UFC 281 marks the second pay-per-view in a row where it feels like two championship reigns are in jeopardy.
While only one belt actually changed hands two weeks ago, there’s reason to believe that Israel Adesanya and Carla Esparza are in danger of losing to their respective challengers Alex Pereira and Zhang Weili. Pereira holds two kickboxing victories over the UFC middleweight champion and despite those wins being less than definitive when watched with a critical eye, they undoubtedly give reason to be optimistic that Pereira can pick up what would be the most important win of their trilogy.
As for Esparza, she remains one of the most lightly regarded champions in the UFC despite a second world title win, thanks in no small part to the forgettable decision win over Rose Namajunas at UFC 274 that put gold back around her waist. In contrast, Zhang is regarded as a 115-pound berserker and currently sits as a huge favorite heading into Saturday.
The MMA Fighting crew of Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marrocco, and Jed Meshew are here to take a look at those two headlining bouts and make our pick for the biggest potential storyline from an undercard that features Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler, plus the retiring Frankie Edgar and the returning Dominick Reyes.
Does Alex Pereira have Israel Adesanya’s number?
Lee: I can’t stress enough what an excellent job the UFC did to make sure that this fight came to fruition. It’s not often that you can find a compelling fighter with a fan-friendly style like Alex Pereira who just so happens to own a pair of victories (including one incredible highlight-reel knockout) over your dominant—but divisive—middleweight champion in another combat sport. They gave “Poatan” the right matchups, slotted him in a contender fight against a ranked opponent, and let him take care of the rest. Now here we are.
As long as their fight stays on the feet, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Pereira doesn’t provide some level of challenge for Israel Adesanya. Yes, the myths surrounding their two kickboxing bouts have mostly been dispelled (Pereira won a narrow decision over Adesanya in their first fight and then needed a hellacious KO punch to save a likely decision loss in the second). Still, Pereira is a two-division Glory kickboxing champion, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
It’s a stretch to say Pereira has a clear edge, even if you found his previous wins to be informative. But the fact is that Adesanya hasn’t convincingly beaten him yet. If you were looking for an underdog to be the one to end Adesanya’s recently unpopular reign, you could do a lot worse than Pereira.
Meshew: No, but he still has a really good chance of winning this fight.
I’ve watched both of their kickboxing fights several times at this point, and my overall sense of how they match up is that Adesanya is the “better” fighter, with more advanced defense and a higher skill level overall, but Pereira is the more dangerous fighter. And it’s the same for MMA. Izzy has clear edges in technique, but Pereira might be the heaviest puncher I’ve ever seen in MMA. The amount of power he effortlessly generates is remarkable. And that makes him incredibly dangerous, at all points in time.
In a vacuum, Adesanya should win this fight, but my concern is that he will try to point fight Pereira like he did to Jared Cannonier, which is incredibly dangerous. All it takes is one from Pereira, and if you leave him around for 25 minutes, that’s a lot of opportunities to find the one, particularly since Pereira is not going to get cowed like Cannonier was. He’s already slept Izzy, so he will believe he can do so again, and he’ll keep pressing the issue until it’s done. For that reason, I think I’m going to end up picking “And New” next weekend.
Marrocco: I’m going to seize on something Mr. Lee points out in his breakdown in the fight, which is “as long as their fight stays on the feet.” Here’s where I point strongly to the fact that, a) we are no longer in a kickboxing ring, and b) Adesanya is guided by one of the best strategic minds in MMA. Were we in a striking-only contest, I would agree that the champ is at constant threat. And if he didn’t have Eugene Bareman in his corner, I don’t think “The Last Stylebender” would have been able to do what he’s done in MMA, which is dismantle all of the best middleweights of his generation.
Part of the reason Adesanya is so divisive is that he’s developed a style that largely keeps him away from the gunfights that put him at risk. It’s certainly not the most exciting thing in the world, but it’s very effective, and that’s why destroyers like Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker haven’t been able to catch him. He’s had years of experience fighting the best in the world. Over five rounds. In MMA. That’s something Pereira just can’t replicate. He hasn’t had as much time in the cage, and he hasn’t fought the same level of competition. Adesanya isn’t some collegiate-level wrestler. He may not need to be, however, to mess up Pereira’s flow and control the pace of the fight, which is where he’s absolutely excelled as a champion. I think Adesanya’s take was pretty spot-on: He made a strategic mistake in that rematch, and the first fight was close. That’s not having someone’s number. If Pereira is going to reproduce the past, he’s going to have to bring a lot more to the table than heavy hands.
Does Carla Esparza deserve more respect?
I’m not saying that people aren’t disrespecting Carla Esparza or UFC fighters in general, it happens. But the idea that people who pick against a fighter, or think a fighter can’t or won’t win, is “disrespectful” is asinine. Now, if they said “Carla Esparza is going to get obliterated because she sucks,” then sure, don’t do that. But no one is saying that. They’re saying Zhang Weil is going to stomp her, and oh, by the way, that is in fact going to happen!
Esparza is the legitimate UFC strawweight champion. She beat Rose Namajunas fair and square, and that’s how this thing works. But her chances of going against Zhang and coming out of it conscious are as slim as a garter snake. Zhang is substantially more athletic and physical, and she’s better in every category of MMA aside from straight wrestling, and that’s probably still pretty close. There are just no avenues to success in this fight, because Weili is not going to have a 25-minute staring contest with her like Rose did. Honestly, the fact that Esparza is only a +280 underdog means she’s getting way more “respect” than I would have guessed.
Still though, incredible achievement to reclaim the title after all those years. Quite the career capper for “Cookie Monster.”
Marrocco: I’m with Jed, here. What does respect have to do with anything in this fight, or any other for that matter? It feels to me like a relic of the time when the sport was still struggling to achieve legitimacy, and “respect” was a pillar of hardcore fandom. If by now you haven’t figured out that “respect” and martial arts ethos has very little to do with the way things play out in the modern UFC, I don’t know what to tell you. It goes without saying, for me, that Esparza has my respect — she fights other people in a cage for money, and, all things considered, does it pretty well. That has nothing to do with how I think she’ll fare against one of the most athletic, powerful, and gifted fighters in Zhang.
Esparza is here because she was a more well-rounded fighter than Namajunas in their first fight, and in the second fight, Namajunas game-planned herself right out of a win. There is nothing I see in Zhang that leads me to think she’ll get in her own way in the same way, and that means that Esparza’s wrestling will be her saving grace over 25 minutes. While I’m not sure Zhang has faced as good a pure wrestler as Esparza, it hasn’t seemed to matter too much because her strength, speed and ferocity have carried the day just fine. That’s just the way I see the matchup — it has nothing to do with respecting the champ.
Lee: At the end of the day, you’ve got to win fights, and that’s something few in the strawweight division have done better than Esparza over the past few years. Sure, the results haven’t always been, shall we say, compelling, but she did everything she had to do to get back to a title shot and left the cage with the belt at the end of the day (and without a scratch with her wedding just around the corner!),
Esparza was part of that second wave of women’s MMA stars and she fought nothing but the best competition on her way up. Then she made an impressive run through The Ultimate Fighter house before dominating Namajunas to become the inaugural UFC strawweight champion. She failed to successfully defend it, but that loss to Joanna Jedrzejczyk says a lot more about Jedrzejczyk’s abilities than any shortcomings on Esparza’s part. Esparza is a grinder and she hung around long enough to put together an airtight case for a title opportunity and seized it. So by that measure, yes, Esparza deserves a ton more respect as opposed to being viewed as someone just holding onto the title until a more exciting option comes along.
All of that said, Zhang by knockout this Saturday.
Is this really the last we’ll see of Frankie Edgar?
Marrocco: Boy, I sure hope so. And that’s not because I don’t “respect” Frankie Edgar, his contributions to the sport, or what he does inside the cage. It’s an exposure business, and the more exposure you have to brain trauma, the more likely you are to suffer lasting, long-term effects on your health.
Edgar has absolutely nothing left to prove in this sport, and he will only get hurt worse by continuing to stick around. The UFC has little reverence for its legends and will consistently feed him dangerous up-and-comers until he drops under .500. They may do it even sooner given the price tag he commands and the promotion’s apparent insistence on weeding out the middle and upper classes on its roster. Simply put, Edgar’s time has passed, and it’s up to him to make the next chapter of his athletic life a meaningful one. I’m hoping that means coaching, cornering, and acting as an ambassador for the sport. He’s an eminently likable guy, and what he did as, let’s face it, a blown-up bantamweight fighting at 155 pounds is still pretty mind-blowing.
Lee: Call it pessimism, call it a reverse jinx, but for whatever reason I just don’t believe that we’ve seen the last of Edgar.
The stage that has been set for him at UFC 281 is a mixed bag. There’s no questioning the venue: Madison Square Garden, The World’s Most Famous Arena that just so happens to be a hop, skip, and a jump away from Edgar’s New Jersey stomping grounds. I don’t love the choice of opponent, though I suppose there’s something to be said about giving Chris Gutierrez the rub should he defeat Edgar. It all just feels a little off.
Maybe a loss motivates him to make another go at finishing his career on a high note. Maybe there’s a controversial end to the fight that leaves a bad taste in his mouth. Maybe I’m selfishly holding out hope that we get to see him in a legends fight with Dominick Cruz.
Regardless, whether the Edgar saga is truly over, he’s left an indelible mark on the MMA universe as one of the greatest lighter weight fighters of all time. He’s fought all the greats, from Jose Aldo to B.J. Penn to Max Holloway to Charles Oliveira to Benson Henderson and many more. And he won a lot more than he lost, often under the brightest of lights. Simply put, you cannot tell the story of the past 20 years of MMA without Frankie Edgar.
Meshew: Probably. Frankie doesn’t strike me as one of those guys to pull a fake retirement, or to get the itch and come back a few years later. He wants to exit at MSG, and so that’s what we’re getting (even if this is the dumbest fight in the world, and one not befitting a legend like him).
As far as legacy, I think Edgar is doomed to be underrated as time moves on, and I’m not entirely sure why. We’re talking about a guy who was the undisputed lightweight champion of the world, despite being a natural 135er! He has quality success in three weight classes, which is something maybe three other people can really say, and he did so in probably the three most difficult weight classes (or at least two of three) in the world!
In a universe where Jose Aldo doesn’t exit, Frankie is a two-division UFC champion, and very possibly on the Mount Rushmore of MMA fighters. Yes, I will go to my grave believing he lost to B.J. Penn in their first fight (a great sliding doors moment in MMA), but he still had one of the 15 best careers in the history of the sport, and no one is going to talk about him once he’s gone. That’s a shame.
Outside of the title fights, what will we be talking about the most after Saturday?
Lee: Call me an out-of-left-field whack-a-doodle, but I am heavily invested in the Molly McCann vs. Erin Blanchfield fight.
I’m all aboard the “Meatball” hype train, even considering that she hasn’t exactly been knocking off a murderer’s row of flyweight contenders. She’s shored up her weaknesses, is making the most of an aggressive fighting style, and brings a lot of eyeballs to her fights. That last point might not matter much when she has a blue-chip grappler like Blanchfield bearing down on her, but it matters a heck of lot a to the bean counters at the UFC who are always looking for new stars.
Blanchfield hasn’t had her UFC London moment yet, but every MMA talking head has taken to calling the 23-year-old a future champion. I’ll be more willing to join that chorus if she can handle a tough out like McMann, especially if she puts on the kind of one-sided performance that she has against more experienced opposition in the past. That’s a major question mark for me, though.
There might be bigger names on the card, but McCann vs. Blanchfield is the matchup that is most likely to end with one of the competitors eventually competing for a title in 2023.
Marrocco: You are an out-of-left-field whack-a-doodle, Mr. Lee. Layups are easy shots for a reason, and I see no reason to try for the three-pointer when Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler is right there.
Every time these lightweights step into the ring, we’re guaranteed someone will be limping out of the octagon, if not out cold on the canvas. Poirier is one foot out of the door for the welterweight division, and he’s trying to prove this shiny object in the former Bellator champ is not the real deal amongst lightweights. Chandler, meanwhile, is gunning for the ultimate validation of his talent following years of toil in a second-tier promotion and late-career resurgence at the top.
Now that Islam Makhachev is the lightweight champion, that opens things up once more for guys like Poirier and Chandler, who’ve fallen just shy of the summit. I have my doubts they will be able to reach it if they ever get in the octagon with the Dagestani strangler, but I don’t doubt they will beat the ever-loving crap out of each other for the opportunity.
Meshew: The obvious and correct answer is Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler as that’s probably going to be a Fight of the Year contender, but since that’s covered, I’ll be different for the sake of it.
Dominick Reyes has not officially won a fight in three years (he should’ve beaten Jon Jones, but oh well), and he has been brutally knocked out in back-to-back fights heading into this one. It’s not hyperbolic to say his fight with Ryan Spann is make-or-break for his entire career. If he loses this one, Reyes is going to immediately join Johny Hendricks among the most stunning falls from grace in UFC history, and there’s a really good chance that happens, because for whatever reason, Reyes seems to have lost it entirely.
Maybe the extended time off helped him get his head on straight and Reyes comes out and reestablishes himself as a top contender, and then goes on to fulfill his potential, and if so, then we’re going to be talking about him for much more positive reasons. If not though, Reyes’s precipitous decline will definitely be the biggest non-title angle of the weekend, so either way, we’re going to be talking about him come Monday.