarely change that dramatically.

But in MMA, if a fighter is losing by being outstruck, he/she could resort to a different method of attack and can definitely change the course of a fight. That happens frequently in MMA.

And then there are the intangibles. Pressure builds up on a fighter even before they become a champion. When they string a few wins together, fans, media and the UFC brass take notice. The competition gets increased. The demands become larger. There are more interviews and more public appearances and more requests for photos, autographs and a few words.

All of that plays a role and if it gnaws at a fighter, it can have an impact on performance and, eventually, lead to a significant loss.

The record of the last decade shows the champions own their belts for a reason: They win on a fairly regular basis, even against the best in the world.

It's not always a slam dunk, however, and it's often hardest to perform when the lights are brightest, the stakes are highest and the whole world is watching.

That's what makes the performances of fighters like ex-light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, ex-lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and ex-welterweight/middleweight king Georges St-Pierre so remarkable. They went 31-2 with one no-contest in title fights, a remarkable mark considering who they faced and the pressure that was on them.

Title reigns are generally short, because despite how good the fighters are, champions have a target on their backs and usually see the best of the opposition. And given the difficulty of the sport, a 71.3 winning percentage over a decade of championship bouts is a significant accomplishment.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 23: Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones pose for photos during the UFC Hall of Fame Class of 2020 Induction Ceremony at Park Theater at Park MGM on September 23, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Georges St-Pierre (L) and Jon Jones earned their spots in the UFC Hall of Fame with great performances in UFC title fights. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)