For “The Last Stylebender,” the UFC 281 main event presents the opportunity to finally score an elusive victory over Alex Pereira, a kickboxing rival from his past who not only holds a decision win over Adesana, but also a devastating knockout that has been on repeat since before Pereira signed with the UFC. Even if it’s not a fight that Adesanya has been chasing, an impressive win over Pereira would go a long way towards making fans forget about some of Adesanya’s recent critical duds.
For Esparza, she gets a second chance to defend a title for the first time after her inaugaural reign as UFC strawweight champion was halted in brutal fashion by Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It was a long crawl back to the belt for Esparza and now that she has it, it feels like she has even further to go to prove that she is truly the best 115-pounder in the world. Zhang Weili, a former champion, is the presumptive favorite heading into Saturday’s co-main event, with plenty predicting not only a win for the Chinese star but an emphatic one. Maybe history is about to repeat itself for Esparza.
In other main card action, lightweight contenders Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler meet in a clash that has “Fight of the Night” written all over it, Frankie Edgar makes his final walk to the octagon as he faces Chris Gutierrez, and veteran Dan Hooker looks to slow surging lightweight Claudio Puelles.
What: UFC 281
Where: Madison Square Garden in New York
When: Saturday, Nov. 12. The five-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPNN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Israel Adesanya (1) vs. Alex Pereira (7)
For Israel Adesanya’s next trick, could we see... the mixing of the martial arts? I doubt it.
As fun as it is to imagine Adesanya pulling a Francis Ngannou and wrestling his way to a win against a dangerous opponent, we’ve seen the middleweight champion’s well-rounded game on plenty of occasions with how he defends against grapplers. He may consider showing off his grappling offense in this fight — Adesanya teased “I know something he doesn’t” earlier this week — but the wiser decision is probably to stick to his strength, even if that happens to be the same strength as Alex Pereira.
Pereira’s knockout power is no joke and his second win over Adesanya was no fluke, even if the finish came in a fight that Adesanya was likely leading. You don’t become a two-division kickboxing champion through sheer berserker tactics. “Poatan” knows how to close the distance, cut off angles, and set up his opponents to eat power shots. I’m just not confident he’s better than Adesanya in those regards.
There’s a big difference between fighting in a ring and fighting in an octagon, and Adesanya has mastered the latter. It’s extraordinarily difficult to pin him down for any significant period of time and just as difficult to actually land clean on him in those situations. Names like Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum have had varying degrees of success, but they also have more complete MMA games than Pereira. They presented other threats that made Adesanya adjust, something Pereira has yet to show that he can do.
You can’t count Pereira out of any striker vs. striker matchup, but I’m leaning towards Adesanya because octagon experience is a real thing and Pereira’s is so limited. Even with 25 minutes to work, I can’t see Pereira connecting with a bomb like he did last time, and that means Adesanya takes it on the cards.
Carla Esparza (1) vs. Zhang Weili (3)
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: Carla Esparza has an A-plus skill, her wrestling, and anytime you have an A-plus skill it can take you a long way. It’s taken Esparza all the way to a UFC title and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she grinds out a win over Zhang Weili.
Moving on. Zhang is going to win this one in a rout.
The former champion has it all. Absurd strength (we’ve all seen the video of her scooping Francis Ngannou up like a sack of potatoes), fast hands, and athleticism out the wazoo. She’s faced strong grapplers in Rose Namajunas, Jessica Andrade, and Jessica Aguilar, and while only Aguilar was capable of executing the kind of pressure wrestling game that Esparza can, that’s still a solid list of submission threats who could not seriously threaten Zhang on the ground. Andrade never even got the chance to try and one worries that Esparza might meet the same fate.
An aggressive Zhang could work to Esparza’s benefit as timely takedowns stifle the Chinese slugger, but I’m not convinced that Esparza can consistently take Zhang down and even less convinced that she can keep her down. If Esparza doesn’t find a way to neutralize Zhang, even if it just means putting her against the fence and holding on for dear life, this will be a short fight.
With all due respect to the champion, this is a nightmare matchup and might evoke flashbacks of her loss to Joanna Jedrzecjzyk. And I expect Zhang to get the job done just as quickly.
Zhang by second-round knockout.
Dustin Poirier (T3) vs. Michael Chandler (6)
While we might not see D-1 All-American Israel Adesanya in the main event, we could see Michael Chandler go back to his roots if he’s serious about getting back in the win column.
When the matchmakers paired Chandler up with Dustin Poirier, they undoubtedly did so with the hope that the three-time Bellator lightweight champion could recreate the magic of his absurd three-round scrap with Justin Gaethje at last year’s Madison Square Garden show. In all likelihood, these two fan favorites will brawl, but Chandler should think about mixing in some takedowns as opposed to just going toe-to-toe with his fellow lightweight great.
Poirier has always had excellent jiu-jitsu and an entertaining submission game; conversely, Chandler has a strong top game and defends well against submissions, as evidenced in the Brent Primus and Goiti Yamauchi fights. Bonus checks are great, but Chandler has shown that he knows how to fight smart and strategically. Can he resist the lure of putting on a show for a rowdy MSG crowd?
That’s not even mentioning that Poirier is more than capable of dealing with the wrestling of anyone not named Khabib Nurmagomedov. So even if Chandler decides to shoot early and often, Poirier isn’t a sitting duck. He can stifle takedowns and force Chandler to fight his fight, and as effective as Chandler can be in the standup, he’s a tier below the best of the best in that department at 155 pounds.
Frankie Edgar vs. Chris Gutierrez
Whatever happens, please, let this be the last dance for Frankie Edgar.
Anyone who’s read my predictions in the past knows that I’ve had an unwavering belief in Edgar, a former lightweight champion and three-division contender. The New Jersey native has been at the center of some of my favorite MMA moments, whether it be damn near slamming Gray Maynard through the mat after being on the brink of defeat, the masterclass he put on against B.J. Penn in their second fight, or any of the impressive performances he put on against the likes of Charles Oliveira, Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, Cub Swanson, and more.
Somehow, no matter what division he fought in, Edgar’s opponents always seemed to tower over him once he came face-to-face with them in the cage, but few fighters in the lighter weight classes have ever stood taller than him at the end of the night. If this is the end — and I hope it is, win or lose — then it’s been a beautiful ride.
The end could be ugly as Gutierrez has the potential to put Edgar away in the first round. He’s not a classic homerun hitter, but he does a fantastic job of mixing up his striking techniques and at some point he’s going to catch Edgar with something hard. That’s how it goes when you’re just a month removed from your 41st birthday and staring straight at the end of the tunnel.
And now I’m sad all over again.
Dan Hooker vs. Claudio Puelles
I’m seeing better days ahead for “The Hangman.”
Claudio Puelles has all the makings of a future lightweight title challenger, but Dan Hooker is the toughest opponent he’s faced yet. Call me a sucker, but I believe the jovial Hooker when he says that he’s in a better place now after an ill-advised return to featherweight and an even more ill-advised fight with Islam Makhachev that he took on short notice. This isn’t to make excuses for Hooker consistently losing against top-ranked competition, I just think he’s still a notch above Puelles. The pressure is on the “Prince of Peru” to prove that he deserves a ranking of his own.
What’s keeping me from picking Puelles is that Hooker has the takedown and submission defense to force Puelles to stand with him. Then it becomes more of a toss-up as Puelles is rapidly developing as a standup fighter, but Hooker’s length and experience tilt the odds in his favor. This is as close to do-or-die as it gets for Hooker, so the motivation is there for a bounce-back performance as well.
Look for Puelles to put on a spirited performance against Hooker, only to fall short in what will be a valuable learning experience for him.