Reigning UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya will look to exorcise the ghost of Alex Pereira in the UFC 281 pay-per-view (PPV) main event, which marks the first time these bitter rivals will meet inside the cage but their third fight overall, thanks to a pair of previous wins for Pereira on the kickboxing circuit — including one by knockout. Before that 185-pound grudge match gets underway, strawweight titleholder Carla Esparza will try to protect her strap from the bludgeoning power of former 115-pound champion Weili Zhang. In addition, lightweight rivals Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler collide in what could be a potential “Fight of the Year” candidate this Sat. night (Nov. 12) at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Who wins and who loses?
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185 lbs.: UFC Middleweight Champion Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (23-1) vs. Alex “Poatan” Pereira (6-1)
Israel Adesanya’s head coach, Eugene Bareman, spent the first half of the year trying to convince the promotion that Alex Pereira was not qualified to contend for the middleweight title based on outdated victories in a “different sport,” then spent the second half of the year — all the way through fight week — complaining about it when matchmakers ignored him. I’m convinced this is some sort of mind game to misdirect Team Pereira, because a coach with Bareman’s talent and experience surely understands how prize fighting works. I know Adesanya fans have been dreading this day, and rightly so, but the reality is that “Poatan” had this title shot grandfathered in since day one. UFC can’t market its middleweight champion as the best 185-pound fighter on the planet when critics are circulating YouTube videos of Adesanya frozen in time like one of those mummified bodies dug up in Pompeii.
Credit to Pereira for holding up his end of the bargain. UFC tasked the Brazilian with a trio of middleweight fights with each one increasing in difficulty. The result was three straight wins with two violent knockouts, though he probably had a little help in his last one, thanks to the world’s dumbest gameplan from overachieving basket case Sean Strickland. I don’t think anyone needs me to waste words on what a devastating striker Pereira has been throughout his combat sports career because it’s been on display on the biggest of stages in both GLORY and UFC, with Adesanya serving as one of his victims. The big question ahead of UFC 281 is how “Poatan” will close the gap separating his foray into MMA from Adesanya’s prolonged (and spectacular) run as a cage fighting champion. Working in his favor is the fact that Adesanya doesn’t really “MMA” much because he’s so far ahead of the competition when it comes to striking. In 13 fights under the UFC banner, “The Last Stylebender” has attempted three takedowns and whiffed all three times, so you’ll excuse the eye rolling when he warns Pereira “this is not kickboxing, this is MMA.” Sorry champ, it’s been mostly kickboxing.
I’m still giving the advantage to Adesanya because Pereira is a monstrous middleweight who often cuts north of 30 pounds to make the 185-pound limit and may not be built to last all five rounds, something Adesanya has done in his last four fights and seven times in his MMA career. The Brazilian has done a couple of five-rounders in kickboxing but those rounds are two minutes shorter than MMA rounds, and I’m not sure “Poatan” will be able to maintain his pace (or his power) once they get into the championship frames. To win, he’s going to have to unleash hell early and often and more importantly, connect. Adesanya is too smart to take the bait and knows that his path to victory comes by playing matador in the first half of the fight, then waiting for his overly-aggressive opponent to empty his tank. From there, expect a “Stylebender’ shooting gallery that could lead to a late finish.
Prediction: Adesanya def. Pereira by technical knockout
115 lbs.: UFC Strawweight Champion Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza (19-6) vs. Zhang “Magnum” Weili (22-3)
Carla Esparza is the winner of six straight and reclaimed the strawweight crown by turning away former division titleholder Rose Namajunas at the UFC 274 PPV event back in May, a five-round (cough) “fight” that saw Esparza land just 30 punches. Coupled with her two takedowns, “Cookie Monster” was able to escape the Footprint Center in Phoenix with a split decision victory and the 115-pound strap, which comes with the obligatory congratulations. That said, I can’t imagine Esparza is proud of her performance any more than Derrick Lewis is bragging about his UFC 226 win over Francis Ngannou. Esparza won because Namajunas — a violent finisher with seven stoppages to her credit — decided to implement Bruce Lee’s art of fighting without fighting.
Maybe I’m making too big a deal of that contest but when I see analysts giving Esparza a chance against Zhang Weili “because she beat Rose Namajunas” I have to scratch my head and wonder if we watched the same fight. On top of that, I don’t want overlook the fact that Esparza has four split decisions and one majority nod over the last four years, so it’s not like she’s been sandblasting her way though the ranks of strawweight. What makes her so effective? Esparza is to wrestling what Ronda Rousey is to judo. You simply can’t find many (if any) women at this stage of MMA with credentials like Esparza, who was a two-time NAIA All-American wrestler at Menlo College under Olympian Lee Allen. Not surprisingly, “Cookie Monster” holds the division record for takedowns at 44 (and counting) but barely cracks the Top 10 when it comes to accuracy, a troubling stat for Sat. night’s fight.
Equally troubling is the fact that Esparza was outwrestled by Claudia Gadelha in her loss to the Brazilian at UFC 225, both in number of takedowns as well as takedown accuracy. Weili is known for her bludgeoning power but can also hit a timely takedown when needed. “Magnum” landed five in her rematch (and split decision loss) against Namajunas, a somewhat controversial outcome that had media outlets split when it came to the judges’ scorecards. Weili promptly rebounded with a second-round destruction of former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 275, sending the Polish piston into an early retirement. There’s not much I can say about Weili that isn’t already apparent from her four years inside the Octagon. The Chinese juggernaut is by all accounts the most powerful strawweight in the division and fights with Jessica Andrade-like aggression, constantly walking forward with a smash first, look technical second type of offense. That’s probably why “Magnum” lands nearly six significant strikes per minute and more than two takedowns per fight.
Esparza is not an exceptional striker (and I’m being generous with that assessment) and never will be, but can still score a knockout by dragging her opponents to the floor, maintaining position, and dropping bombs until the referee intervenes. It’s a strategy that worked against Xiaonan Yan and for it to be effective against Weili, Esparza will have to not only take “Magnum” to the floor, she’ll also have to be powerful enough to keep her there. That’s a pretty tall order for any strawweight because Weili spends her free time hoisting 290-pound heavyweights into the sky, just for laughs. 25 minutes is a long time to work, so it’s conceivable that Weili could run out of gas after fighting off takedowns or defending wall work, leaving her open to some unopposed ground and pound. Conversely, Esparza will have to survive 25 minutes without getting her face turned inside out against a titan who knocked out Andrade, put Jedrzejczyk to sleep, and landed more strikes than Namajunas in their Nov. 2021 do-over. Like the betting line suggests, I don’t like her chances.
Prediction: Weili def. Esparza by technical knockout
155 lbs.: Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier (28-7, 1 NC) vs. “Iron” Michael Chandler (23-7)
Dustin Poirier is ranked No. 2 in the world and will probably not see another title shot for quite some time, considering he’s now 0-2 in the big spot over the last couple of years and would likely face the same problems against Islam Makhachev that he faced against Khabib Nurmagomedov. One of the best things you can say about “The Diamond,” a former featherweight who is on the smaller side of the 155-pound spectrum, is that he loves to fight and rarely gets burned by the heat of the battle, which is why the Louisianan was able to register signature wins in stand-up wars against Max Holloway, Conor McGregor, and Justin Gaethje, just to name a few.
To live by the sword means you typically die by the sword and Poirier has been finished in five of his seven losses but honestly who gives a shit, we’re talking about a combatant who’s racked up double-digit performance bonuses. Across his last 10 fights, only two of them went to the judges’ scorecards and yes, both were selected as “Fight of the Night.” If there’s a knock against Poirier, it’s that his takedown defense leaves something to be desired. Giving up seven takedowns to Nurmagomedov is forgivable. Giving up four to Dan Hooker is not.
That is undoubtedly a concern for Poirier fans heading into this all-action affair against Michael Chandler, who like his UFC 281 opponent, has a habit of racking up post-fight bonuses. It’s unfortunate that “Iron” did not enter the lightweight title picture until the twilight of his career and even though 36 is not over the hill, there’s a lot of miles on those tires. I believe his increasingly-brittle chin has more to do with his fighting style than his inherent durability, a receipt for 13 years of slam-bang action. Chandler has just four fights with UFC and is averaging almost five significant strikes absorbed per minute. That’s a lot of damage coming his way and Poirier is probably his stiffest test to date, at least in terms of boxing. If “The Diamond” can knockout Conor McGregor and Justin Gaethje, surely he can bend “Iron,” which takes us back to the wrestling.
Chandler is a former Division-1 All American with 100 collegiate wrestling wins though you might not know it from his existing offense. The former Bellator MMA lightweight champion has just two takedowns since joining the promotion in late 2020 and didn’t even attempt a single shot in his first two fights. If he really wants to make another run at the 155-pound title, “Iron” will have to resist the urge to meet Poirier in the center of the cage to trade bombs. I don’t think his ego will let him and for once in his UFC career, I think that will be a help, not a hindrance. Poirier can be an emotional fighter and it would not surprise me to learn he’s discounting how quick and powerful Chandler swings early in the fight. “The Diamond” will come out confident — and rightly so — but his round one defense will not get the attention it needs when Chandler turns this into a bar fight, sending Poirier to his second straight loss.
Prediction: Chandler def. Poirier by knockout
135 lbs.: Frankie “The Answer” Edgar (24-10-1) vs. Chris “El Guapo” Gutierrez (18-4-2)
Frankie Edgar has made it clear that UFC 281 will mark his final appearance inside the Octagon and you know what they say about lions (ingress) and lambs (egress). Some of today’s newer fans may not appreciate what “The Answer” meant to the lighter divisions more than a decade ago or remember his wars against lightweight “Bully” Gray Maynard. There has never been a time in his storied career when Edgar wasn’t a major player across three different weight classes but I think we can all agree those days are behind him, based on what we’ve seen in recent fights. Losing five of seven and getting knocked out in four of those losses — following a career defined by durability — is a clear indication that it’s time to go, especially considering Edgar turned 41 just a few weeks back.
I guess the question now, is what does the New Jersey native have left? Edgar has always been a serviceable striker under the tutelage of Mark Henry but relied more on speed than technique. In addition, he was able to parlay his collegiate wrestling success into a formidable wrestling-based MMA offense, landing a staggering 70 takedowns in his UFC career. If he mixes it up and transitions between striking and takedowns, opponent Chris Gutierrez is in for a long night.
The 31 year-old bantamweight made his debut in a losing effort to Raoni Barcelos at TUF 28 Finale back in late 2018 and since then, has torn through the 135-pound division with six wins and one draw, with two of those victories ending by way of knockout. That includes his second-round destruction of Batgerel Danaa last March in Columbus. That’s the good news. The bad news? None of the six fighters he’s beaten holds a winning record in UFC and three of them have since been released. I try not to make it a habit of poking holes in successful runs like the one Gutierrez has enjoyed over the last three years, but there’s a reason “El Guapo” continues to remain unranked at 135 pounds. That said, he’s also proven to be a tough, durable bantamweight with over 25 professional fights, which includes victories for both Bellator MMA and World Series of Fighting.
This is not a “gimme” fight for the shorter, older Edgar and his deteriorating chin remains a concern for all three rounds. The counter to that is the fact Gutierrez — who is facing an elite wrestler — has been taken down nine times since his 2018 debut. The outcome of this fight all depends on which version of Edgar shows up. If “The Answer” wants to go out with a bang, my money is on Gutierrez. But if the former lightweight champion simply wants to retire with a victory, and is willing to pledge fidelity to his gamelan to get it done, this night belongs to Toms River.
Prediction: Edgar def. Gutierrez by unanimous decision
155 lbs.: Dan “The Hangman” Hooker (21-12) vs. Claudio “Prince of Peru” Puelles (12-2)
Dan Hooker has fallen on hard times these last few years but this talk that he’s somehow washed up or over the hill after nearly 20 fights inside the Octagon feels a bit premature, partly because “The Hangman” is still only 32 years old but mostly because his last four losses have come against the best fighters in the world. Islam Makhachev is the lightweight champion and Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler, and Arnold Allen are all ranked in the Top 5 of their respective divisions. The fact that Hooker sandwiched a victory over Moroccan bruiser Nasrat Haqparast between those four losses tells me he’s not headed for the glue factory just yet, though you can also argue he’s not a good enough fighter to compete in the upper echelon of his division.
Kudos to the kiwi for insisting he’s still in the 155-pound title hunt (even if he’s not) and that mentality could serve him well against former TUF: “Latin America 3” finalist Claudio Puelles, a young and dynamic lightweight who’s coming into this contest on the strength of five straight wins, including back-to-back submission finishes over Chris Gruetzemacher and Clay Guida, both by way of nasty kneebar.
I don’t want to get crazy here and start anointing Puelles the next big thing at 155 pounds without a bigger body of work. Two of his UFC wins have come over opponents who are no longer signed to the promotion and the other three are currently unranked at lightweight. The Peruvian has seven submissions in 12 wins and a handful of taps on the amateur circuit, so I don’t think it will come as a shock to anyone when Puelles tries to get this fight to the floor. In five appearances for UFC, the “Prince of Peru” has scored 12 takedowns. That said, he was only 1-for-8 against Gruetzemacher with the first takedown landing early and all seven subsequent attempts coming slower and sloppier as time dragged on. That's important to note here because Hooker has long-distances cardio and respectable takedown defense, stuffing 78 percent of his incoming attacks.
The leg locks are a concern for “Hangman” fans but Puelles first has to snatch one. I know the “what have you done for me lately crowd” is in a big hurry to close the book on Hooker because of his recent woes, I just can’t write him off ahead of this fight. He’s been battling a murderer’s row of top competition for the last five years while Puelles has been playing bully on the ESPN+ “Prelims.” Assuming Hooker sticks to the gameplan and doesn’t allow himself to get suckered into a bar fight, his experience (along with a little help from his power) should get him to the judges’ scorecards in one piece.
Prediction: Hooker def. Puelles by unanimous decision
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