Every November, the UFC takes over New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden with a blockbuster pay-per-view event. That time came again this past Saturday when the promotion touched down in the Big Apple with the stacked UFC 281 card.
The event was headlined by a middleweight title fight between long-reigning champion and pound-for-pound staple Israel Adesanya of New Zealand and Brazilian challenger Alex Pereira. Ahead of the fight, Pereira held the distinction of beating Adesanya twice under kickboxing rules, and after a vicious volley of fifth-round punches, he’s now done it in MMA too—and can call himself the UFC middleweight champ.
We also saw a title change hands in the UFC 281 co-main event, as China’s Zhang Weili reclaimed the strawweight title with a lopsided second-round submission win over two-time champion Carla Esparza.
In the middle bout of the main card, lightweight contenders Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler clashed in a Fight of the Year candidate that totally lived up to expectations. Chandler had some big moments early, but Poirier ultimately ended the fight with a rear-naked choke in Round 3.
Elsewhere on the card, we witnessed big wins from Adesanya stablemates Dan Hooker and Carlos Ulberg, who stopped Claudio Puelles at lightweight and Nicolae Negumereanu at light heavyweight, respectively.
Twenty-three-year-old flyweight contender Erin Blanchfield also impressed on the card, battering popular Brit Molly McCann to a first-round submission with a kimura and cementing herself as one of the division’s most promising fighters in the process. Brazilian lightweight Renato Moicano was another of the night’s big winners, taking out Brad Riddell with a first-round rear-naked choke.
Keep scrolling for the fights we’re hoping to see when the dust has settled.
Alex Pereira is now the UFC middleweight champion. The hulking Brazilian kickboxing export earned that coveted prize with a vicious knockout of Israel Adesanya in Round 5 of the UFC 281 main event, erasing a 1-3 deficit on the scorecards in the process. It was his first win over Adesanya in MMA but his third in combat sports after a pair of wins in the Glory kickboxing ring.
As amazing as Pereira’s victory was, we need to see him fight Adesanya again. On the surface, the Brazilian’s 3-0 lead over the New Zealander looks like a logical place to end their incredible rivalry. Yet his first two wins were in a different sport, and their relevance in future MMA matchmaking is questionable. Adesanya was also one of the most dominant champs in MMA until he lost to Pereira, with six title defenses in the books, and 23 wins in 24 pro fights. Throw in the fact that he was well ahead on the scorecards when he was finished, and it’s safe to say he deserves one last opportunity to find a way to beat his Brazilian rival.
Not everyone will love the idea, but everybody in the middleweight top five has lost to Adesanya fairly recently, so it’s not like there’s a queue of deserving challengers awaiting their shots. In fact, it actually makes sense to let Pereira and Adesanya do battle once more while we wait for the middleweight pecking order to get a little clearer.
If the first three fights were any indication, we should be in for another competitive and exciting contest.
As the oddsmakers and the majority of fans seemed to suspect, Zhang Weili was too talented and too strong for strawweight champ Carla Esparza in the UFC 281 co-main event. The Chinese star, a former champ, reclaimed the belt with a submission via rear-naked choke in Round 2, and she barely broke a sweat doing it.
With the win, Zhang is now a two-time strawweight champ and clearly one of the greatest fighters in the division’s history.
She has options for the first title defense of her new reign, including brick-fisted Brazilian Amanda Lemos, who is riding a knockout win over Marina Rodriguez, and her countrywoman Yan Xiaonan, who recently defeated Mackenzie Dern by decision.
Yet our pick for the new champ’s next challenger is Rose Namajunas, also a two-time former champion.
Namajunas has not fought since she surrendered the title to Esparza with an utterly forgettable decision loss earlier this year. We definitely don’t want to make a habit of giving title shots to fighters riding losses, but she is a bit of a special case because she holds two fairly recent wins over Zhang—a first-round knockout and a decision.
It remains to be seen if Namajunas can beat Zhang a third time. The Chinese fighter has never looked better, while her American rival’s last fight did anything but inspire confidence. Still, it will be hard for Zhang to assert herself as the queen of the strawweights until she beats Namajunas, who is clearly a step ahead in their rivalry to date.
Why wait? Let’s do this one next and then move on to new contenders like Lemos and Yan.
Dustin Poirier cemented himself as one of MMA’s lightweight greats on the UFC 281 main card, winning yet another unforgettable brawl by submitting former Bellator champ Michael Chandler in Round 3.
With the win over Chandler, who was ranked No. 5 at lightweight ahead of the fight, Poirier can expect to hang tight at No. 2, right behind his recent foil and former lightweight champ Charles Oliveira. Unfortunately for him, the next crack at reigning champ Islam Makhachev will go to featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski, so the win over Chandler will not be setting him up for a title shot.
Poirier has floated the idea of retirement in the past, so it’s possible we may never see him in the cage again. However, after UFC 281, it’s clear he’s still got plenty to give the sport, so hopefully he hangs around.
At this point, the perfect opponent for Poirier would definitely be Nate Diaz, another fan favorite who is miles from a UFC title shot even after a submission of Tony Ferguson in his last fight. However, Diaz recently parted ways with the UFC, so that’s not happening.
With Diaz gone, the best option for Poirier seems to be No. 4-ranked contender Beneil Dariush. The Iranian-American is on an eight-fight winning streak, including impressive decision wins over Ferguson and Mateusz Gamrot, but he has been left out in the cold by Volkanovski’s lightweight title shot.
He could certainly wait for a fight with the Volkanovski-Makhachev winner, but if he’s keen to stay busy, a fight with Poirier is the best bet. It makes sense for both guys, and if their past bouts are anything to go on, it should be a thriller.
In the final bout of the UFC 281 undercard, Brazilian lightweight Renato Moicano posted one of the best wins of his career, dragging New Zealand’s Brad Riddell to the mat and submitting him with a rear-naked choke in the second half of Round 1.
In the opening bout of the main card, Dan Hooker earned some redemption for Team New Zealand, battering Peru’s Claudio Puelles on the feet en route to a second-round stoppage with a kick to the body.
It only makes sense to match these two lightweight winners up after the card. Not only are they both on the same fight schedule, but they’ve both floated near the top of the lightweight and featherweight divisions for the bulk of their UFC careers and have proved themselves as some of the best finishers in the promotion.
The matchup makes sense from every angle, and with Hooker sitting at No. 12 in the rankings and Moicano right on the cusp, the winner would most likely be awarded a top-10 foe.
Twenty-three-year-old flyweight contender Erin Blanchfield lived up to her “Cold Blooded” nickname on the UFC 281 undercard, dominating the increasingly popular “Meatball” Molly McCann to a first-round submission victory—the product of a kimura.
Blanchfield was already ranked No. 12 at flyweight heading into the fight, and after such a lopsided win over such a highly regarded fighter, she can expect another big step up in competition.
It’s a bit tempting to go ahead and match her up with No. 3-ranked contender Katlyn Chookagian, who has become the division’s de facto gatekeeper, but there’s no need to rush her along. She’s got her entire career ahead of her.
Instead, we’d like to see her matched up with No. 9-ranked contender Andrea Lee—an opportunity she actually asked for her in her post-fight interview.
Lee is riding a decision loss to Viviane Araujo but was on a two-fight streak before that and would be a solid test for Blanchfield as she looks to continue her march toward the flyweight title.
Israel Adesanya stablemate Carlos Ulberg was one of the biggest winners of the UFC 281 card. The light heavyweight was in action in the opening bout of the night and delivered an absolutely stunning first-round knockout win over streaking once-beaten Romanian Nicolae Negumereanu.
The win drove the cage-side commentators into a frenzy, with former light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier sharing particularly high praise for the New Zealander.
It was Ulberg’s third win in a row and easily the best of his career, and it would not be surprising to see him get a huge step up in his next fight. Our pick for his next dance partner is Dustin Jacoby.
The Denver native suffered a split-decision loss to Khalil Rountree late last month but was ranked No. 13 at light heavyweight ahead of the fight. Better still, he’s one of the few fighters on the light heavyweight roster with the skill to hang with Ulberg on the feet.
It would be a riveting striking battle for as long as it lasted.
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