The UFC returns to the mecca of combat sports for UFC 281 when Israel Adesanya will defend his middleweight crown against long-time rival Alex Pereira at Madison Square Garden.
The two kickboxing rivals will go toe-to-toe in the octagon to see who is MMA’s best middleweight in the headline fight of the card, but is supported by one of the most stacked cards of the year.
In the co-main event we have the strawweight title on the line as Carla Esparza makes her first defence against former champion Weili Zhang, while Dustin Poirier will meet Michael Chandler in a lightweight war and Frankie Edgar has his retirement bout among other things.
Last week at UFC Vegas 64 we had a rough time with our picks going 6/11 with zero perfect picks, moving us to 766/1188 (64.48%) with 319 perfect picks (41.64%). You can see our full pick history here.
We’ll look to improve on that here and after starting with the early prelims, and then selecting the rest of the prelims, we move on to the main card here.
Dan Hooker (21-12) vs Claudio Puelles (13-2) – (Lightweight/155lbs)
A very fun lightweight fight up next. Hooker is currently in freefall, losing four of his last five across two weight divisions. He dropped first round finishes to Michael Chandler (UFC 257), Islam Makhachev (UFC 267) and Arnold Allen (UFC London) most recently, but did claim a decision win over Nasray Haqparast at UFC 266. Puelles on the other hand has won his last five in a row, including each of his last two via kneebar against Chris Gruetzemacher (UFC Vegas 44) and Clay Guida most recently.
Hooker is a very technical striker with excellent range and kicks, as well as great durability on the feet despite the first-round finishes recently. He’s a good boxer, has good power and an amazing gas tank, so can cause anyone problems on his day. Puelles on the other hand is a superb jiu-jitsu practitioner who wants this fight on the ground by any means necessary. That will be hard because his wrestling isn’t the best and Hooker’s takedown defence is usually very good.
Hooker has more paths to victory in this fight. He’s the better striker by a distance, has more varied attacks and has the defence to nullify Puelles’ best attacks. But he’s been in freefall for a while now and if he isn’t the fighter he once was, he’ll get beaten here. I do expect that he’ll be able to do what he does best though, and that’s force a high-pace kickboxing fight. I saw enough against Haqparast that he’s still got something to give to the division, just not against the very top guys, and Puelles isn’t that yet.
PICK – Dan Hooker via Decision
Frankie Edgar (23-10-1) vs Chris Gutierrez (18-3-2) – (Bantamweight/135lbs)
A retirement fight in his back yard, this is Edgar’s farewell. He’s coming into this off the back of four defeats in his last five, with nasty KO losses against Cory Sandhagen (UFC Vegas 18) and Marlon Vera (UFC 268) in his last two bouts. Gutierrez has won six of his last seven, with a draw against Cody Durden stopping it being a 7-fight win streak. He has beaten Andre Ewell (UFC 258), Felipe Colares and Batgerel Danaa via KO in his most recent fights.
Edgar is one of the most well-rounded fighters in UFC history, but his wrestling has always been his bread and butter and where he has the most success. Mix that in with unbelievable heart and durability, and Edgar is a future hall of famer. Gutierrez on the other hand is a violent striker with vicious Muay-Thai and incredible kicks to go with a destructive right hand. He will kick the living daylights out of Edgar’s lead leg. Guaranteed.
It’s all about if Edgar can cope with that. My guess is he can’t. He’s been out for a year after back-to-back violent KO’s and that legendary chin has left him. He knows he’s retiring after this bout, and this is a hungry Gutierrez who as all the tools to send the crowd home unhappy. Edgar’s done and he knows it, this is a passing of the torch moment.
PICK – Chris Gutierrez via Decision
Dustin Poirier (28-7) vs Michael Chandler (23-7) – (Lightweight/155lbs)
Fight of the night right here, and maybe even fight of the year. Poirier is 3-2 in his last five, with those defeats coming in title fights to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Charles Oliveira (UFC 269) via submission. He beat Dan Hooker (UFC Vegas 4) and Conor McGregor twice (UFC 257 and UFC 264) to earn those positions. Chandler on the other hand is 2-2 in the UFC with violent KO’s against Hooker and Tony Ferguson most recently, while he was beaten by Oliveira for the belt (UFC 262) and Justin Gaethje in an unbelievable fight (UFC 268).
Poirier is one of the most well-rounded fighters in the UFC with excellent boxing skills and some good wrestling too, but he also has great power and a phenomenal gas tank to work with. Chandler is one of the better wrestlers in the division with a solid double leg takedown, but he also has tremendous power and durability too as shown against Gaethje in their war. This is going to be explosive, but I think Poirier has the edge pretty much everywhere.
He’s more powerful, has more volume, better accuracy and more variety to his game. He’s more than good enough when wrestling defensively to deal with that, and his combinations will do real damage to Chandler’s chin, where he usually takes the one big haymaker well. It will be fast paced and could well go the distance, but I think “The Diamond” makes a statement with this one.
PICK – Dustin Poirier via Knockout, Round 2
Carla Esparza (20-6) vs Weili Zhang (22-3) – (Strawweight/115lbs)
Strawweight title fight up next in the co-main event. Esparza has won six in a row, winning the title at UFC 274 in one of the worst fights of all time against Rose Namajunas. Zhang bounced back after consecutive losses to Namajunas (UFC 261 & UFC 268) with a stunning KO win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in their hotly anticipated rematch at UFC 275 to get another title shot.
Esparza is a wrestler, who tends to throw potshots in the hope of a reaction before shooting for the takedown and controlling her opponent on the mat. Zhang on the other hand is an absolute powerhouse with unbelievable speed and power on the feet, but she’s also a solid wrestler herself with good submission abilities. It’s weird to see the challenger so heavily favoured over the champion, but it’s hard to argue with in this instance.
Zhang has the advantage in all the striking and with physicality, but Esparza is by far and away the best wrestler she will have ever come up against. Esparza is able to be relentless with her attempts over 25 minutes, but Zhang should just be able to overwhelm her and really make a statement. Expect “Magnum” to overcome a slow first round to claim a big KO win in the early rounds.
PICK – Weili Zhang via Knockout, Round 2
Israel Adesanya (23-1) vs Alex Pereira (6-1) – (Middleweight/185lbs)
A rematch years in the making, but in an entirely different sport and with very different stakes. Adesanya is undefeated in the 185-pound division in the UFC, with five successful title defences against Yoel Romero, Paulo Costa (UFC 253), Marvin Vettori (UFC 263), Robert Whittaker (UFC 271) and Jared Cannonier (UFC 276). Pereira is 3-0 in the UFC with knockout wins over Andreas Michailidis (UFC 268) and Sean Strickland (UFC 276), plus an impressive decision win over Bruno Silva between those.
Both of these guys are world class, world champion kickboxers who excel in the striking realm. They fought twice previously with Pereira winning both times, once by decision and once by violent knockout. But that second bout was going in Adesanya’s favour until “Poatan” landed that ridiculous left hook of his. The game plan will be similar for both men, stand and strike and prove they’re the best. But in MMA it’s a different animal.
Adesanya will be able to move more with a bigger cage and less sharp corners to be trapped in, while he’s also arguably the better grappler of the two if he wants to throw that in there to catch Pereira off guard. I doubt he will, but he could. I think his speed advantage is the big thing here though. He’s much quicker than Pereira and while the striking exchanges will be close, I expect Izzy will leave more of a lasting impression. His cardio should hold up well too into the latter rounds such is his experience, and I expect he’ll exact his revenge to claim another title fight victory and cement himself as the best in the world.
PICK – Israel Adesanya via Decision