What mattered most at UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden in New York? Here are a few post-fight musings …
6. Erin Blanchfield steals the hype
Molly McCann’s back-to-back spinning elbow knockouts gained her a Barstool Sports sponsorship deal and a ton of hype in the women’s flyweight division. She received a massive pop from the crowd entering the octagon, but that all came crashing down courtesy of [autotag]Erin Blanchfield[/autotag].
Everything McCann was touted to be after her highlight-reel wins, the 23-year-old prospect Blanchfield (10-1 MMA, 4-0 UFC) actually is. She completely dominated the fight from beginning to end, nearly finishing the job with strikes from the crucifix before securing a nasty kimura.
By all appearances, Blanchfield has all the tools to be a future champion. The problem, however, is that she’s in the same division as the longest reigning titleholder in the UFC in Valentina Shevchenko. The gap between McCann and Shevchenko is significant, so it’s hard to tell how she might do against the champion.
That’s not something she should worry about right now, though. It would be smart for Blanchfield to take her time to get better, while Shevchenko only gets older and more battle worn. If it plays out that way, it’s not impossible to think she could be the one to dethrone the champ.
5. The tragic fall of Dominick Reyes
The unforgiving nature of MMA once again reared its ugly head for [autotag]Dominick Reyes[/autotag], who in the span of two-and-a-half years has gone from being the man who many considered to give Jon Jones his first legitimate loss to now being on a four-fight skid.
After dropping three straight prior to his encounter with Ryan Spann, former light heavyweight title challenger Reyes (12-4 MMA, 6-4 UFC) switched camps and claimed he made all the needed adjustments to get back on track, including “heavily upgraded defense.”
That didn’t show itself in the octagon, though. Reyes got stunned early and started swinging wild. After just 80 seconds of action, Reyes was on his back and out cold.
It’s difficult to gauge where Reyes goes from here. He already has done all the things a desperate fighter does when on a skid, and the end result was his worst loss to date. He needs to really recalibrate if he wants to buck this negative career trajectory. I truly don’t know what the answer is, because if his chin is the problem, there’s no getting away from the hard hitters at 205 pounds.
4. Frankie Edgar goes out in sad fashion
Chael Sonnen famously said it best: All of your favorite fighters are likely to go out on their backs, and that’s exactly what happened to [autotag]Frankie Edgar[/autotag] in his retirement bout.
We all knew Chris Gutierrez’s power made that a possibility, but it was hard to fathom it going so badly for Edgar (24-11-1 MMA, 18-11-1 UFC), who was completely flatlined with a picture-perfect knee.
It’s hard to sum up exactly what Edgar has meant to this sport in a format like this. It’s obviously a great deal. He’s a legend, a pioneer and every other superlative you want to attach to his name. He’s seen and done it all in the sport, and while he didn’t get to end it the manner he wanted, Edgar’s contributions to the sport won’t soon be forgotten.
3. Dustin Poirier does it again
[autotag]Dustin Poirier[/autotag] showed once more why he’s the personification of perseverance in MMA when he overcame some difficult moments with Michael Chandler to secure his first submission victory in nearly 10 years.
Poirier (29-7 MMA, 21-6 UFC) got rocked in the first round of the highly anticipated lightweight bout with Chandler, but thrived under the fire and managed to turn things around late in the frame. Chandler deferred to his wrestling in the second stanza, and early in the third looked as though things might be shifting his way to victory.
That was going to sit well with “The Diamond,” though, who reversed Chandler during a grappling exchange, took the back and finished the job with a rear-naked choke to successfully bounce back from his title-fight loss to then-champ Charles Oliveira in December.
Despite so many big fights and so many years in the game, Poirier’s resolve and drive to get his hand raised remains at the highest level. He’s faltered in some big moments – specially when undisputed gold has been on the line – but more often than not his fellow 155-pound fighters aren’t going to be able to match his skill and grit.
Whether Poirier is ever going to be able to cross the final career goal off his list and wear that undisputed belt remains to be seen. But even if he doesn’t, Poirier has crafted out a special career for himself and has to be regarded as one of the great action fighters of this era.
2. Zhang Weili's second title reign will be different
As many expected, [autotag]Zhang Weili[/autotag] reclaimed the UFC strawweight title with a largely dominant performance against Carla Esparza, who struggled with the power, speed and rapidly evolving skill set of the Chinese fighter.
Following her second-round submission win, it feels now that Weili (23-3 MMA, 7-2 UFC) is truly ready to thrive in this position at the top of the mountain. She lost the title 19 months ago to Rose Namajunas, but she seems to have turned that experience into a true positive, and that should be scary for every 115-pound fighter out there.
Although Weili picked up quality wins in her first run to becoming champion, it would be a lie to say her road to the top wasn’t expedited because of her ties to a country that represents a massive position growth market for the organization. That push was obviously warranted, but this time it just feels different.
There aren’t many clear-cut bad matchups for Weili when examining the top of her division right now, and with her having already faced every other strawweight champion in UFC history, it seems like the toughest matchups are already in the rear-view mirror.
So with all that said, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Weili stay here for a long time to come.
1. Can Israel Adesanya ever overcome Alex Pereira?
A lot of the conversation in the aftermath the main event appears to centered around whether or not [autotag]Alex Pereira[/autotag] has and will forever have [autotag]Israel Adesanya[/autotag]’s number when they meet in a combat sports setting.
I understand how someone could feel that way following Pereira’s (7-1 MMA, 4-0 UFC) brilliant fifth-round come-from-behind TKO of Adesanya (23-2 MMA, 12-2 UFC) to claim UFC middleweight gold, but it also seems a little bit silly when you actually look at how the fights unfolded.
Adesanya arguably was robbed in their first kickboxing match. Then, similar to what happened at UFC 281, was winning the second encounter before he got caught with a fight-ending strike. He was having one of his more enthralling performances against Pereira when they met inside the octagon, but it was just not meant to be on this night, and that’s largely because the Brazilian was so determined to take advantage of his chance UFC title shot.
By no means am I going to sit here and guarantee Adesanya would win a rematch with Pereira, which seems to be coming up next. He might lose again. He might get knocked out again. But trying to craft a narrative that no matter how hard he tries or what he does, Adesanya simply can’t beat this man, is a little off base to me.
Adesanya was two minutes and 59 seconds from winning a unanimous decision over Pereira, so to assume he couldn’t replicate his moments of success and parlay them into the next fight seems misguided. The big lesson for “The Last Stylebender” is just how little room for error there is when he’s fighting Pereira.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say, even after the result, that Adesanya is the more complete MMA fighter. Pereira has game changing power, though, and that makes him a great equalized and a thorn in Adesanya’s side.
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC 281.