UFC 281: Esparza and Zhang Seek Redemptive Performances at MSG

Carla Esparza and Weili Zhang, UFC 281
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 11: (L-R) Opponents Carla Esparza and Zhang Weili of China 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)

Reigning champion Carla Esparza is looking to change the conversation from her uneventful last outing while Zhang Weili is looking to make the most out of her second chance to reclaim gold at UFC 281.

“You are only as good as your last fight” is how the saying goes.

Carla Esparza presents a unique interpretation of the phrase.  Her last fight was historic as she reclaimed the UFC strawweight championship seven years after she last held it and capped off a six fight win-streak with a seminal victory.  But the main conversation stemming from the bout was about the mind-boggling pace of the match.  A quick peruse through the comments of the fight on the UFC’s official YouTube channel will tell you that the masses have not forgotten either.  Esparza’s triumph, in a bout where she entered as a heavy underdog, was lost in the talk about what both women didn’t do as opposed to the fact that she got the victory with what was presented.

The work to reach that point for “Cookie Monster” was certainly a feat in itself.  After breaking through as the inaugural 115 pound champion in the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter in 2014, Esparza immediately dropped the belt and subsequently went on a 3-3 run that at the time made it appear as if the game might have passed by the veteran.  In 2019, she began a brilliant resurgence in turning back the likes of top contenders and veterans such as Marina Rodriguez, Yan Xiaonan, Alexa Grasso, and Michelle Waterson-Gomez.  This leads to Saturday’s second challenge for the reigning champion: she is the underdog in part because of the reaction to the last bout, but her current run is as good as any in the top five and a strong performance would change the conversation into just how much further she can take her resurgence.

Zhang Weili has no such issue after having painted over her two fight skid with a second round Knockout of the Year candidate over Joanna Jędrzejczyk back in June.  “Magnum” enters Saturday’s bout with a prime opportunity to run the table at strawweight after back-to-back losses to Rose Namajunas cost her the belt and removed her from title contention.  The former champion from China has delivered on her part perfectly, outshining former foe Jędrzejczyk in their rematch this past June and managing to throw down the proverbial gauntlet just weeks before Esparza wrested the belt from Namajunas the following month.

Zhang’s latest title bout does feel precariously vital for her career.  The losses to Namajunas brought the great momentum she had generated with a 21 fight win-streak with wins over the likes of Jędrzejczyk, Jessica Andrade, and Tecia Torres to a screeching halt.  At 33 years-old, Zhang is expected to have several more prime years left but undoubtedly does not want to use them on working her way back up the ladder for a third straight time.  Furthermore, Zhang enters the bout as the betting favorite and is in as favorable a position as can be hoped for to return to the top spot in the division.

The dynamic attack of Zhang will be the biggest weapon on either side and will be the toughest challenge for Esparza to overcome.  The challenger is shorter and more compact than Namajunas and thus is expected to come in with more volume as she has to work her way inside if she wants to be effective with her striking.  For Esparza, movement and feints as she works her way inside for takedowns will once again be crucial to neutralize her opponent.  Should she struggle to get the fight down to the mat, then pushing Zhang to the fence where she can put her weight on the challenger will be necessary to slowly cut away at her gas tank.

In the event of an Esparza victory, any number of options would be open in the form of rematches with Namajunas and Yan Xiaonan or new bouts against the likes of Jessica Andrade (should she get past Lauren Murphy in January) or Amanda Lemos.  For Zhang, similar options would be open although a third fight with Namajunas after losing two consecutive bouts to her last year would be difficult to sell.