The top of UFC 281 is an extremely interesting pair of title fights. The co-main event features who is probably the most difficult current champion for the UFC to market. The main event features a challenger who has seven MMA fights under his belt, making him on4e of the most unlikely and unorthodox challengers in recent memory. Given fighters like Leon Edwards required consecutive 10 fights without a loss before he was able to fight for the title, it’s especially unique. Of course, Alex Pereira has history with Israel Adesanya, being the only one to knock out the current reigning middleweight champion in any of the various combat sports Adesanya has competed in.
Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira, Middleweight
Despite a flawless record at 185, Adesanya hasn’t been able to fulfill the expectations the UFC and himself have put upon him since becoming champion. Before anyone claims that makes him a disappointment, they need to understand the expectations that were placed upon him were possibly the highest anyone has ever had after winning a title. Adesanya has talked about how he doesn’t care about the title, caring only about creating moments. After making statements like that, he has gone out and fought like the only thing that matters is holding onto his title while defending his belt in contests that are short on memorable moments. I’m not faulting him; there’s nothing wrong with taking a win at all costs approach. However, it has resulted in a large portion of fans turning on him, losing much of their appetite for him as most of his defenses turn into uneventful point contests.
Just because Adesanya’s entertainment value has decreased, it doesn’t mean his effectiveness as a fighter has declined in the least. None of his title defenses has seen anyone seriously challenge him. He has simply opted to take the safest route to victory, which is smart if he’s looking to hold onto his title. In fact, with his combination of height, reach, and technical striking knowledge, there isn’t anyone better suited to break Demetrious Johnson’s streak of title defenses.
Of course, aside from the fact Pereira owns a knockout win over Adesanya – and a second victory he picked up via decision – he also has a similar frame with technique that is just a shade less effective than that of Adesanya. The advantage that Pereira does have is in terms of power. The Brazilian possesses power that belies his lanky frame. Whereas Adesanya relies solely on his exquisite technique to score KO blows – even when he’s throwing something creative – Pereira has greater room for error. Despite that, he has proven he can win a fight based on volume thus far in the UFC. Of course, that isn’t the route he’ll be taking against Adesanya....
There’s a lot that can be learned from Adesanya and Pereira’s kickboxing contests. Even though Pereira walked away with his arm raised on both occasions, their first contest – the decision – was exceptionally controversial, many believing Adesanya was the deserving winner. There was no doubt Adesanya was winning the rematch, up until Pereira put him away. The theme in both contests was Adesanya’s volume and Pereira’s power. Adesanya landed more while Pereira clearly had more oomph in his attacks. And while this will be an MMA fight as opposed to a kickboxing contest, there’s little evidence to suggest things will play out much differently. After all, 13 fights into his UFC career and Adesanya has yet to land a single takedown. Given Pereira has shown the ability to either stuff takedowns or get back to his feet quickly against opponents with a more proven ground game than Adesanya, it doesn’t seem like that dimension will come into play much.
Many declared Adesanya a special talent when he touched down in the UFC. They weren’t wrong. He took to MMA exceptionally fast, winning the undisputed middleweight title less than 20 months after debuting. However, Pereira has also taken quickly to the sport. We can’t say for sure, but it’s possible he has taken even quicker to the sport than Adesanya has. In an ideal world, Pereira would get at least two more fights in before challenging for the title, but time is working against him. Already 35 with plenty of kickboxing miles under his belt, the UFC felt it was now or never to capitalize on this opportunity.
With all that said, what I see as the biggest factor is the mental side of things. Adesanya has never been lacking for confidence. Hell, there’s been several contests where it appears he spent more energy preparing and choreographing his walkout than he did for his fight. There’s always been a coolness to him that he knows he’s better than his opponent. I’m not going to say Adesanya hasn’t exhibited any confidence, but it isn’t the same. There appears to be a level of frustration coming out of him that hasn’t been there. He essentially yelled at the press to go watch his kickboxing contests with Pereira when some revealed they hadn’t seen the fights. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a point they should have watched them, but it also reveals a level of insecurity in the manner in which he directed them to do so. Combine his inability to back up his talk about caring more for moments as opposed to the title with his losses to Pereira clearly being a sore spot for him and it feels like he isn’t in a good headspace.
Even as I’m questioning Adesanya’s mental state, I can’t discount the possibility of Adesanya keeping his cool and outpointing Pereira, much in the manner he was on his way to doing in their second effort. Even if the evidence I’m seeing points to him opening up himself to getting blasted by Pereira, there’s no guarantee that’s what will happen. Hell, there’s no guarantee Pereira will be able to take advantage of all those openings. Given Adesanya feels like he has a point to prove – as opposed to already knowing he’s the better fighter – I’m liking Pereira’s chances to shock the world. Pereira via KO of RD2
Carla Esparza vs. Zhang Weili, Women’s Strawweight
The UFC has never wanted Esparza to be champion. They would have much rather had the youthful Namajunas win in their first encounter and expected the more mature version of Namajunas gain a measure of revenge the second time around. Instead, Namajunas crapped the bed on both occasions, especially in the second contest. Thus, Esparza became the second two-time strawweight champion after largely becoming the forgotten champion.
The reason the UFC would rather not have Esparza be the division’s standard bearer is the lack of dynamism in her game. She doesn’t have KO power. She offers very little in her standup besides her boxing. Even her grappling is boring, utilizing top control, rarely hunting for submissions. You’re not going to find an extended highlight reel of Esparza for a reason.
Keep in mind though, Esparza is the champion for a reason. Yes, Namajunas utilized a terrible strategy, but Esparza was also smart enough not to give Namajunas any of the openings she was looking for. There may not be a better example of the Socrates quote “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom” in the fight game than Esparza. She knows what she is good at, what her limitations are, and how to maximize her positives and minimize her negatives. Beyond knowing herself, Esparza is also exceptionally gritty, allowing herself to succeed beyond what her physical talents would indicate. After all, she is champion....
As much as I have been singing Esparza’s praises, there is a reason everyone was shocked she became champion again. By a wide margin, she’s the least physically gifted of those who have worn the strawweight belt, including her opponent, Zhang. Zhang is bigger, stronger, faster, and more powerful. She offers diversity in her striking attack. If there is going to be a finish in this fight, it is going to come from Zhang. Based on that alone, it’s hard not to look at Zhang as a heavy favorite.
What Esparza will need to do to if she is to have a chance of retaining her title is attempt to ground Zhang. There are still some questions about Zhang’s ability to stuff takedowns, a surprise given she has been able to consistently fight near the top of the division over the last few years. Namajunas secured a couple of well-timed takedowns and held her down for a while in the final round of their second contest. But no one else has utilized much wrestling against her. Even Namajunas didn’t seem to utilize it as much as she could have. Given Zhang has demonstrated continually improving takedown ability herself indicates she is working with skilled wrestlers... who have likely tested her ability to remain standing in turn. Throw in the physical advantages possessed by Zhang and it isn’t hard to see her remaining vertical.
On the feet, Esparza’s pocket boxing should be enough to bridge the gap between her takedown attempts... but there’s no guarantee she’ll prove capable of finishing the takedowns. She only lands about one in every three attempts, her doggedness to continue attempting them often being the overriding factor. While Esparza needs to be credited for improving her takedown efficiency, it’s hard not seeing Zhang making her pay a heavy price if she continues to go down that well.
I’m not predicting an Esparza upset. I won’t say she doesn’t have a chance, but I don’t see Zhang making the mistake of doing nothing the way Namajunas did. I will say that Esparza does get some takedowns, but Zhang will prove hard to keep down and should easily outpoint the reigning world champion. I wouldn’t be surprised if she secures a finish either, but the guess here is a decision is the safer prediction. Zhang via decision.