Preview: UFC 281
Long-awaited UFC 281 is nearly here, and we will get to see middleweight champion Israel Adesanya vs. challenger Alex Pereira for the third time. The first two were in kickboxing, with Pereira winning them both. Can Adesanya get his revenge? There's also two-time women's strawweight champion Carl Esparza defending her title against the former champion Weili Zhang. To round out the featured bouts is a lightweight contest between Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler.
Israel Adesanya (c) vs. Alex Pereira
Since his win against Paolo Costa, Adesanya has lost to Jan Błachowicz, beat Marvin Vettori and Jared Cannonier in lackluster performances, and won a very close fight against Robert Whittaker. Now teammate and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski is ahead of him as the pound-for-pound king. Pereira has also beaten Adesanya twice, one of those instances by brutal knockout. How does all of this affect Adesanya going into this bout? Criticisms of being a points fighter go back to his first fight with Marvin Vettori. Then there's all the bad blood and trash talk between both fighters. Does this put pressure on Adesanya to go in and prove a point?
If history tells us anything, the answer is no. But then again, Adesanya has never fought anyone in MMA who's beaten him before. Pereira also goes into this fight without any awe for Adesanya. There's no mystique around Adesanya because Pereira already knows what he can do. Where Pereira could be weak, Adesanya is also weak, which is wrestling. So we're likely to see another kickboxing fight, but this time in a giant octagon with small gloves.
How do the smaller gloves and bigger octagon change the fight? Pereira had the power advantage in their kickboxing fights, but with the smaller gloves, will the same punches Adesanya landed hurt Pereira now? For Pereira, will his punches hurt Adesanya even more now? Will the bigger cage allow Adesanya to evade, or will it allow Pereira to get Adesanya against the fence?
Something I've noticed about Pereira is that, since switching to MMA, he's taken some power off of his shots because he's already realized that he doesn't need to swing as hard to hurt his opponents. He also has massive hands, so the way MMA fighters usually slip or block punches still allows Pereira's punches to come through. Pereira also stands on the ball of his backfoot with his hips already facing his opponent. This makes his offense that much quicker and more deceptive. Is he coming with the left or the right because both sides are loaded? However, since he's exposing more of himself, defense becomes that much harder.
Pereira's primary defense is vision. To see the shots coming or to anticipate where they'll come. His second line of defense is using his big hands to occupy space to get in the way of shots. This hand position only allows for certain angles of attacks to come through. That doesn't mean Pereira always avoids the shots, but he takes something off them by partially blocking with his forearms or rolling with the shot. The key is that he's not taken by surprise. This is how Pereira can maintain his forward movement and pressure because, eventually, you'll be so close that you'll either be shooting for a takedown, punching into his hands, or eating a punch or a knee.
Pereira's upright stance also well-positions him to take shots. A good stance disperses the impact of the shot throughout your body down to your feet. Pereira's stance discipline rarely has him leaning over to throw his shots or charging forward face first. You can hit Pereira, but it's hard to catch him clean.
Adesanya has shown that he has the footwork to avoid Pereira's power shots. He's also shown that he can go five rounds in the octagon. Pereira has yet to fight five five-minute rounds. Pereira also cuts a lot of weight to get to 185 pounds. How does that weight cut look over five rounds? The betting odds slightly favor Adesanya for these reasons. But even if Adesanya can put his ego aside and stick and move as Pereira chases, what happens when Pereira touches him with MMA gloves?
Adesanya has already modified his stance and style for MMA, whereas Pereira still fights like a kickboxer. If they engage strictly in kickboxing, who does this favor?
"Can Pereira beat all the same people Adesanya beat?" is a different question than "can Pereira beat Adesanya?" Adesanya is better suited against wrestlers, but is Pereira better suited against Adesanya? What happens when Adesanya fights someone his same height and reach? Can he still sway back as defense?
Adesanya has yet to lose at middleweight and has defended his belt five times. Adesanya's primary advantage over Pereira is that he's been in this position before and knows what it's like to fight in a UFC main event. He knows how to pace for five rounds. He knows what the octagon feels like; he knows what the judges are looking for, and Pereira doesn't.
For Pereira to win, he doesn't just have to beat Adesanya; he also has to succeed in his first UFC pay-per-view main event in a new venue against a hostile crowd. But perhaps to Pereira, this is just another fight.
Carla Esparza (c) vs. Weili Zhang
Esparza was the inaugural UFC women's strawweight champion, but since losing it to Joanna Jędrzejczyk in 2015, it's taken her seven years to regain that title. Esparza got to this position with improved conditioning, striking, and a bizarre fight against Rose Namajunas.
Zhang is coming off of a two-round destruction of Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Zhang also has more title fight and big fight experience. But against Namajunas, we saw her be put on her back, unable to get up. We've also seen her go hard for two rounds and slow down for the final three. For Esparza, she has to defend the early onslaught, put Zhang on her back, and frustrate her.
For Zhang, victory means consistently hurting Esparza and overpowering her, making Esparza doubt her mat strength. If Zhang can do that, Esparza will begin to beat herself.
Esparza isn't a striking threat, but her striking has gotten good enough that she doesn't have to only rely on takedowns. But it's her weakness in striking that has her opponents lunging in, allowing Esparza to tie them up and take them down. Rather than looking to hurt Esparza, Zhang just has to hit her. If she trusts in her training and her power, that'll be enough.
Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler
What do you do with two big names who aren't in line for a title? Have them fight each other. Chandler has knockout power, but how often does Poirier get knocked out? How often does Poirier even lose? Though Poirier may not get another title shot in a while or ever, he may still be too tall of a task for Michael Chandler.
Chandler, at 5'6, is short for the division. Against a southpaw, that reach disadvantage is even worse. Chandler uses stance switches to close the range, but Poirier should know that. Chandler's wrestling will be his advantage in this fight, but is it dangerous enough to beat Poirier? Unless something has really changed, this is a fight Poirier should win without much controversy.
Rest of the Card
There are many other intriguing fights on this card, like Frankie Edgar's retirement fight. Can Edgar beat unranked Chris Gutiérrez, or is this retirement already several fights too late? Dan Hooker is trying to keep his career alive by moving back up to lightweight and, like Edgar, fighting another relative unknown. If he can't beat Claudio Puelles, does he remain in the UFC? Will desperation to win have him beating himself?
Brad Riddell vs. Renato Moicano and Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann look like bangers. Molly McCann vs. Erin Blanchfield has divisional importance at women's flyweight. A win for either means fighting someone in the top 10. Can Karolina Kowalkiewicz keep her comeback alive against Silvana Gómez Juárez? Even the early prelims have some fun match-ups.
Like UFC 280, this is another strong pay-per-view.
UFC Fight Night 214 Main Event Recap
The women's strawweight fight between Marina Rodriguez and Amanda Lemos had title implications. Rodriguez looked to be the next in line, but right away, in round one, when Lemos landed a quick combination, Rodriguez got on her bike. Rodriguez has taken a lot of hard punches before, but something about Lemos's power was different. Even when they clinched at the end of round one, despite being the one to fall on her back, Lemos seemed to have the power advantage. Her losing the takedown had more to do with rushing to score at the end than Rodriguez reversing her.
The power difference in both striking and wrestling became even more apparent in round two as Lemos caught Rodriguez again with another right and took her down. How strong is Lemos, and how hard does she hit?
In round three, Lemos caught Rodriguez again and stunned her, finishing her with a standing TKO. Lemos has power, which automatically makes her fights interesting. If Namajunas is taking an extended break from fighting, give Lemos the next title shot. With this win, that's what Lemos should constantly be calling for.
At 35, if she's going to make a run for the title, she has to do it now.