UFC 281: Quick picks and prognostications

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main card 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+.

Last event’s results: 3-2

Overall picks for UFC main cards in 2022: 107-67-1

Welcome to MMAJunkie’s Quick Picks and Prognostications, where I’ll be giving brief, fight-day breakdowns for UFC main cards.

With that in mind, I hope these write-ups don’t come off as curt or dismissive, as my goal here is to offer quick picks and analysis in a digestible format. All odds listed are provided by Tipico Sportsbook.

If you’d like more detailed analysis from me, then feel free to check out my weekly show, The Protect Ya’ Neck Podcast.

So, without further ado…

Dan Hooker (-155) vs. Claudio Puelles (+120)

Kicking off the main card in a fashion that Joe Silva would approve of is a lightweight battle between [autotag]Dan Hooker[/autotag] and [autotag]Claudio Puelles[/autotag].

Although Puelles is at the age where we can expect rapid improvement, I’m still not sold on his limited sample size and opportunistic sensibilities. Hooker, who is officially 2-3 opposite UFC-level lefties, has experienced issues with southpaws before, but I haven’t seen much to worry about from Puelles outside of the occasional hard body kick.

Add in the fact that Hooker has shown serviceable leg-lock defense in past UFC bouts, and I’ll pick the Kiwi the snatch up a surprising front choke in the first round after hurting Puelles with his patent left hook.

Frankie Edgar (+190) vs. Chris Gutierrez (-250)

Filling out the main card is a farewell fight for [autotag]Frankie Edgar[/autotag], who meets [autotag]Chris Gutierrez[/autotag] at bantamweight.

Perhaps it’s my admitted bias toward older fighters being counted out by the public, but I believe that Edgar has a shot to leave this brutal sport on a win. Gutierrez is an excellent kicker who has quietly improved his counter wrestling and boxing in recent years, I just suspect that Edgar’s propensity to parlay caught kicks into takedowns will be a much more tangible path to victory here than it was against Marlon Vera.

If Edgar can avoid changing his level into a Gutierrez knee or switch kick, then the former lightweight champ should be able to take the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt to school on the mat – earning him a win by unanimous decision.

Dustin Poirier (-230) vs. Michael Chandler (+175)

In one of the harder fights to feel confident about on this card, [autotag]Dustin Poirier[/autotag] will do battle with [autotag]Michael Chandler[/autotag] at 155 pounds.

Despite my heart being with Chandler due to my past training history with him, the professional part of me who is trying to remain unbiased can’t help but side with Poirier in this spot. Chandler may officially be 4-0 opposite UFC and Bellator-level southpaws, but his recent encounters with said stance have looked shakey in recent outings (e.g. his first round against Tony Ferguson).

Even though I believe that Chandler will dust off his wrestling shoes as he has against past southpaws, I’m not sure he can avoid eating a check right hook from Poirier in the process. The pick is Poirier by first-round knockout.

Carla Esparza (+270) vs. Zhang Weili (-380)

The co-main event for UFC 281 features a strawweight title fight between [autotag]Carla Esparza[/autotag] and [autotag]Zhang Weili[/autotag].

As stated in my in-depth breakdown, do not be surprised to see Esparza test Zhang’s wrestling defense early and often. And if Zhang has failed to improve her getup game that was lacking back at UFC 268, then Esparza should have ample opportunity to do damage and secure rounds.

The potential problem, however, is that I’m not sure that Esparza can control a freakishly strong athlete like Zhang without tiring. For that reason, I’ll take Zhang to score a somewhat surprising knockout in the second round – likely by landing a flush knee on a level-changing Esparza.

Israel Adesanya (-230) vs. Alex Pereira (+175)

The main event in The Garden features a middleweight title fight between two high-level strikers who share a history that stems back to their days on the kickboxing circuit.

As I lay out in my in-depth breakdown, I believe that the context of their matches, as well as [autotag]Alex Pereira[/autotag]’s kickboxing career, is relevant to understanding the matchup at hand.

Although I believe that [autotag]Israel Adesanya[/autotag]’s striking translates better to MMA, I still find myself siding with Pereira here. Whether Adesanya chooses to fight conservatively from the outside or tries to build off his previous success in prior matchups with a slightly more aggressive approach, I suspect that he’ll leave the door open for some unfavorable counter punches considering the dynamic of kick counters at play.

A stoppage is on the table for either fighter, but I’ll ultimately stick with my forecast of a slow fight that gets narrowly awarded to the challenger for what appear to be the heavier offerings.

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