UFC 281: What We Learned Last Night

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 11: (L-R) Opponents Israel Adesanya of Nigeria and Alex Pereira of Brazil face off during the UFC 281 ceremonial weigh-in at Radio City Music Hall on November 11, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Reflecting on the results and ramifications from Saturday’s action-packed pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden in New York City

And New!

Alex Pereira is the new UFC middleweight champion after collecting a fifth-round stoppage win over Israel Adesanya.

Adesanya hurt Pereira at the end of the first round before the challenger drew level in the second. The third played out almost exclusively on the ground, with “The Last Stylebender” controlling the action on the canvas. Adesanya landed the better blows in the fourth as Pereira looked to be slowing down, but the Brazilian stepped on the gas in the final minute and pressed the action in the fifth.

After backing Adesanya into the fence, Pereira touched him with a left hand that dazed the champion, and the challenger never let him off the hook. The punches came in bunches and Adesanya couldn’t escape, with Pereira continuing to swarm until referee Marc Goddard stepped in to stop the fight.

Things are about to get interesting in the middleweight division, as an immediate rematch would certainly make sense, given Adesanya’s prior success and 3-1 lead heading into Round 5, but it also opens up new opportunities for the likes of Robert Whittaker, Marvin Vettori, and the other challengers Pereira bypassed on his way to the top.

His corner told him he needed to go out and finish in order to win the title.

Pereira listened and now he’s the UFC middleweight champion.

Zhang Reclaims the Throne

Zhang Weili is the new UFC strawweight champion, ascending to the throne for the second time with a second-round submission win over Carla Esparza.

The challenger came out pressing the champion from the outset, and for the opening five minutes, the two fought at a frenetic clip, each shining in the other’s area of expertise. Esparza landed good jabs and kept Zhang honest on the feet, and in turn, Zhang wrestled well and hung with “The Cookie Monster” when the action hit the canvas.

In the second, Zhang appeared to buzz Esparza with a right hand, drawing a takedown attempt out of the champion, which Zhang initially defended well before clamping onto a crucifix position and driving her forearm under Esparza’s chin. After fishing her left arm free, she completed the hold and secured the tap, earning UFC gold for the second time.

The Chinese superstar looked poised to dominate the division when she first won the belt, but couldn’t get by Rose Namajunas in a pair of 2021 bouts. This was another reminder of her dynamic talents, and now we wait to see if Zhang can embark on a lengthy reign or if she’ll be dethroned relatively quickly once again.

Poirier and Chandler Deliver (And Then Some)

Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler combined to put on a Fight of the Year contender (as expected) in the middle of the main card, with Poirier securing a third-round submission win.

The opening five minutes of this fight were the tense, competitive, electric and so much more, as the lightweight veterans battered one another, no quarter asked and none given. Each had the other on shaky footing at one point, with Poirier grabbing control towards the end of the round, leaving Chandler a bloody mess as the horn sounded to close out the frame.

Chandler controlled the second with his wrestling, putting Poirier on the deck early and keeping him there for the vast majority of the round, hunting for submissions, landing sporadic blows, and taking a few liberties that he wasn’t penalized for along the way. But in the third, a slam attempt got turned into a scramble, and Poirier ended up in back mount, where he quickly sunk in the fight-ending choke.

This was a tremendously entertaining contest, but shouldn’t have any impact on the championship picture.

Islam Makhachev is officially slated to defend his belt against featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski in February, and Beneil Dariush is in place as the No. 1 contender. If anyone is going to face Dariush for the top spot, it should be Rafael Fiziev, not Poirier, who has been locked into mostly big game fights rather than divisional battles for the last two years, and failed in his latest bid to claim the title just 11 months ago.

This was a gutsy, impressive performance from “The Diamond” and I’m not sure what it should lead to next; I just know it shouldn’t be a championship opportunity.

Gutierrez Knocks Out Edgar

Chris Gutierrez ended the UFC career of Frankie Edgar on Saturday night, putting the former lightweight champion to sleep with a beautiful step-in knee up the middle two minutes into their main card fight.

It was never going to end any differently.

Edgar was 2-5 in his previous seven fights, had been knocked out in each of his last two outings, and stiffened up with the first clean blow that Gutierrez landed. Soon after, “The Answer” pressed forward looking to close the distance, and “El Guapo” stepped in with a perfectly placed knee, sending Edgar crashing to the canvas.

This is an outstanding result for Gutierrez, regardless of Edgar’s departure and disappointing results of late. He’s quietly won four straight and runs his unbeaten streak to eight with this victory, and should find himself inside the Octagon with a fellow ascending talent in the bantamweight division next time out.

But Saturday was about Edgar and his final fight, and unfortunately, it went the way it almost always does in these situations — with the guy that hung around too long getting sent to the Land of Whispers and Ghosts.

We have to find a better way to say goodbye to these greats and get them onto something else, because too many formerly great talents are sticking around too long and getting sent out in ugly fashion when that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

Reminder: There Are Levels to This

Dan Hooker returned to the lightweight division and reminded everyone that there are levels to this, halting the five-fight winning streak of Claudio Puelles by second-round stoppage.

“The Hangman” entered with a 1-4 record over his last five fights, but folks should have been paying more attention to the opponents, rather than the results, as the losses came against a collection of Top 5 talents across two divisions, including current lightweight champ Islam Makhachev on short notice. While Puelles was running hot, he’d never faced anyone as proven and dangerous as Hooker, and that showed on Saturday.

Puelles chased leg locks early in the fight, but Hooker defended well, and each time they were on the feet, the New Zealand native attacked and hurt his young opponent. Targeting the midsection with front kicks, Hooker kept chipping away, eventually earning the finish when Puelles could not get back to his feet late in the middle stanza.

The 32-year-old reminded everyone that he’s still a factor just outside the championship picture in the lightweight division, and that wins and losses don’t always tell the full story about where fighters stand in the UFC.

Moicano Shines, Submits Riddell

Renato Moicano clearly wasn’t bothered by the ass-whippin’ he caught from Rafael Dos Anjos earlier in the year, as the Brazilian rebounded with an outstanding first-round submission win over Brad Riddell in the final preliminary card fight of the night.

Moicano came out slinging hands and backed the City Kickboxing representative up almost immediately, flashing superior speed and power. Once he had Riddell softened up on the feet, he initiated a grappling exchange, and after dumping the scrambling New Zealander off his back, Moicano returned the favour, climbing one Riddell’s back and instantly attacking with a neck crank. When Riddell refused to address the hands, Moicano adjusted his grip, set the forearm under the chin, and squeezed out the tap.

That’s now three wins in four fights for the former featherweight standout, all by finish, and four wins in six starts since moving to lightweight. He may not be in a position to push towards the absolute top of the division, but there is no question that Moicano is a menacing presence just outside the upper tier for anyone hoping to do so themselves.

‘Superman’ Soars

Ryan “Superman” Spann sent Dominick Reyes into the Shadow Realm just 80 seconds into their light heavyweight clash at UFC 281.

Both guys came out looking to throw and land heavy, and each did in the initial sequence, but Spann quickly established himself as the more powerful of the two, and when Reyes stepped in with his hands down, the Fortis MMA man put a left hand in his grill that put him to sleep.

This was an absolutely smashing and the kind of performance that should make everyone — and I mean everyone — sit up and take notice of Spann as a potential title threat in the 205-pound weight class. His coach Sayif Saud has always said the towering Texan has all the skills and talent to be UFC champion, and if he’s finally turned that last mental corner, we could see Spann making his coach seem prophetic in the not too distant future.

Blanchfield is a Massive Problem

Erin Blanchfield beat the ever-loving Christ out of Molly McCann on Saturday night, out-striking her in the early stages of their fight before putting “Meatball” on the canvas and finishing the contest before the first five minutes expired.

This was an absolute mauling by the 23-year-old American, who is now 4-0 in the UFC and 10-1 overall. She easily climbed into a mounted crucifix and kept McCann there, eating punches and elbows, until opting to switch to attacking a kimura, torquing the Liverpool native’s shoulder into a gnarly position, and eventually collecting the tap.

Blanchfield has been a elite prospect since her days under the Invicta FC banner, and keeps looking more like a title threat with each appearance. Her striking is continually improving and her grappling is already elite, as she’s showed in previous victories along with Saturday’s thumping of McCann. This was always the way it was going to go, and anyone that still doesn’t recognize “Cold Blooded” as a contender right now isn’t paying attention.

For McCann, this is surely a disappointing result in a big spot — a fight at Madison Square Garden, after consecutive knockout wins — but her personality and popularity should endure this, and a favorable matchup on the next card in London could help her quickly put this result in her rearview mirror.

Just Keep an Eye on Petroski

Listen, I’m not going to overreact to Andre Petroski out-grappling Wellington Turman on Saturday night because the Brazilian is one of those inconsistent cats and is now 3-4 inside the Octagon. That being said, Petroski moved to 4-0 in the UFC with the win, seems to be working to address his cardio issues, and has an excellent grappling base, making him worth keeping tabs on in the middleweight division.

The path to facing a Top 15 opponent isn’t as long or treacherous in the 185-pound ranks as it is elsewhere, and a four-fight winning streak can’t be overlooked. Petroski should get a step up in competition next time out as he continues his run of success, and with a win there, we could be talking about a date with someone sporting a number next to their name after that one.

The Philly native gets props for using his post-fight interview to call out Bo Nickal and vocalize that the former NCAA superstar has turned him down twice, because whether it’s true or not (or there is something more to it), it forces Nickal to address the callout, which could make the fight more likely to happen. He threw a couple other names out there with Joe Rogan, but a fight with Nickal would honestly make a lot of sense at this point.

Steamrolla Tops Bulldozer

In the all-construction equipment battle to close out the early prelims, Matt “The Steamrolla” Frevola walked away the victor, stopping “The Bulldozer” Ottman Azaitar midway through the opening round.

The lightweights showed each other respect initially, neither wanting to walk onto a big shot early, but once they settled in and came together throwing, Frevola was first to find a big shot. A right hand connected clean, but it was the sharp left hook behind it that put Azaitar on the deck, unsure of where he was, left on the receiving end for the first time of his career.

There were questions about the level of competition Azaitar had faced on his way to a perfect 13-0 record and they were proven justified on Saturday, as the journeyman Frevola was able to wade into the fray, find his chin, and bounce him from the ranks of the unbeaten.

This is a good win for Frevola, who has now won two straight in under five minutes. He called out Paddy Pimblett for a showdown in London, but if “The Baddy” beats Jared Gordon, he’ll likely be facing someone a little further up the divisional ladder than Frevola… but you can’t blame the guy for trying.

‘Quik’ Could Use a Change of Scenery

I say this with all due respect to Zak Ottow and the folks at Pura Vida BJJ in Milwaukee, but good lord would I like to see what Montel Jackson looks like working alongside a cast of more experienced coaches and training partners.

The DWCS grad picked up his third consecutive victory and sixth win in his last seven fights on Saturday, out-working Julio Arce in the second preliminary card bout of the evening. “Quik” has only ever lost to real quality talent (Ricky Simon, Brett Johns) and has a well-rounded skill set, plus dangerous build for the division, but he feels like his development has slowed, if not stalled.

Beating Arce is a quality win, and I just can’t help but wonder how much further along or more dynamic Jackson would be if the last year was spent at American Top Team, AKA, or somewhere similar. He might still make a run towards the rankings, but something tells me that if he changed things up, we would be talking about “when” he reaches the rankings and not “if” he’ll get there at some point.

Carlos Ulberg is Figuring Things Out

Carlos Ulberg lost his promotional debut in a barnburner of a fight with Kennedy Nzechukwu last year at the UFC APEX, but since then, “Black Jag” has been making strides, and he turned in the best performance of his UFC career in Saturday’s UFC 281 opener.

Rather than getting baited into a slugfest or drawn out of position by Nicolae Negumereanu, the City Kickboxing representative floated around the outside of the Octagon, throwing the occasional jab or rangy kick, frustrating his Romanian foe. When Negumereanu finally committed to charging forward, Ulberg instantly floored him with a clean left hook. The follow-up blow was even more powerful and precise, bringing the fight to an end.

Physically, Ulberg cuts an impressive figure and has the raw tools to make some noise in the light heavyweight division. If he’s learning how to best play to his strengths and deploy his considerable weapons, that could make him a dangerous name to watch going forward. The moment of truth will be when he faces a quality grappler that knows how to get inside, but for now, he’s won three straight and looks to be improving each time out, which is all you can ask.

E. Spencer Kyte is a veteran MMA content creator based in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He's written for numerous outlets, including FOX Sports and The Province, British Columbia's leading newspaper, and has been a freelance contributor to the UFC website for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @spencerkyte.