UFC 281: Pereira dethrones Adesanya, Zhang regains title, Poirier-Chandler FOTY candidate

Round 1 of Poirier-Chandler was a roller coaster (0:33)

Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler trade blows in an incredible first round of their fight. (0:33)

NEW YORK -- Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler put on the type of wildly entertaining fight that fans have come to expect from each of them, and in doing so on the star-studded main card of UFC 281 on Saturday night, they helped sort out the lightweight top 10.

Poirier was the winner, finishing with a rear-naked choke 2 minutes into Round 3. But getting there took work. For much of the fight, Poirier, who is No. 4 in the ESPN rankings at 155 pounds, looked like the one who was going to get finished.

The sixth-ranked Chandler took control from the start, aggressively moving in on Poirier with a nonstop flurry of wild punches. Poirier, meanwhile, appeared hesitant. He was maintaining distance to avoid damage but offering little in return. And eventually, Chandler did connect, and his two takedowns in the opening round put him in position to beat up his opponent on the canvas.

But Poirier eventually got up, and he badly hurt a very tired Chandler late in the round. Had the round been 5 minutes and 10 seconds long, Chandler likely would not have made it to the horn.

But he did, and early in the second, despite breathing heavily, Chandler scored a takedown and controlled the fight on the canvas for nearly all of those five minutes.

Poirier came out for the final round with poise, knowing he had more left in the tank than Chandler. And when he turned a Chandler takedown attempt into his advantage of the canvas, he was able to work his way to the finish.

Watch Poirier vs. Chandler on ESPN+

UFC 281 results

Middleweight championship: Alex Pereira (7-1, 4-0 UFC) def. Israel Adesanya (c) (23-2, 12-2 UFC) by TKO (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Flashback: Alex Pereira beats Israel Adesanya at UFC 281 to claim middleweight gold

Alex Pereira defeats Israel Adesanya for the third time in their fighting career, the first in the UFC, to become the new middleweight champion.

Alex Pereira had Israel Adesanya's number in kickboxing. And he has it in MMA, too.

Pereira, the only man to ever knock out Adesanya, stopped him again via TKO at 2:01 of the fifth and final round Saturday night in the main event of UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden. With the victory, Pereira won the UFC middleweight title in just his fourth fight with the promotion. Adesanya was the champion since 2019.

Adesanya had been winning the fight until the stoppage victory, Pereira firing a barrage of punches with Adesanya hurt against the cage. Referee Marc Goddard stepped in to stop it after a flurry of left hooks and right hands.

Pereira (7-1) knocked out Sean Strickland in the first round at UFC 276 in July to earn the title shot. The Brazilian slugger has six KO/TKOs in seven career MMA victories and is 4-0 in the UFC. Pereira, 35, is a former Glory Kickboxing middleweight and light heavyweight champion.

Adesanya (23-2) had won three straight fights and was undefeated at middleweight coming into this bout. His only career loss before this was in a light heavyweight title fight last year against Jan Blachowicz. The Nigerian-born New Zealand resident had five successful middleweight title defenses following a win over Whittaker to earn the belt in October 2019. Adesanya, 33, was coming off a unanimous decision win over Jared Cannonier at UFC 276 in July.

Raimondi: Pereira stuns Adesanya by TKO to claim UFC title

Strawweight championship: Zhang Weili (23-3, 7-2 UFC) def. Carla Esparza (c) (20-7, 10-5 UFC) by submission (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Zhang Weili recaptures strawweight title in UFC 281 co-main event

Zhang Weili forces Carla Esparza to tap to reclaim her strawweight title in the co-main event of UFC 281.

NEW YORK -- Zhang Weili became China's first UFC champion in 2019, when she took the strawweight title from Jessica Andrade. On Saturday, she also became China's second UFC champion. Zhang (23-3) reclaimed her 115-pound championship by submitting Carla Esparza (19-7) in the second round of their strawweight title fight, which co-headlined UFC 281 inside Madison Square Garden. The finish came at the 1:05 mark via rear-naked choke, and made Zhang a champion again for the first time since March 2021.

The Chinese veteran stalked Esparza around the Octagon, and although she didn't land too many shots early, the power difference was obvious. Esparza caught a body kick attempt in the first several minutes and looked to take Zhang down, but Zhang's physicality in the scrambles continued to show up as the fight progressed.

In the second round, Zhang scrambled partially around Esparza's back and forced her to choke to the tap. The finish is Zhang's eighth career win by submission and only the second time Esparza has been submitted in her 12-year career. Zhang also becomes the fourth woman in UFC history to become a two-time champion, joining Namajunas, Amanda Nunes and, ironically, Esparza.

Okamoto: Zhang submits Esparza to reclaim strawweight title

Bantamweight: Chris Gutierrez (19-3-2, 7-1-1 UFC) def. Frankie Edgar (23-11-1, 18-11-1 UFC) by knockout (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Gutierrez got down on his knees and embraced Edgar, who was sitting on a stool. The crowd started to chant, "Frankie Edgar."

It was billed as the final fight of Edgar's career and Gutierrez, the younger fighter, finished him with a jumping knee knockout at 2:01 of the first round. Edgar was coming in for an apparent takedown attempt and Gutierrez's knee was perfectly timed. Edgar was unconscious on impact, stunning the crowd in an arena not too far from Edgar's hometown of Toms River, New Jersey.

Edgar is a former UFC lightweight champion and one of the most beloved fighters in UFC history. He's a surefire future UFC Hall of Famer.

"I love this sport, man," Edgar said. "I didn't want to go out like that. This sport's a b----. I have my family and that's all that matters."

Afterward, Gutierrez talked about his coach Marc Montoya, who has been diagnosed with cancer in his kidney. Gutierrez said Montoya was in the hospital until Thursday and still flew to New York for his fight.

"If he's got f---ing cancer and he came out here and he's fighting for us, how can I not give everything I have to fight for him?" Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez, 31, is unbeaten in eight straight fights. The New Jersey native has now won two in a row via brutal knockout.

Edgar, 41, will go out with three consecutive losses. But he was a top lightweight for years, holding that title as one of the smallest men in the division. He then had a run as one of the top featherweights in the world before moving down to bantamweight to finish off his career. Edgar has spent more time in the Octagon than any fighter in history and is tied with Nate Diaz for the most Fight of the Night bonuses in UFC history (8).

Lightweight: Dan Hooker (22-12, 12-8 UFC) def. Claudio Puelles (13-3, 5-2 UFC) by TKO (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Dan Hooker essentially removed Claudio Puelles' will to fight, en route to a TKO stoppage at 4:06 of the second round. Puelles repeatedly fell to his back after failed takedown attempts and was slow to rise as Hooker stepped back.

Referee Keith Peterson eventually, mercifully, waved things off after Puelles went to his back from a front body kick. It was Hooker's first knockout since July 2019, and it couldn't have come at a better time, as Hooker was coming off back-to-back losses in which he was finished in the opening round.

Immediately after the fight, he called for a bout on UFC 284 on Feb. 11 in Perth, Australia. Hooker fights out of New Zealand. "Perth, I'm coming for you," Hooker said. "Any man walking the face of this earth."

Puelles, 26, is known as a leglock specialist, and he did have some early opportunities on the ground. He rolled into Hooker's legs midway through the first round, putting him in several challenging positions. Hooker calmly worked out of danger, and when the two fighters stood back up, Puelles' confidence faded.

According to UFC Stats, Hooker out-landed Puelles in total strikes 37 to 5 and denied him on all eight of his takedown attempts.

Lightweight: Renato Moicano (17-5-1, 9-5 UFC) def. Brad Riddell (10-4, 4-3 UFC) by submission (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Renato Moicano puts on stellar performance in submission of Brad Riddell

Renato Moicano forces Brad Riddell to tap out at UFC 281 in the featured prelim fight.

Moicano was masterful at maintaining distance -- until he closed in for the finish.

The 33-year-old Brazilian seized control of the fight from the start, and deceivingly looked effortless in doing so. While Riddell was winging big punches his way, Moicano smoothly kept his distance until it was his turn to unleash a straight punch, which most of the time landed -- and then he was right back out of the way.

One of the punches bloodied the nose of Riddell, and when Riddell tried to close the distance to land something, the fight went to the canvas. No problem for Moicano, who quickly locked in a rear-naked choke to get the finish at 3:20 of the first round.

Moicano, a 33-year-old Brazilian, has won three of his last four fights, while Riddell, who is 31 and from New Zealand, has lost three in a row.

Light heavyweight: Ryan Spann (21-7, 7-2 UFC) def. Dominick Reyes (12-4, 6-4 UFC) by knockout (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Ryan Spann sends Dominick Reyes home with incredible KO

Ryan Spann knocks out Dominick Reyes with one blistering punch at UFC 281.

Spann has a habit, at times, of making things too interesting. He can fight down to his opponent's level and let foes back into fights. Not this time.

In arguably the best performance of his career, Spann absolutely smoked Reyes, catching him with a left hand that knocked Reyes out at 1:20 of the first round. When asked in his postfight interview by Joe Rogan what made this outing so good, Spann's response was almost baffling.

"I trained," Spann explained. "I literally trained. I never trained for a fight before."

ESPN had Reyes ranked No. 9 in the world at light heavyweight coming in. Spann was unranked.

Spann actually wobbled Reyes on the first exchange and then landed a big 1-2 combination thereafter. The left, kind of like a power jab with Reyes coming in to throw, put Reyes out on impact, a frightening show of power by Spann, who said he wants a top-five opponent next.

Spann, 31, has won two straight and three of four. The Texas-based fighter is the former LFA light heavyweight champion who possibly just now is finding his footing as one of the best in the world at 205 pounds. Spann missed weight Friday, coming in at 206.6 pounds -- 0.6 over the light heavyweight non-title limit.

Reyes, a 32-year-old California native who did this training camp with Glover Teixeira and Alex Pereira in Connecticut, has last four straight, the last three by knockout.

Women's flyweight: Erin Blanchfield (10-1, 4-0 UFC) def. Molly McCann (13-5, 6-4 UFC) by submission (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Erin Blanchfield brushes shoulders after tapping out Molly McCann

Erin Blanchfield stuns the Madison Square Garden crowd by forcing Molly McCann to tap out.

Even Molly 'Meatball' McCann's magical 2022 couldn't slow down the growing phenom that is Erin Blanchfield.

Blanchfield, 23, thoroughly demolished McCann in the first round of their crucial flyweight contest. Blanchfield took McCann down with ease in the opening round and eventually forced her to tap to an armbar at the 3:37 mark.

McCann valiantly tried to escape one bad position after another, but was overmatched entirely on the floor. Blanchfield is quickly becoming one of the division's more feared grapplers. She quickly caught McCann in a crucifix after taking her down and racked up 93 total strikes landed.

Despite McCann's popularity, Blanchfield went into the fight as a significant betting favorite. She improved to 4-0 in the UFC with two finishes and asked to crack into the Top 10 next. McCann, of Liverpool, sees a three-fight win streak snapped.

Middleweight: Andre Petroski (9-2, 4-0 UFC) def. Wellington Thurman (18-6, 3-4 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Petroski put everything he had behind practically every punch he threw early on, but his relentless grappling and top control proved his greatest strength.

Petroski had two takedowns in each of the first two rounds and kept Thurman on the defensive on the canvas for practically the whole second half of the fight. But he wanted more from his performance.

"I know what I'm capable of," he said. "I know I'm capable of beautiful finishes., So I'm not happy."

The crowd got "USA! USA!" chants going several times -- even though Petraski is from Philadelphia, whose sports teams are generally despised by New York fans, and Thurman, while from Brazil, lives and trains less than 70 miles away in Danbury, Connecticut. Oh well.

Two judges gave all three rounds to Petroski, and the third scored it 29-28 in his favor.

Petroski, 31, has won four fights in a row since his only career defeat. Thurman, 26, saw a two-fight winning streak end.

Lightweight: Matt Frevola (10-3-1, 4-3-1 UFC) def. Ottman Azaitar (13-1, 2-1 UFC) by knockout (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Matt Frevola needs just one punch to knock out Ottman Azaitar

Matt Frevola drops Ottman Azaitar with one incredible punch to the chin.

Long Island showed out at Madison Square Garden.

Frevola starched Azaitar with a right hand followed by a left hook for a knockout at 2:30 of the first round. Azaitar came in hard and landed a shot of his own, but Frevola countered with that short right and then put Azaitar down for good with the left.

This was a homecoming for Frevola, who is from Huntington, New York and trains at LAW MMA in Garden City with UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling and Merab Dvalishvili.

Frevola, 32, has won two straight and has just two losses in his last seven fights. "The Steamrolla" picked up his first pro career win in New York. At MSG, he went to a draw with Lando Vannata at UFC 230 in 2018.

Azaitar, a 32-year-old German-born Morrocan fighter, was undefeated, coming in with a pair of UFC KO/TKO victories on his record.

Strawweight: Karolina Kowalkiewicz (14-7, 7-7 UFC) def. Silvana Gómez Juárez (11-5, 1-3 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Kowalkiewicz, of Poland, improved to 2-0 in 2022 with a close decision victory over Gomez Juarez. All three judges scored the bout 29-28 for Kowalkiewicz.

Kowalkiewicz dominated the opening round with her grappling, immediately taking Gomez Juarez's back and maintaining that position for the entire round. However, the second and third rounds were extremely close, with Kowalkiewicz working straight punches at angles and Gomez Juarez responding with heavy counter shots.

Gomez Juarez especially started to time the counter right hand. She also went to the body in boxing exchanges. Kowalkiewicz narrowly out-landed her in total strikes, but the power seemed to favor Gomez Juarez. Nevertheless, Gomez Juarez nodded as the scores were read and Kowalkiewicz said she believed she'd done enough to win the fight.

Kowalkiewicz, 37, said she's re-committed to MMA after going back and forth with retirement amid a five-fight skid. Gomez Juarez drops to 2-2 in the UFC.

Men's featherweight: Michael Trizano (11-3, 4-3 UFC) def. SeungWoo Choi (10-6, 3-5 UFC) by knockout (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

A double knockdown?! You need to see this to believe it

Mike Trizano and SeungWoo Choi land strikes at the same time, resulting in a brief double knockdown.

Two featherweights on losing streaks entered the Octagon, determined to get off to a positive start. Then, in the opening 30 seconds, both unleashed big left hooks simultaneously. Both landed flush, and both men fell to the canvas.

And with that we had the first crowd-pleasing fight of the night. Once both men climbed back to their feet, they resumed throwing big leather, with Choi continuing with the hard left hooks and Trizano landing right hands that threatened to end the fight. But then he went back to the left, did end the fight with a crisp check hook.

The first round was winding down when Trizano floored Choi and swarmed him for the finish at 4:51.

"I was not going to be denied. I don't care. I was going to go out on my shield," said Trizano, who is 30 and from Ramsey, New Jersey, and ended a two-fight losing streak.

Choi, a 30-year-old from South Korea, has lost three fights in a row.

Bantamweight: Montel Jackson (12-2, 6-2 UFC) def. Julio Arce (18-6, 5-4 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

With the help of that late knockdown, Jackson was able to pull out a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) victory over Arce. Jackson has now knocked down his opponent in five straight bouts. This one came on a power jab that ended up causing nasty swelling and bruising on Arce's left eye. Jackson said he started the fight wrestling to get Arce more stationary in the striking, leading to that success on the feet.

"I was looking for him to get set a little bit," Jackson said. "He was moving a lot with his head."

Jackson, 30, has won three straight and six of his last seven fights. The 30-year-old Milwaukee native has a 6-2 UFC record and seems ready for bigger things in the 135-pound division. Arce, a 33-year-old who lives in Queens, New York, has alternated wins and losses in his last eight fights.

Light heavyweight: Carlos Ulberg (8-1, 3-1 UFC) def. Nicolae Negumereanu (13-2, 4-2 UFC) by TKO (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

Carlos Ulberg wastes no time finishing fight

Carlos Ulberg sends Nicolae Negumereanu to the mat and finishes him off with a flurry of punches.

In his first MMA appearance in New York, Ulberg put on an absolute show in a first-round finish against Negumereanu. Ulberg immediately compromised Negumereanu's lead left leg with calf kicks, before dropping him with a perfect left hook in the center of the cage. The finish came at 3:44 of the round.

Ulberg is one of four members of New Zealand's City Kickboxing team competing tonight, and he certainly got them off to a hot start. It was a flawless performance, as Negumereanu was only credited with two strikes landed, neither of which had any effect on Ulberg.

The 31-year-old improves to 3-0 in his last three fights and 3-1 overall in the UFC since coming off Contender Series in 2020.

  • ROUND 1: Pereira is the one moving forward but is firing shots with power. He's looking to make a statement. Pereira gets the better of several exchanges, but Adesanya hurts him in the final seconds. Adesanya, 10-9.

  • ROUND 2: Both men are getting in their shots, but Pereira's are having more effect, especially some straight rights and body punches in the clinch. Adesanya fails on a takedown attempt, but Pereira gets one in the closing seconds. Pereira, 10-9.

  • ROUND 3: Adesanya, the grappler? After exchanging punches and kicks early on, the champ goes for the takedown, gets it and Pereira has no answer on the canvas. He survives. Adesanya, 10-9.

  • ROUND 4: Pereira still poses danger, in theory, but in reality, he's not doing much to bring it to the champ. Adesanya picks him apart from a distance for much of the round, and even when the challenger ramps up his offense late. Pereira's shots are coming too slow and Adesanya stays safe. Adesanya, 10-9.

  • ROUND 5: And then Pereira's power and energy reemerged. He comes out strong for the final round, stalking the champ. And finally clips him with a left uppercut that sends Adesanya sagging against the cage. Pereira flurries, and referee Marc Goddard jumps in with the champ still standing. And new!

    • ROUND 1: Pereira is the one moving forward but is firing shots with power. He's looking to make a statement. Pereira gets the better of several exchanges, but Adesanya hurts him in the final seconds. Adesanya, 10-9.

    • ROUND 2: Both men are getting in their shots, but Pereira's are having more effect, especially some straight rights and body punches in the clinch. Adesanya fails on a takedown attempt, but Pereira gets one in the closing seconds. Pereira, 10-9.

      • ROUND 1: Esparza gets in the early punches, as Zhang keeps her distance so as not to get taken down. But the challenger eventually gets her offense going, and twice scrambles in to good position to land some damage. A tight one, but I'll go Zhang, 10-9.

      • ROUND 2: Zhang fended off a takedown from Esparza and eventually locked in a choke hold to force a tap. And new!