MMAOB staff writer Adam Martin takes a deeper look at the co-main event of UFC 281, a five-round women’s strawweight title bout between champion Carla Esparza and challenger Weili Zhang. The event takes place on Saturday, November 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
Weili Zhang (-340)
Zhang (22-3) is the No. 2 ranked UFC women’s strawweight. The 33-year-old China native joined the UFC in 2018 and she has a 6-2 record in the promotion so far, with notable wins over the likes of Joanna Jedrzejczyk (twice), Jessica Andrade, and Tecia Torres. Zhang is one of the best athletes in the weight class and she is also one of the best strikers. She has massive power and she can hurt and finish anyone on the feet. She also has improved grappling, making her a well-rounded fighter. She is the former champion and it will be interesting to see if she can use her counter-wrestling in order to keep this fight against Esparza standing, as Zhang would have a big edge on the feet.
Carla Esparza (+280)
Esparza (20-6) is the UFC women’s strawweight champion. The 35-year-old American has been in the UFC since 2014 and she has a 10-4 record overall in the promotion, including two stints as a champion. Some of her most notable wins include Rose Namajunas (twice), Marina Rodriguez, Yan Xiaonan, and Alexa Grasso. Esparza has used her wrestling for years to excel in the sport. While her striking has never gotten to the level of her grappling, her wrestling is elite in this sport. If she can get her opponents down to the mat, she can beat anyone in the weight class. However, if her fights remain on the feet, she is at far more of a risk of being hurt and stopped with strikes.
Fight Breakdown: This should be a great fight between two of the best women’s strawweights in the Octagon. Esparza has proven time and time again that she’s one of the best fighters in the division and she needs to stop being counted out. Zhang, meanwhile, has lost a few fights, but when she’s on, she’s the most dominant fighter in the weight class. Esparza has the best wrestling at women’s 115lbs, but her striking is still not elite, whereas Zhang arguably has the best striking in the weight class right now. Zhang also has the takedown defense and the athleticism needed to keep this fight standing. The only way Esparza wins this fight is if she can take Zhang down to the mat. It’s possible, but unlikely she will be able to excel with her grappling in this fight. Instead, it seems far more likely that Zhang will sprawl and brawl, keep the fight standing, and knock Esparza out. The odds are high, but Zhang has all of the tools to win her belt back, and I believe that’s what happens.
Prediction: Weili Zhang