Since UFC 205 in 2016, after New York became the final state to legalize mixed martial arts, the UFC has held an annual November pay-per-view event from inside the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. After taking the annual November event to the UFC Apex in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UFC returned to Manhattan in 2021 with UFC 268. This year’s MSG card, UFC 281, will include two title fights, with the women’s strawweight title on the line in the co-main event, followed by a middleweight title affair to headline the card
The main event will be the third battle of one of the most unique combat sports trilogies, as incumbent champion Israel Adesanya will look to defeat challenger Alex Pereira for the first time. The pair’s first two meetings were kickboxing bouts in Glory of Heroes, with Pereira scoring a unanimous decision win in Apr. 2016, before becoming the lone fighter to knock out Adesanya when they rematched 11 months later. This time around, the tables have slightly shifted, as Adesanya enters the fight as the more experienced MMA competitor, with 24 pro fights under his belt, while Pereira has only 7 MMA bouts to his name.
In the co-main event, newly re-crowned strawweight champion Carla Esparza will try to defend her belt against former divisional queen Weili Zhang. Esparza was notably the first woman to ever wear strawweight gold after the division’s UFC inception in 2014, and she recaptured the title by defeating Rose Namajunas in a head-scratching affair last May.. That gave Esparza a 2-0 record against “Thug Rose,” who she beat in their first fight for the inaugural title. Zhang has also fought Namajunas twice, but she came up short in both contests.
On top of the two title fights, UFC 281 will feature a much anticipated clash at lightweight as former interim champion Dustin Poirier squares off against former multiple-time Bellator champion Michael Chandler. Poirier most recently competed in Dec. 2021, when he fell short looking to secure the undisputed lightweight crown against Charles Oliveira. Chandler, too, lost to Oliveira with gold on the line in 2021, but he has fought since then, scoring a jaw-dropping front-kick knockout over former UFC interim champion, Tony Ferguson. A win for either man will strengthen his spot near the top of the organization’s most competitive division, as they look to hold off the next generation of fighters from surpassing them as contenders.
The UFC 281 early prelims air live on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ starting at 6 p.m. ET, with the preliminary card following on ESPNEWS starting at 8 p.m. ET. The main card shifts to ESPN+ pay-per-view starting at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the event and make their expert picks in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Much has been made of Alex Pereira knocking out Israel Adesanya in a kickboxing bout under the Glory of Heroes banner, which was his second win over the current UFC middleweight champion; will those previous fights play any role in how this clash turns out?
Kuhl: Well, the previous fights between Israel Adesanya and Alex Pereira may not, in and of themselves, play a direct role in the outcome of this headlining battle. However, they certainly serve as a preview to what this weekend has in store.
Adesanya’s whole run of dominance in MMA has been due to his far superior striking over his UFC counterparts. But, even then, it’s not like every UFC middleweight fight has been an absolute win for the long-reigning champ.
Kelvin Gastelum had him wobbled, but ultimately lost by decision. Marvin Vettori had two chances at Izzy, but in these decision wins, the champ couldn’t finish the Italian. Paulo Costa was supposedly drunk on wine from the night before. And, in his light heavyweight title challenge, Adesanya suffered his sole MMA defeat at the hands of Jan Blachowicz. In his combined pro MMA and kickboxing careers, Adesanya has lost only six times, and two of those were to Pereira.
Pereira has only lost once in MMA, and it was a submission in his pro debut. That is not a threat from Adesanya. The champ may have a whopping 15 knockouts in 23 career wins, but 11 of those were pre-UFC. In the Octagon, he hasn’t translated the same power that he showcased on the smaller stages. And, at the end of the day, Pereira owns two wins over the champ, and, subsequently, owns space in his head, which no other UFC opponents could say.
Adesanya is a proud, trash-talking champ, and he will be doing everything in his power to put the Pereira losses behind him, and I see this putting him down the wrong road of emotions. He is going to try to prove he can beat the Brazilian, but Pereira has nothing to lose. As long as he comes out cool and confident, he can beat Adesanya for a third time, and we will see a new UFC middleweight champ being crowned on Saturday night.
Pereira by unanimous decision.
Petela: This fight terrifies me, because of its potential to be an absolutely incredible kickboxing fight. Call me a cynic, but, whenever I see a fight with that potential, I immediately fear it turning into the awful fight between Paul Daley and Michael “Venom” Page. I referenced it recently in regards to last week’s co-main event, which turned out to be a great fight, and, hopefully, I’m wrong again. But the quote running through my brain is Nate Diaz saying “oh, you’re a wrestler now?” after his first fight with Conor McGregor. To me, the winner of this fight will be determined by which man is forced to attempt a takedown first. Whoever changes levels first will do so because he’s getting handled in the striking realm.
That’s why I lean towards Israel Adesanya coming out victorious. In the fight where he got knocked out by Alex Pereira, “The Last Stylebender” was ahead in the fight before getting drawn into a slugfest and getting finished. Trying to get a takedown wasn’t an option for Pereira in that fight, but, under mixed martial arts rules, it obviously will be an option. Pereira will be getting picked apart by the faster Adesanya, and, when Adesanya refuses to engage in a pure slugfest and continues to fight behind his technical skills, it will make a takedown seem like the best route to victory for Pereira. Because he isn’t an accomplished wrestler or grappler, his form will be off, and Adesanya will easily be able to avoid the canvas and continue to pepper his opponent with strikes en route to a clear-cut unanimous decision win.
My entire prediction could blow up if Pereira is able to execute a takedown from the clinch where he dumps Adesanya to the floor and follows him down, winding up on top. Devastating results can happen when such a powerful striker is able to open up with punches and elbows on the ground – see the rematch between Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovich and Gabriel Gonzaga.
Carla Esparza failed to defend her crown the first time she was strawweight champion; does she make a first successful defense by defeating former champion Weili Zhang?
Petela: No. There is no doubt that the current incarnation of Carla Esparza is a much better fighter than she was when she first claimed the crown back in 2014. The strength of her game is still her wrestling, but she is a much better striker now, who can hold her own in a stand-up fight against most women if she struggles to find success with her offensive wrestling. Unfortunately, for Esparza, Weili Zhang is not most women. She is one of the most powerful punchers in the division, and she is also a supremely technical striker who uses volume paired with that power to damage her opponents.
A couple stats that stand out to me in this fight are Carla Esparza’s takedown accuracy and her average takedowns landed per 15 minutes. She succeeds on just 35 percent of her takedowns but averages 3.25 takedowns landed in a three-round fight. That means she attempts roughly 10 takedowns per fight, and most of those are level-change takedown attempts – single- and double-legs – but not so many takedowns from the clinch or body lock. Zhang has respectable takedown defense at 60 percent, and, while Esparza will likely be able to get her to the canvas a time or two, it is the failed takedown attempts that will be the difference in this fight. Expect Zhang to make Esparza pay for those failed takedowns with heavy shots as she enters and exits grappling range. In the fourth or fifth round, Esparza will be exhausted, and her takedown attempts will be more labored and easier for Zhang to defend. A big punch as they separate, after a failed takedown attempt, will wobble Esparza and a follow up blitz by Zhang will end the fight, and the Chinese fighter will reclaim the strawweight title.
Kuhl: Other than her fight with Yan Xiaonan, which she won by second-round TKO, four of Carla Esparza’s last five wins have consisted of barely getting a win. Three split decisions and a majority decision is not exactly a run of dominance. And, in reclaiming her title against Rose Namajunas last May, neither fighter did a damn thing for five rounds. It was embarrassing for a title fight.
Weili Zhang has been much more dominant, and, even though she lost back-to-back fights to Namajunas, she clearly underestimated her opponent in the first one, and lost a close split decision in the rematch. She came back with a crushing win over Joanna Jędrzejczyk that sent the Polish fighter into retirement. The fact of the matter is that Zhang is a finisher, Esparza is a distance fighter, and I agree with my colleague. Zhang will put a stop to this fight before the final bell, and she will reclaim her title. Esparza won’t be able to utilize her wrestling for 25 minutes in this one.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 280?
Kuhl: Alex Pereira. As previously noted, he is a better kickboxer than Adesanya, and training with Glover Teixeira, he has acquired plenty of grappling skills, which give him enough defense to avoid the almost non-existent grappling of the champ. And, looking at the middleweight division, Adesanya has already cleared out most of them using his striking skills, so if they continue to recycle the division, the blueprint is already there for Pereira to continue a dominant run as the new champ.
Petela: Weili Zhang. She is going to reclaim her title and probably start a fairly dominant run as champion this time around. With Amanda Lemos picking up a big win this past weekend, she is likely the next title challenger, with Jessica Andrade moving back to flyweight. That stylistic matchup favors the Chinese former champion, and, outside of Rose Namajunas, I don’t see a name in the top-ten right now who has the skills to defeat Zhang. I thought Marina Rodriguez was going to be the next big thing at strawweight, but, with her setback against Lemos, it is clear that she has deficiencies that Zhang would be able to exploit should those two meet in the cage.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 281?
Petela: Michael Chandler. He bounced back from his two-fight losing skid in just about the best way possible with a brutal front-kick knockout of Tony Ferguson. He instantly reclaimed most of the momentum he lost, and he furthered his reputation as one of the most exciting fighters the sport has to offer. That ends on Saturday with his quasi grudge match against Dustin Poirier. These two almost came to blows at UFC 276 and have engaged in a war of words leading up to this showdown. Unfortunately for Chandler, he is going to come up short against Poirier, and, despite being an all-action fighter, his hopes for becoming a UFC champion are all but gone. He will be 2-3 in the promotion, and, at 36, in the talent-stacked lightweight division, the road back to a title will prove to be too long for the former Missouri wrestler.
Kuhl: I’m going with Carla Esparza. Outside of stopping Yan Xiaonan in May 2021, she has literally not had a truly dominant performance since she won the inaugural UFC strawweight title with a submission of Rose Namajunas eight years ago. And, as discussed above, her second title win in her rematch with Namajunas last May was just a joke. And, I don’t mean she was a joke, per se, but the whole fight was the most boring and pointless UFC title fight since Tyron Woodley fought Demian Maia five years ago. The problem she will face is that Weili Zhang is an attacker, and she will be coming to fight. When Zhang puts on a dominant performance, and regains the title she once held, Esparza will go back to contender status, and the UFC will need to find more exciting title challengers from the strawweight division.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Mike Trizano’s back is against the wall, as he will take on Seung Woo Choi in the featherweight division. Since he was runner-up on The Ultimate Fighter 27 over four years ago, he has only won twice – by split and unanimous decisions – and of his three losses, two of them were stoppages. It’s hard to see a place for him in the UFC if he loses again, making it three losses in a row in the Octagon.
Petela: Dan Hooker. Simply put, where does he go from here if he loses? That would bring his record to 1-5 over his last six fights, including a failed attempt to return to the featherweight division. His style is certainly entertaining, so he might not get his walking papers if he comes up short, but this could be the final push that takes him from being one of the bright new stars in the promotion to just another prize fighter.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann. It is kind of crazy that this fight is on the prelims. Reyes is a former title challenger who arguably should have gotten the nod over Jon Jones if it weren’t for screwy Texas judges at UFC 247. Both of these fighters are coming into the contest on the heels of post-fight bonuses, Spann a Performance of the Night bonus for his submission win over Ion Cutelaba and Reyes picked up Fight of the Night honors in defeat against current champion Jiri Prochazka. This showdown is a recipe for fireworks.
Kuhl: Much like the aforementioned Reyes-Spann bout, the feature prelim fight between Renato Moicano and Brad Riddell could also serve on the main card. Both of these guys are coming in off losses, and both need a win to maintain relevance. However, in this striker-grappler affair, we have two guys who have won performance bonuses in the past, and both have the ability to finish fights, but in very different fashions. I see these guys banging it out hard, until either Riddell gets a knockout, or Moicano gets a submission. It should be a fun fight either way.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: I think 26-year-old Claudio Puelles is in position to score a performance bonus with a nasty submission over Dan Hooker. While it would be no surprise for Hooker to get finished, since that is how his last three losses occurred, those were to Arnold Allen, Islam Makhachev and Michael Chandler. If Puelles can snag his signature kneebar on the longtime UFC vet, he should take home some extra cash for the third time since joining the promotion.
Petela: Andre Petroski. The Philadelphia-area product is 2-0 since joining the UFC, with a pair of submission victories. He goes up against another submission threat in Wellington Turman, but Petroski is the superior wrestler and he will be able to dictate the battle when the fight goes to the canvas. Additionally, he is going to be able to thwart any reversal attempts from Turman and will be one step ahead in a scramble to lock in a D’Arce or anaconda choke to become the first man to submit Turman and earn himself an additional fifty-thousand dollars.
Pair this card with…
Petela: The main event features two world-class kickboxers, so it only makes sense to pair this card with the 1989 classic movie Kickboxer. Perhaps Jean-Claude Van Damme’s greatest movie, the film is full of ridiculous fight scenes and some unintentional laughs, but it still holds up as wildly entertaining. Get yourself revved up for this fight card with a Friday night viewing of Van Damme in all his glory.
Kuhl: Espresso, and lots of it. This 14-fight card, exciting or not, is going to be a marathon. 14 fights is a lot, so drinking booze early on could certainly lead to falling asleep before the title fights. If you plan on watching the event in its entirety, it would be wise to be well-caffeinated to avoid missing any of the action.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
MW Championship: Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira
Women’s StrawW Championship: Carla Esparza vs. Weili Zhang
LW: Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler
BW: Frankie Edgar vs. Chris Gutierrez
LW: Dan Hooker vs. Claudio Puelles
Preliminary Card (ESPNEWS, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Brad Riddell vs. Renato Moicano
LHW: Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann
Women’s FlyW: Erin Blanchfield vs. Molly McCann
MW: Andre Petroski vs. Wellington Turman
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
LW: Matt Frevola vs. Ottman Azaitar
Women’s StrawW: Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Silvana Gomez Juarez
FW: Michael Trizano vs. Seung Woo Choi
BW: Julio Arce vs. Montel Jackson
LHW: Carlos Ulberg vs. Nicolae Negumereanu
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