UFC: Israel Adesanya, Carla Esparza defend titles at UFC 281


A pair of title fights headline a deep card as the UFC makes its annual November trip to New York’s Madison Square Garden for UFC 281 on Saturday night.

New Zealand’s Israel Adesanya (23-1) will defend his middleweight championship against Brazil’s Alex Pereira (6-1) in the evening’s main event, after strawweight champion Carla Esparza (19-6) of Redondo Beach, Calif., defends her belt against former titleholder Zhang Weili (22-3) of China in the evening’s co-feature bout.

Adesanya has been a dominant middleweight champion since winning the title in 2019, successfully defending it on five occasions with a mix of inventive striking and air-tight defense. But he’s got a backstory in facing Pereira.

While the Brazilian is comparatively inexperienced in MMA, he is a ferocious striker with a deep kickboxing background — and he knocked Adesanya out in a 2017 kickboxing match, the only knockout loss of Adesanya’s combat sports career.

At Wednesday’s UFC 281 media day, the challenger said he believes the knockout is in Adesanya’s head.

“It’s still there, for sure,” Pereira said. “I don’t know how it’s going to be or how he could possibly erase that from his mind, but I know it’s still there.”

The strawweight title match is a classic wrestler vs. striker battle.

Esparza became the UFC’s inaugural 115-pound champ in 2014, then was all but cast aside after a loss in 2015. Using her grinding, grappling style, she went on a remarkable six-fight run to regain the title, culminating with a split decision win over Rose Namajunas at UFC 274 in May.

Weili looks to join her on the list of two-time titleholders. The first China-born UFC champion lost the title to Namajunas in 2021, but her spectacular spinning back fist knockout of fellow former champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 275 in June put her back in position to challenge for the crown.

Esparza says she respects her foe’s accomplishments.

“I’m definitely not looking past how dangerous she is and her knockout power and how strong she is because I think that’s obvious to see,” she said. “But I’m pretty strong myself or else I wouldn’t be here at this point.”

–Field Level Media

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