UFC 281: Esparza vs. Zhang staff picks and predictions – Zhang to become two time champ?

UFC 281 is upon us. The card, set for New York’s famous Madison Square Garden, will host two title fights. The main event has…

By: Tim Bissell | 7 months ago
UFC 281: Esparza vs. Zhang staff picks and predictions – Zhang to become two time champ?
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

UFC 281 is upon us. The card, set for New York’s famous Madison Square Garden, will host two title fights. The main event has the middleweight title on the line, but the co-main sees a clash between UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza and her challenger Zhang Weili.

Esparza was the UFC’s first ever strawweight champion, winning that title at the end of her run on The Ultimate Fighter season 20 (defeating Rose Namajunas in the finale) in 2014. Esparza quickly lost the title, though, and struggled to find her footing in the company for the next few years. In 2019 she found consistently and put together a six fight win streak that culminated in a split decision win over Namajunas, in May, to win back the title.

Now she faces, Zhang — who won the built with an explosive TKO over Jessica Andrade in 2019. She lots the title to Namajunas in 2021 and then lost a rematch, also in 2021. She clawed her way back to the number one contender spot with a KO win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in June.

So who will win in this fresh match-up atop the 115 lb division? See what the BE staffers thought below (Spoiler alert, we are putting the BE curse on ‘Magnum’ this weekend).

Carla Esparza vs. Zhang Weili

Anton Tabuena: I already thought this was a pretty rough match up for Esparza from the very start, but after getting a glimpse of how Weili trains day in and day out for about a month, it just made me even more confident in this pick. I’m sure you’ve seen those explosive and scary training videos, but it’s way more intense in person and they don’t even post the most gruelling parts of her sessions on social media. I can confidently say that Weili even outside fight camps, consistently trains harder than so many UFC fighters who are in camp. Combine that insane work ethic with her athleticism, lack of ego and willingness to learn from anyone, and it kinda explains why she’s been constantly improving. Bangtao arguably has the best MMA wrestling program in Asia with the Hickman brothers (they help Volkanovski and Adesanya there too), and Weili also brought in BJJ world champ Josh Hinger to prepare for grappling exchanges with Esparza. I think Weili is good enough to defend takedowns and any ground exchanges, and I think she just brutalizes Esparza on the feet. Athleticism, physicality and striking skills are just so wide, and I think Zhang will be a two-time UFC champ after this. Zhang Weili by TKO.

Tim Bissell: We’ve seen Esparza wilt under pressure before and I feel like Zhang is going to pour it on her in a way that will remind the current champ of her first ever title defence. The metric also has Zhang, because Esparza had a lot of disappointing performances before hitting her recent purple patch. Esparza has thrived with an increasingly risk averse stratagem, but I don’t know if she can pull that off against someone who lands 5.78 significant strikes per minute with 47% accuracy. Zhang is willing to take some to land some, but we’ve not seen Esparza land at the rate, accuracy or power in the past that would trouble the former champ. I think Zhang will take a round or two to get comfortable with Esparza and concede those rounds thanks to ‘Cookie Monsters’ wrestling, but come the championship rounds I think she will find her mark and then win back the belt. Zhang Weili by TKO.

Zane Simon: I won’t be surprised if Zhang throws away at least one round of her fight against Esparza early. Her insistance on mixing in wrestling to her striking attack, and willingness to fill empty space with aggression could easily get her taken down, or out scrambled, or backpacked for a round. And if Esparza does really well with that time, like she did against Yan Xiaonan, then who knows where this bout could go? But even as we saw against Namajunas the second time, size and strength are always an issue for Esparza, and most fighters who can stick with her in grappling exchanges can come out on top in the long run. Because she’s so small for the division, her wrestling heavy game has also tended to tire Esparza out every bit as much as it does her opponents. Over 5 rounds, and given the kind of conditioning we know Zhang to be in, it just seems like the late rounds could get really brutal for the champ. Zhang Weili via TKO, round 4.

Staff picking Esparza:
Staff picking Zhang: Bissell, Kristen, Chris, Dayne, Zane, Anton, Lewis, Stephie


Who wins?

This poll is closed

  • 13%

    Carla Esparza

    (126 votes)

  • 86%

    Zhang Weili

    (792 votes)

918 votes total

Vote Now

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

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