UFC 281 Picks: Huge Middleweight Fight on Tap
The PPV events are back this weekend at UFC 281 with arguably the most intriguing middleweight battle in history in the main event, and Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler facing off for another title shot in the co-main.
After a sensational event at UFC Vegas 64, the following are our picks for UFC 281.
Dan Hooker vs. Claudio Puelles
Dan Hooker is the favorite, but based on his recent run, we can’t see why. Hooker has only won one fight in his last five, beating Nasrat Haqparast via unanimous decision in September 2021. He lost to Islam Makhachev soon after, before a TKO loss to Arnold Allen down at featherweight.
Hooker is back up at lightweight, and he faces Puelles, who has won his past five fights. More impressively, the Peruvian won three of those through submission and two via unanimous decision.
Hooker’s experience will be key, but with only two losses for Puelles in his MMA career and in the midst of such a fantastic run, he is our pick against the odds.
Claudio Puelles by points is +700 with FanDuel.
Frankie Edgar vs. Chris Gutierrez
It’s the final time we get to see legend Frankie Edgar in the octagon. Edgar is 41 and is heading into his 36th MMA fight after joining the UFC in 2007. However, the form that allowed him to win a lightweight belt is long gone, and Edgar has only won one fight in the past three years, defeating Pedro Munhoz via split decision in 2020.
Worse yet for the veteran, he lost his last two fights via brutal knockouts. Marlon Vera delivered a sensational front-kick KO, which came after Cory Sandhagen's Knockout of the Year contender in February 2021.
Edgar simply isn’t good enough at this level anymore. Also, Gutierrez has not lost a fight since 2018, winning six times and drawing once over the past four years. This likely will be the breakout fight that catapults him toward the top 10 of the bantamweight rankings.
Chris Gutierrez by points is +220 with FanDuel.
Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler
Two all-time greats of American MMA meet in a fight that could easily headline a card on another weekend, as Poirier and Chandler seek one more title run.
Chandler has been in the UFC for four fights and has had one of the most chaotic beginnings to a UFC career of anyone, ever. His debut ended with a sensational Performance of the Night TKO win over Hooker, which catapulted him into a shot at the vacant lightweight title. He lost to Charles Oliveira that night, before winning the Fight of the Year award in a decision loss to Justin Gaethje. Chandler returned to the win column in his fourth and most recent UFC bout with arguably the best KO front kick in MMA history over Tony Ferguson.
Poirier, however, has only lost to legends Oliveira and Khabib Nurmagomedov in his past 11 fights, beating all-time greats like Max Holloway, Gaethje, Conor McGregor (twice), Hooker, Eddie Alvarez and Anthony Pettis. Five of those are former title holders themselves, and Poirier, to us, remains MMA's most underrated talent.
Based on Chandler’s four fights in the UFC, we know this can go either way and that mayhem will likely ensue from the first bell. Poirier's superior jiu-jitsu and striking could be the difference, and we think he’ll win on points.
Dustin Poirier to win by points is +330 with DraftKings.
Carla Esparza vs. Weili Zhang
To us, this is an easy pick. Carla Esparza might be the champion for the second time now, but she has never defended the belt and faces a ferocious Weili Zhang, who is determined to get the crown back.
What’s more, the champion won the title against Rose Namajunas in what some regard as the worst title fight in UFC history. It featured barely any punches or takedowns, and even UFC President Dana White expressed how terrible the fight was in a news conference.
Esparza is still the champion and deserves credit. Her grappling and submission skills are greatly superior to Zhang's, and should the fight reach the deeper rounds and involve grappling exchanges, Esparza could win.
On the other hand, there are few better strikers in women's MMA than Zhang. The former champion is good enough with her hands and legs in standup altercations that, we feel, the moment a striking exchange occurs is the moment Esparza probably loses.
Weili Zhang by KO/TKO is +125 with FanDuel.
Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira
Not only is this among the biggest middleweight title bouts in recent history, it’s the most intriguing battle at 185 pounds we can recall.
All the talk ahead of this one involves how the challenger, Pereira, has beaten the reigning middleweight champion twice in the kickboxing ring. The first was a split-decision win that could have gone either way, but the second was a convincing victory that knocked Adesanya out cold, the only time in more than 100 fights in combat sports in which he has been knocked out. That was five years ago, and things have changed.
However, Pereira is probably the hardest-hitting striker in all of combat sports, outside of freakishly powerful heavyweights like Deontay Wilder in boxing and Francis Ngannou in MMA.
On the other hand, Adesanya has become one of the best-ever defensive strikers and most elusive middleweights. Hitting him is hard enough, but factor in his slightly superior grappling and additional years of MMA experience and Adesanya is rightfully the favorite to win this fight.
Pereira likely won’t win in a decision like he did in their first kickboxing bout. Five-minute rounds five times over with the addition of grappling means Adesanya is favored over the course of the fight. However, if the Brazilian lands, it usually results in a knockout.
We think Adesanya’s game has developed enough that he can work around the octagon much more intelligently than he did in the kickboxing ring.
Israel Adesanya by points is +130 with FanDuel.
Best prop bets on the card this weekend.
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