UFC 281 breakdown: Can the favored Zhang Weili recapture the title from Carla Esparza?

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the co-main event for UFC 281.

UFC 281 takes place Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPNews and early prelims on ESPN+.

Carla Esparza (19-6 MMA, 10-4 UFC)

Carla Esparza

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’1″ Age: 35 Weight: 115 lbs. Reach: 63″

  • Last fight: Decision win over Rose Namajunas (May 7, 2022)

  • Camp: Team Oyama (California)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ UFC strawweight champion (2x)
+ First Invicta FC strawweight champion
+ Collegiate wrestling experience
+ 4 knockout victories
+ 4 submission wins
+ 3 first-round finishes
+ Improved overall striking ability
^ Works well off of level-changes
+ Deceptively strong in the clinch
^ Strikes well off the breaks
+ Diverse takedown acumen
^ Doubles, singles, trips and tosses
+ Excellent transitional grappler
^ Effective strikes and passes

Zhang Weili (22-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC)

Zhang Weili

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’4″ Age: 33 Weight: 115 lbs. Reach: 63″

  • Last fight: Knockout win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk (June 12, 2022)

  • Camp: Bangtao Muay Thai (Thailand)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/muay Thai

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ Former UFC strawweight champion
+ Wushu Sanda background
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt
+ 11 knockout victories
+ 7 submission wins
+ 11 first-round finishes
+ Knockout power
+ Explosive athlete
+ Wide variation of striking arsenal
^ From fundamentals to spinning attacks
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Elbows, knees, trips, tosses
+ Improved wrestling and scrambling
+ Solid transitional grappling from topside

Point of interest: The cost of counters

Carla Esparza vs. Zhang Weili

The co-main event for UFC 281 features a strawweight title fight between two competitors who are familiar with the cost of counters.

Though listed as a fighter who hails from a wushu sanda background, [autotag]Zhang Weili[/autotag] continues to add to her striking arsenal as her MMA career continues.

The former strawweight champion can come forward aggressively but ultimately prefers staying light on her feet, all while using feints to open up kicks and hooking combinations.

Like many sanda practitioners, Zhang also is not shy in using spinning attacks when the positions call for it. Whether she’s corralling her opponents into turning sidekicks or countering outside-foot approaches with spinning backfists, the 33-year-old seems confident striking from multiple roles and ranges.

However, outside of a natural feel for distance and the occasional slip off the center, Zhang has shown that she is not beyond being stung by hard counters during her aggressive engagements. With that in mind, I will be curious to see how much she’s willing to come forward considering the level-changing threats of [autotag]Carla Esparza[/autotag].

Esparza, in spite of her last performance, appears to be much more comfortable on the feet since her title defeat to Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 185.

Esparza still prefers to play on the outside despite her shorter stature, but has arguably gotten a lot better about pulling her opponents into her wheelhouse. Once finding an angle of approach to her liking, Esparza shows little issue with either blitzing forward in combination or shifting off to southpaw to defensively angle out.

When looking to get offensive, Esparza works behind a decent jab that allows her to launch right hands over the top of her opponent’s guard, earning enough respect to follow up below. When in close, the former champion is not shy about firing off knees and elbows, unabashedly striking off of the breaks.

Although she can be a bit too reliant on her head movement at times, Esparza has shown improvement in her slips – something that comes in handy for her level-changing sensibilities. That said, Esparza will need to be mindful about being too written with her striking patterns and dipping propensities given Zhang’s preternatural ability to capitalize on openings in exchanges.

Point of interest: Winning the wrestling

May 7, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Carla Esparza takes down Rose Namajunas during UFC 274 at Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Considering where Esparza’s clearest path to victory lies, no one should be shocked to see the former champ attempt takedowns early and often on Zhang.

One of the best women’s wrestlers in the UFC, Esparza has proven to have multiple facets to her takedown game. Whether she’s hitting reactive level changes in the open or chaining off of snatch singles, the former Menlo College rep practically can do it all.

Even when operating from the clinch, Esparza demonstrates deceptive strength and savvy from this space, accomplishing everything from slick trips to hip tosses. And once she’s able to get her opponents to the mat, Esparza morphs into an aggressive honey badger in the way in which she actively passes and strikes her way to positions like the crucifix (landing potentially slicing elbows along the way).

That said, if Esparza fails to secure takedowns on Zhang, then she’ll need to be careful to not get stuck in the clinch with the former champ.

As we saw in her title-winning effort in Shenzhen, China, Zhang possesses the power to demolish durable opposition with hard knees and elbows within close quarters.

The champion’s sanda background also comes in handy when hanging out in this space, showing the ability to hit slick trips and takedowns at the drop of a dime.

Since then, Zhang has upgraded her wrestling chops by working with talents like Henry Cejudo to the Hickman brothers (who operate out of Bang Tao Muay Thai). Now, it is not uncommon for Zhang to hit competent wrestling chains in open space, almost as if it were second nature.

When Zhang is able to establish any sort of control off of a takedown, the Chinese fighter is quick to make hay by both settling into position, as well as seeking out damaging strikes like short elbows. Zhang, at least when she’s not being overaggressive, seems very competent inside of scrambles with a freakish back-take ability to boot.

However, it should be noted that Zhang is still not beyond muscling her way in and out of bad positions – which could be costly here. Although the wrestling improvements of Rose Namajunas should not go unnoticed, Zhang getting stuck on her back for the final two frames of their UFC 268 encounter wasn’t a good look for the Chinese fighter.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

Zhang Weili, UFC Fight Night 157

The oddsmakers and public are siding with the challenger, listing Zhang -325 and Esparza +270 at Tipico Sportsbook.

Even though seeing the sitting champion at underdog odds can feel a bit disrespectful, I can’t say that I’m surprised to see a spread this wide.

As one of the few people to publicly pick Esparza to take back her title earlier this year, I can tell you the sitting champion doesn’t get the respect she deserves. Esparza is an incredibly tough and experienced fighter who brings a superior wrestling level to the strawweight division.

If Esparza can replicate the late-round wrestling success Namajunas had at UFC 268, then perhaps the American can slow-cook another fighter on the floor. The potential problem, however, is that I’m not sure Esparaza will be able to drag Zhang into deep waters without taking too much damage or tiring in the process.

I suspect this fight pace will be slightly slower than Zhang’s last two affairs, but I also think the early grappling exchanges will be as intense as they are telling.

If Zhang’s wrestling trends continue Saturday, don’t be shocked to see the Chinese fighter outwrestle Esparza both defensively and offensively. Despite a decision being on the table in regard to realistic outcomes, I’ll take Zhang to finish a level-changing Esparza with a knee by the end of Round 2.

Prediction: Zhang inside the distance

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie