UFC 281 Picks

Zhang Weili is available on a prop bet to defeat Carla Esparza inside the distance at even money.

The Octagon returns to Madison Square Garden in New York City on Saturday night for a 14-fight card. The show features a pair of title fights.

In the main event, Israel ‘The Last Stylebender’ Adesanya (23-1 MMA, 12-1 UFC) will attempt to defend his middleweight belt against Alex Pereira, who has won six fights in a row.

As of early Friday, most books had Adesanya listed as a -220 favorite with Pereira at +180 on the comeback. The total was 4.5 rounds (‘over’ -140, ‘under’ +110).

Adesanya won the interim 185-pound title with a thrilling unanimous-decision win over Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236 in April of 2019. He unified the belt that October with a second-round knockout win over Robert Whittaker.

After successful title defenses against Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa, the 33-year-old Adesanya tried to move up to light heavyweight and become a double champ. He was unsuccessful in a UD loss to Jan Blachowicz, who utilized his size and grappling to take Adesanya down and keep him there in Rounds 4 and 5.

Nevertheless, the New Zealander has returned to his home division at 185 and collected three more wins over Marvin Vettori and Whittaker in rematches, and he bested Jared Cannonier his last time out in July at UFC 276. However, all three bouts were lackluster affairs with Adesanya being content to “point fight” rather than going for the kill.

This strategy has drawn the ire of MMA fans across the globe. In an interview this week, Adesanya admitted that he became emotional after his win over Cannonier was met with raucous disapproval by the crowd at T-Mobile Center in Las Vegas.

When he faces Pereira, he will be in revenge mode. These fighters squared off in a pair of professional kickboxing matches back in 2016 and 2017. Pereira won both contests, including a third-round KO win in the last scrap.

Pereira (6-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) garnered this shot at the middleweight belt by scoring a first-round KO win over Sean Strickland on the same card headlined by Adesanya and Cannonier. Strickland entered that scrap on a six-fight winning streak.

Pereira made his Octagon debut at MSG in NYC on Nov. 6 of last year, finishing Andreas Michailidis via flying knee and punches in the second stanza.

I don’t have a pick for this fight. My guess is Adesanya plays it safe and wins a decision because if he aggressively engages, that opens him up to Pereira’s power that can end the night of any 185er with the quickness. He’ll probably be content to control distance with his length and earn points on the outside with lots of kicks.

I just feel like the best betting opportunities can be found elsewhere on the card. So enough of the BS and let’s get to my picks!

#1: Let’s go with Zhang Weili to unseat Carla Esparza as women’s strawweight champion by winning inside the distance at an even-money price +100 (DraftKings), and let’s do so for 3 units.

Esparza is on a six-fight winning streak and took the belt from ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas in one of the most boring title fights in UFC history. Esparza won a split decision in May at UFC 274.

I feel like the bout sucked because of Namajunas’s unwillingness to engage. She ignorantly employed a strategy of staying patient on her feet rather than opening up opportunities for Esparza to land takedowns. Esparza’s strength is her wrestling, but it’s certainly debatable whether or not she’s a superior grappler compared to Rose.

I’m of the opinion that she’s not a better wrestler than Weili, who is the stronger woman. And Weili has an enormous advantage when the fight is standing. She lost the 115-pound belt to Namajunas, but the 33-year-old Chinese Kung Fu specialist earned another title shot thanks to an incredible KO win (spinning backfist) over former strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a rematch at UFC 275 this past June. In her 25 career fights, Weili has 18 finishes among her 22 victories.

Picks #2, #3 and #4: I think Weili gets the finish over Esparza inside of two rounds. Therefore, let’s go with one unit on ‘under’ 3.5 rounds for a +110 return (Caesars), one-quarter of a unit on ‘under’ 2.5 rounds for a +150 return and one-quarter of a unit on ‘under’ 1.5 rounds for a +260 payout.

Pick #5: Let’s go with one unit on ‘under’ 1.5 rounds at a -115 price for Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann, who has seen his last four fights end in Round 1. ‘Under’ 1.5 rounds is 12-2 in Spann’s last 14 bouts. Reyes has nine first-round finishes in his 12 career wins, including four in the first six fights of his UFC tenure. The 32-year-old former college football player has been KO’d in back-to-back losses (he’s lost three in a row, but I thought he beat Jon Jones), which is why he’s been inactive for the last 18 months. Therefore, it’s fair to question if his chin is still there but if it isn’t, that bodes well for us since we’re on the ‘under.’

Pick #6: Let’s go with ‘Meatball’ Molly McCann as a +320 underdog (DraftKings) vs. Erin Blanchfield for one-half unit. McCann has won three in a row, including back-to-back KO victories.

I’ve got too much respect for Michael Chandler’s power and explosiveness to lay a price North of -200 on Dustin Poirier. Likewise, his chin and toughness (think about the beating he took from Justin Gaethje but kept coming for three rounds) prevents me from looking at a prop for Poirier to win by KO or inside the distance. Nevertheless, I do think Dustin should be a part of any parlay one might have in mind.

Here are a few other UFC plays I’ve made for next month in tweets below. Whether you tail or fade Saturday night at MSG in NYC, best of luck and enjoy the show!

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