UFC 281 marked the promotion’s sixth event at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. There have been a total of 11 title fights on those cards. Fans who have watched those six pay-per-views have witnessed six title changes. Like UFC 217, which saw three champions fall, both fighters who entered the Garden at UFC 281 with UFC belts in hand walked into the Manhattan night post-event empty-handed.
In the evening’s headlining contest, Alex Pereira scored his first MMA win and third overall victory over Israel Adesanya. The fifth-round knockout earned Pereira the middleweight crown and came while he was down on all three scorecards.
In UFC 281’s co-main event, Zhang Weili regained the UFC strawweight title with a submission win over Carla Esparza.
The lead-up to those title fights was the “Fight of the Night” bonus-winning contest between veteran lightweight competitors Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler in a blood-soaked battle that Poirier won via submission.
Before those contests, UFC 281 had seven fights end with first-round stoppages. That number tied the modern-day promotional record with seven other UFC events for most stoppages in the first stanza.
Read on for the full breakdown of the winners and losers from UFC 281, which streamed on ESPN+ pay-per-view following prelims on ESPNews and early prelims on ESPN+.
Alex Pereira: Alex Pereira moved to 3-0 in combat sports contests against Israel Adesanya with a knockout win in the main event of UFC 281.
One thing that struck me about Pereira’s approach to the first four rounds of this fight was how he closed the distance and backed Adesanya to the fence. What was more striking was that Pereira didn’t do much with his advantage in those spots. He seemed content to get into range and fight with restraint. While in those spots, Pereira didn’t throw caution to the wind and unleash a torrent of strikes. If I had to guess why Pereira was holding back in those positions, it would be that he was unfamiliar with what it takes to go five rounds in a high-level MMA fight. With his approach to the first 20 minutes, Pereira had enough left in the tank in the fifth round that when he closed the distance and put Adesanya’s back to the fence he was able — and willing — to throw with full power and aggression and that earned him the UFC middleweight title.
Zhang Weili: Zhang Weili recaptured the UFC strawweight title with a submission win over Carla Esparza. The outcome of the fight was not a surprise, but the method of victory, submission, was somewhat shocking since Zhang is known for her striking and had not had a submission win since her second fight with the UFC, which came in 2018.
Dustin Poirier: Dustin Poirier took a fair amount of damage in the early moments of the first five minutes of his fight against Michael Chandler, but he came back and looked close to finishing things in the final seconds of that round. After a second round where he spent more than 4:00 on the bottom, Poirier came back in the third stanza to get the submission finish.
Saturday night was Poirier’s first fight in nearly a year following his submission loss to Charles Oliveira. His victory over Chandler will keep Poirier in the mix at the top of the UFC’s 155-pound division.
Based on their fighting styles, there was a lot of anticipation surrounding this matchup. The bloody battle lived up to those expectations.
Chris Gutierrez: Chris Gutierrez continued his climb up the UFC bantamweight ranks on Saturday with a knockout win over Frankie Edgar. The 31-year-old lost a decision in his UFC debut in 2018. Since that setback, Gutierrez has gone 7-0-1 with knockout wins in his past two outings. Expect to see Gutierrez ranked inside the top 15 of the UFC’s 135-pound division next week.
Mark Montoya: The head coach for Chris Gutierrez, Mark Montoya, went into the hospital for a staph infection earlier this month. While getting treatment, doctors discovered cancer in Montoya’s right kidney. According to Gutierrez, whose mother is also fighting cancer, Montoya got out of the hospital on Thursday only to travel to New York to corner his fighter.
Dan Hooker: Dan Hooker is not entirely out of the woods after UFC 281, but he is nearing daylight. Hooker was on a 1-4 run heading into his matchup against the rising Claudio Puelles. He scored an impressive TKO win at Madison Square Garden, his first stoppage win since 2019.
Hooker showed a great deal of composure in dealing with the grappling skills of Puelles. His patience went a long way toward frustrating Puelles and setting up the victory via kicks to the body.
With the win, Hooker will remain in the lightweight top 15 and should set him up for a potential spot on the UFC 284 fight card in Australia in February.
Renato Moicano: Renato Moicano looked excellent in submitting Brad Riddell in the first round of their lightweight bout. Moicano did a remarkable job controlling the distance during this fight. The Brazilian used his jab to hurt Riddell from the outside and when Riddell looked to close the distance, Moicano was quick to go to the clinch. It was the in close fighting that led to the fighters hitting the mat. Once that happened, Moicano used his grappling skills to lock in a nasty rear-naked choke that closed things out.
This was an excellent bounce-back win for Moicano, who lost to Rafael dos Anjos in March on extremely short notice.
Also, the post-fight interview that Moicano engaged in with UFC commentator Joe Rogan, might have set a record for the number of curse words uttered in a single UFC in-cage interview.
Ryan Spann: I don’t know if I believe Ryan Spann’s assertion that he hadn’t trained for a fight before he faced Dominick Reyes at UFC 281. However, if that statement was true, the rest of the UFC light heavyweight division must look out, because Spann looked deadly in knocking out Reyes with a jab.
With his stoppage win over Reyes, Spann has won his past two fights via first-round stoppage. He could break into the top 10 of the division after flattening the No. 7 ranked Reyes. The UFC matchmakers would be wise to give him a full camp and a matchup against someone in the top six for his next outing.
Spann missed weight for UFC 281, coming in at 206.6.
Erin Blanchfield: Total dominance. That’s what Erin Blanchfield delivered in running over Molly McCann. The 23-year-old scored an early takedown and proceeded to hold McCann in a crucifix and rack up head strikes while looking for an opening for a submission. She found the stoppage via kimura at 3:37 of the first round.
Blanchfield is a rising star in the flyweight division. She entered this contest at No. 12 in the official rankings and, after her win, called for a top 10 opponent. She deserves that fight.
Andre Petroski: Andre Petroski is on a four-fight winning streak following a decision win over Wellington Turman. The 31-year-old has some cardio issues he needs to work on. However, looking at his performance, especially during the third round, Petroski seems like a very coachable fighter with an as yet unrealized upside. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of what Petroski has to offer.
Matt Frevola: Matt Frevola was initially booked to face Ottman Azaitar on Fight Island in 2021. However, Azaitar was pulled from the fight (and released) after breaching safety protocols. Frevola stayed on the card, but lost a decision to Arman Tsarukyan. Frevola got his revenge on Saturday, scoring a nasty first-round knockout win over Azaitar at Madison Square Garden. The win gave Frevola two straight first-round knockout victories.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz: Former UFC strawweight title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz is on the first winning streak of her UFC career since 2017-18 after picking up a decision win over Silvana Gomez Juarez.
After the win, Kowalkiewicz said she thought about retirement before a move to American Top Team rekindled her love for the fight game.
Michael Trizano: Michael Trizano fought out his contract at UFC 281. He did not have a good start to the event, coming in overweight (147.6) for the scheduled featherweight scrap. He also carried a 1-3 record in his past four UFC outings and a two-fight losing skid with him.
Trizano might have earned himself a new deal with his performance against Choi Seung-woo at Madison Square Garden. The two men engaged in a slugfest early, but Trizano used his technical skills to exploit the openings his foe provided for him and scored an impressive first-round knockout win via a crisp counter.
Montel Jackson: Montel Jackson returned to the octagon for the first time in more than a year at UFC 281. Jackson picked up a unanimous decision win, but the fight showed some gaps in Jackson’s game. He is a lanky fighter who should hold height and reach advantages over other bantamweights. He would be well served to use those advantages a bit more going forward, especially when it comes to his striking and aggressiveness.
Jackson ends up in the winner column because of how long he has been out of action.
Carlos Ulberg: Carlos Ulberg moved his winning streak to three straight in the UFC while scoring his second consecutive first-round knockout win, finishing Nicolae Negumereanu at the 3:44 mark of the opening stanza.
Ulberg, a 31-year-old fighter with City Kickboxing, is an impressive prospect in the light heavyweight division. He fought his fight against Negumereanu, working from distance while using his speed and power to hurt his opponent. Ulberg’s low kicks were damaging, but his jab to check left hook wrapped up the fight for him.
Fight fans would be wise to keep an eye on Ulberg.
Josh Emmett and Yair Rodriguez: The UFC announced that Josh Emmett and Yair Rodriguez will fight for the interim featherweight title at UFC 284. Frankly, this was the right move. It keeps the division moving and locks the winner in as the next challenger for Alexander Volkanovski’s title.
Israel Adesanya: Israel Adesanya fought well on Saturday, but one thing I found alarming throughout the contest was his willingness to fight with his back to the cage. He could do that for the first four rounds because Alex Pereira was unfamiliar with five-round MMA bouts, but when Pereira had nothing to lose by emptying the tank, that approach cost Adesanya his title.
Carla Esparza: Like her first run as UFC strawweight champion, Carla Esparza’s second title reign ended without a successful defense of that gold.
Michael Chandler: Michael Chandler did what was expected of him during the first round of his fight against Dustin Poirier — throw with power and look for a finish. He hurt Poirier, but did not get the finish and nearly got stopped himself in the closing seconds of the first stanza. Chandler smartly took Poirier down in the second round and kept him on the mat for almost the entire five minutes. However, also as expected, once the fight went into the third round, Chandler didn’t have the energy to fight off the submission attempt of his foe.
Despite the loss, Chandler’s reputation as an all-action competitor remains intact. With that being said, it’s going to be hard for Chandler to get another shot at UFC gold.
Frankie Edgar: Frankie Edgar’s career came to a close on Saturday in the way few hoped it would, via a knockout loss. Time catches up with most athletes that stick around past their prime. That happened to the 41-year-old Edgar, who ended his UFC career on a 1-5 run since July 2019 with knockout losses in his four most recent defeats.
With that being said, when Edgar was in his prime, he was one of the most formidable competitors in UFC history and that’s how he should be remembered.
Claudio Puelles: Claudio Puelles learned a lesson at UFC 281 and that lesson is that he is not ready for the top 15 of the lightweight division.
Puelles is a talented grappler, but Dan Hooker shut down his ground attack. By no means is the 26-year-old Puelles done, but if he wants to break into the UFC lightweight rankings, he needs to add some tricks to his bag.
Dominick Reyes: Dominick Reyes went 12-0 to open his MMA career. That run earned him a shot at then-UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones. Reyes lost that fight by decision. Since then, Reyes has been knocked out three times in a row.
His loss to Ryan Spann at UFC 281 was his first fight since May 2021.
Molly McCann: Props to Molly McCann for taking the step up and facing Erin Blanchfield, but she had nothing to offer her opponent.
McCann is an entertaining fighter, but at best, she’ll be a gatekeeper to the top 15 of the flyweight division.
Choi Seung-woo: Choi Seung-woo’s UFC losing skid reached three straight when Michael Trizano knocked him out late in the first round of their catchweight scrap – Trizano weighed in at 147.6 for the featherweight bout. Choi is an all-action fighter who throws everything with power. However, his penchant for not setting anything up and throwing his punches with so much energy left him susceptible to counters. That’s what cost him the fight.
Nicolae Negumereanu: Carlos Ulberg refused to engage Nicolae Negumereanu in a brawl, leaving Negumereanu helpless. Negumereanu did his best to pressure his foe, but he only landed two significant strikes before getting knocked out. The loss ended Negumereanu’s four-fight UFC winning streak.
Arnold Allen: One could argue that Arnold Allen deserved to be one of the two fighters in the interim UFC featherweight title fight. I’m sure he feels he was on the wrong fighter to be excluded from the matchmaking.
Fans at MSG: The fans at UFC 281 booed the Julio Arce vs. Montel Jackson two minutes into the first round because the two were tied up against the fence. Look, I get wanting action, but booing two minutes into the second fight on the card? C’mon now.
NYSAC: The New York State Athletic Commission needs to explain what went on when a member of the commission came into the octagon and seemingly made changes to the scorecards of the Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Silvana Gomez Juarez fight, because that was a real WTF moment and it left a lot of questions unanswered.
UFC commentary team: During the second fight of the evening, Julio Arce landed a takedown with three seconds left in the first round of his fight against Montel Jackson. He did not land a strike after the takedown. Arce did not advance his position. He did not threaten a submission. In terms of the scoring criteria, the takedown was useless.
However, the UFC commentary team of Daniel Cormier and Joe Rogan had the following exchange.
Rogan: “That’s huge. That’s what we were talking about.”
Cormier: “Massive. Massive. That’s a massive takedown.”
Rogan: “And that could be the round for him.”
Throughout that exchange, Anik remained silent.
Remember when Cormier bragged that he had gone through the MMA judging course and knew what he was talking about? Well, it seems as if that knowledge was fleeting.
Two of the three judges scored the first round for Montel Jackson.