UFC 281: Zhang Weili Impresses, Regains Title by Submitting Carla Esparza

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)

Strawweight champion Carla Esparza attempted to successfully defend her belt for the first time in her two title reigns at UFC 281 against the former champion Zhang Weili.

Carla also seemed to want to right the wrongs of her title winning performance earlier in 2022 against Rose Namajunas, a fight which stood in stark contrast to Weili’s last title win against Joanna Jędrzejczyk— which is known as the greatest women’s fight in MMA history. The striker versus wrestler match-up could not be more stark in this fight. Carla Esparza was an All-American collegiate wrestler and mainly uses that to win fights while Weili comes from a Sanda style kickboxing background that has consistently seen her win fights with her intense striking. Both of these women had held the strawweight title, but only Weili defended it successfully coming into UFC 281. Both of them lost their title, but only one had reclaimed it coming in. One woman’s dreams had to win out in this high-stakes co-main event.

During Bruce Buffer’s introduction of the champion, boos rained down upon her, likely as a result of her last fight with Rose. A big question leading into this fight was if that would affect her.

The fight started with Weili feinting and moving forward to land a low kick. Carla quickly threw back a right hand that landed, surprising Weili. Leg kicks were the gameplan for Zhang early, as is often her plan in conjunction with her pressure game. Weili started opening up a bit with left hooks and kicks towards the head off of the leg kick setups. One head kick hit Carla’s head but she turned it into a takedown. However Weili was able to reverse it and almost take Carla’s back, falling off to the side slightly.

Carla herself then reversed and got a scarf hold, but Weili scrambled out and took the back of Esparza. The scrambles were electric and Carla finally turned into Weili, ending up in full guard on top. Weili pushed off and got back to the feet, eating a right hand for her trouble before getting back to pressure. A big body kick landed from Zhang but Esparza was able to catch it and go for a takedown. However Weili once again reversed and ended up in top half guard. Weili rained down elbows from on top until an arm-bar attempt from Carla forced her to leave the guard right before the bell.

After an electric first round, the second round started with Weili back on the pressure and Carla circling the outside of the cage. Carla’s leg was red and she quickly ate a right hand. She shot a brilliant takedown but Weili sprawled out. Instead of standing up though, Zhang Weili went for a reverse crucifix while attacking a one arm rear-naked choke in an awkward position. At first the choke was not tight, but then Zhang adjusted and it was in deep. The champion was forced to tap and a new champion was crowned.

With the win at UFC 281, Weili became the third strawweight champion in a row to become a two-time champ. In her post-fight interview, the new champion said that she had felt like “Weili that belongs to China.” Now after getting so much love in America she feels like, “The Weili that belongs to the world.” A touching turn of phrase from a fighter who everyone says nothing but nice things about, who is now a beloved champion once again.

Official Result: Zhang Weili def. Carla Esparza by Submission (rear-naked choke), Round 2, 1:05