UFC 281 Saturday from Madison Square Garden is a 14-fight card featuring two five-round championship bouts, a main card stacked with elite-level combatants and athletes from every corner of the globe. (Early prelims at 6 p.m. ET, main card at 10 p.m. ET).
VSiN experts Lou Finocchiaro and Reed Kuhn offer their best bets for Saturday’s action. Check VSiN's UFC Betting Spilts page for latest odds and public betting and money percentages.
Last week, favorites in the UFC went 9-2. In 2022, favorites are 261-126-7 (66%), a couple points higher than the average.
Last week, Finocchiaro dropped a unit each on Nate Maness and Marina Rodriguez. He is 24-17 +8.07 units (+115) this year.
Israel Adesanya (-200) vs. Alex Pereira (+175)
Middleweight (185 pounds) / Championship
Finocchiaro: There is tremendous anticipation in this fight as these elite-level strikers have had two previous tussles when both were professional kickboxers.
Pereira was the victor over Adesanya twice, once via a razor-close decision in 2016 and then via KO in 2017. In the rematch, Adesanya was experiencing tremendous success before Pereira landed a powerful left hook to Adesanya’s jaw that ended the fight.
Fast forward five years, these two meet again, but the circumstances are much different. Pereira, now 7-1 as a professional mixed martial artist and 3-0 in the UFC, is the supposed “boogie man” who has been hyped by the entertainment organization that is the UFC so it can create buzz and electricity for a fight with a champion who has dominated a division.
It’s fortunate timing for the UFC with Adesanya’s destruction of the division leading up to this bout simply a matter of record. There WERE few challenges remaining for him to overcome until Pereira was jettisoned into this blown-up overhyped position.
Adesanya, 23-1 professionally and 12-1 in the UFC, lost when he jumped up to the light heavyweight division and was bested by then-champion Jan Blachowicz.
One look at Adesanya’s record shows he has dominated an absolute who’s who in the middleweight division. What’s more impressive is that Adesanya has chosen to undertake the biggest challenge possible for each title defense.
When he fought Romero, there was no one in the division that would even mention his name out of fear… yet Issy sought him out. He sought out Paolo Costa, knocked him out and has beaten Whittaker twice.
Pereira remains a talented kickboxer, but he is not yet a complete mixed martial artist..
Adesanya will provide us with his best performance to date against an opponent he has every fight intangible on his side outside of power.
Kuhn: You can pretty much ignore the bottom half of the graph above, since neither fighter has actually landed a takedown in their combined UFC careers! But in terms of striking, we only have 23 minutes of data for the challenger, Alex Pereira. His numbers stand out as excellent, just not fully believable yet. There’s no way he’ll land 50% of his power head strikes against such a tricky striker like Adesanya, but it’s worth noting the reach differential won’t be as pronounced as usual. As an experienced kickboxer, and with the confidence that he has beaten Adesanya in a ring, we can expect a striking duel for as long as the fight goes on.
That said, Adesanya welcomes a striking duel with anyone, and he’s shown resilience and solid strategy in prior fights to avoid damage, while scoring enough to eke out close rounds. That veteran five-round experience will be critical in a matchup where he could be facing his toughest opponent yet in terms of pure offensive striking.
In situations like this, it’s best not to over-index on the hype of a challenger, when his true numbers have yet to be proven at a high level. Adesanya’s numbers are still great, and they were earned against consistently elite competition. That makes the champ an affordable favorite.
Kuhn’s pick: Adesanya to win.
Weili Zhang (-360) vs. Carla Esparza (+295)
Women’s Strawweight (115 pounds) / Championship
Finocchiaro: Current champ Esparza was the initial strawweight champion in the UFC until her first title defense in 2015 when Joanna Jendrzejczyk obliterated on the feet.
Since then, the determined Esparza has had 12 UFC bouts, she has faced elite top-level competition in each and she enters this fight having won her last six. While there has been steady development in her striking, she remains a singularly versed elite wrestling-based fighter who is tough as a $3 steak and unrelenting with forward pressure.
Zhang, 22-3 and 6-2 in the UFC is ranked second in the division but considerably less experienced than her opponent. She too has been fast-tracked into this high-level opportunity because of her Chinese nationality and her incredible fighting acumen.
The more experienced Esparza must find a way to close distance, clasp onto Zhang and make this a wrestling clinic. By wrestling, Esparza mutes Zhang’s power, explosion and size advantage while making it a fight more on par to her talent.
Zhang has had to address improvements in her takedown defense as witnessed in her bouts with Tecia Torres and Rose Namajunas. Zhang’s 3-inch height advantage and the fact that she’ll be the substantially larger fighter in the cage will go a long way in her ability to keep this fight standing. Provided she keeps this competition standing, she can display the vast differences in precision, volume and power striking between these two athletes.
Zhang left Phoenix’s Fight Ready, a gym that is known to be wrestling heavy to train for this fight in Phuket at Tiger Muay Thai, which is a gym more known for its striking. That’s scary because Zhang enters this fight as balanced a mixed martial artist as there is in the division outside of Rose Namajunas.
Zhang will attempt to dominate Esparza from distance and Esparza must not allow Zhang any distance to operate. Which one’s it going to be?
Esparza’s guile, competitive nature and all-around toughness will get her into this fight, but it seems to me to be just a matter of time before Zhang’s volume power and precision finish it.
Kuhn: Here’s where things get weird. Of course, styles make fights, but even that can sometimes be taken to the extreme. Esparza’s head-scratching, title-winning performance in her last appearance against Rose Namajunas doesn’t leave us with much to work with, but she has been quite consistent over her career.
On paper, Weili Zhang is the superior striker, and capable of finishing Esparza on the feet if given enough exchanges. But that’s only if the fight stays there for long. Esparza attempts one takedown for every minute she stands, and Zhang’s takedown defense only rates as “average.” When Esparza does land a takedown, she milks the control time without much attention to submissions. Five rounds is a long time to hold someone down, but any success early on could put Zhang on the defensive, as well as test her cardio.
You have to look at this fight as Zhang early, or Esparza late. But current odds are now so extremely in favor of the challenger, Esparza and the Over 2.5 offers a sizable return worth a small play.
Dan Hooker -160 vs. Claudio Puelles +140
Lightweight (155 pounds) / Main Card
Finocchiaro: Hooker holds advantage in experience, level of competition faced and size. Hooker is primarily a striker, but he does have solid wrestling chops and he comes from a championship gym culture at City Kickboxing.
Puelles from Peru fights out of Kill Cliff FC in Florida, where there is an abundance of elite-level mixed martial artists all sharpening their skills against one another. He’s 6 years younger than Hooker and steps up in class to take on the Aussie after having won five straight UFC bouts.
Puelles will need to deal with Hooker’s pressure striking by backing the proud warrior up and keeping him from advancing. Puelles speed and ground acumen are threats to Hooker. Puelles’ focus needs to be to usurp energy from Hooker early in this fight to be able to clasp onto him and potentially submit him late.
Puelles is in a career defining spot here.
Finocchiaro’s picks: Puelles to win (+140). Puelles via submission may be of interest once the props are available.
Kuhn: Dan Hooker’s stats might be deflated given the tough competition he’s faced of late, but when styles make fights, it’s not always about career metrics. In this case, we have a sharp striker-versus-grappler contrast, both of which offer lots of finishing potential.
On the feet, Hooker is one of the rangiest strikers at lightweight, and he’s used his long reach with excellent precision. With seven knockdowns to date, his career knockdown rate per strike landed is well above average. Though his defense is poor, Puelles isn’t much of a power striking threat. So, the longer this fight stays standing, the more it will favor Hooker by rounds or by TKO.
However, of all the fighters at UFC 281, only one has spent more time dominating opponents on the mat than Claudio Puelles, and that’s another wrestler (Petroski) with limited sample size. Puelles is aggressive with takedown attempts, and once on the ground, typically spends over two minutes controlling his opponents. And it’s not all about control, because he’s also attempting submissions, and now has three kneebar finishes in his five UFC appearances.
At plus money, and offering an even better return for a submission, Puelles is a worthwhile coin flip in a matchup that really could go either way. You can also hedge the Hooker TKO by taking ITD or Under props.
Kuhn’s pick: Puelles to Win, Puelles by Sub, UNDER 2.5 or Fight Does Not Go the Distance.