Recap – UFC 281 Sees Some Thrilling Finishes and Crowns Two New Champions

The energy is always different when the UFC takes over the Garden. It’s been quite a while, but the world’s premier fight organization got back to Madison Square Garden tonight and some of the best fighters in the world put on a show, capped off by fight of the year candidate and two new champions being crowned.

Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the night and break down the three fights we looked at in our UFC 281 preview.

Prelim Highlights

Two light heavyweight contenders stepped into the octagon for a big opportunity tonight, but the fight didn’t last long. Ryan Spann caught Dominick Reyes with what looked like a stiff jab and knocked him out cold before he even hit the ground just a little over a minute into the first round. The replay did show the punch looked like a bit more of a hook than a jab, but either way it was tremendous power on display from Spann who is sure to shoot up the light heavyweight rankings.

The final prelim of the night was a showdown between two very talented lightweights. While it looked on paper as though it would be a very close matchup, Renato Moicano looked as good as he ever has as he dominated Brad Riddell. Moicano caught his opponent with a few big strikes before eventually scoring a takedown and quickly getting to the back. He showcased superior grappling, quickly locking in a rear naked choke and getting the tap. He then went on to deliver one of the most entertainment post-fight interviews in some time, though most of it wasn’t able to air on ESPN.

Main Card Highlights

In the first fight on the pay-per-view, 12th-ranked lightweight contender looked very good in a showdown with Claudio Puelles. You would have to go back quite a while to find a fighter come in with as one-dimensional an approach as what Puelles brought to the octagon tonight. The leg lock specialist continually rolled to grab a hold of Hooker’s legs. It worked on his first attempt and he had Hooker in some trouble but was unable to lock up the submission. Hooker got the better of the exchanges on the feet and Puelles desperately tried to get a hold of Hooker’s legs for the rest of the fight. Eventually though, Hooker landed a couple of deep kicks to the body that dropped Puelles and scored him a TKO victory.

It was an emotional scene in the Garden as UFC legend and New Jersey native Frankie Edgar stepped into the octagon for one last fight. The former lightweight champion has spent more time in the cage that any other fighter in history. Unfortunately, he didn’t add a lot to his total in his final fight as Chris Gutierrez landed a brutal knee that ended the bout after just over two minutes. It was a great showing for Gutierres, who looked very crisp even before landing the knockout shot. The post-fight interview for Edgar was a tough pill to swallow as he was clearly emotional knowing he would never step into the octagon again. Still, we can certainly look forward to seeing his eventual induction into the UFC Hall of Fame.

Dustin Poirier def. Michael Chandler

This was a safe pick for fight of the night and these guys delivered exactly what we expected. Wild exchanges in the first round resulted in both guys being hurt and on the verge of going out. Poirier got hurt with a couple of minutes left and Chandler secured a takedown. Poirier fought back to his feet though and with just a few seconds left he landed some big shots that really had Chandler in trouble, only to be saved by the end of the round. In the second, Chandler surprised just about everyone by almost immediately taking the fight back to the ground, where he dominated Poirier for the duration of the round. Both guys finally started to show some fatigue in the third round, but it was clear Chandler was going to try to get the fight back to the ground. He eventually did get a hold of Poirier and lifted him for a slam. Poirier got the better of the ensuing scramble though and wound up on Chandler’s back. Showing some great composure and grappling skills, Poirier eventually locked in the rear naked choke and got the tap. After the fight, Poirier threw some shade at the current lightweight champion Islam Makhachev. That could be a very interesting fight in the future.

My pick: Poirier via 3rd round knockout

Result: Poirier via 3rd round submission

Zhang Weili def. Carla Esparza

After an uneventful title fight that saw Esparza crowned the new women’s strawweight champ, her first title defense was anything but uneventful. Zhang brought the fight to the champ and Esparza had no choice but to fire back. The result was some wild scrambles on the ground that saw both fighters getting advantageous positions but neither really got a true upper hand in the first round. In the second, Zhang really asserted her dominance in the striking game and forced Esparza to shoot for a takedown. After stopping a shot, Zhang got to a dominant position and sunk in a choke to force the tap out and recapture her championship. It was a very impressive performance for the new champ, who looks as though she could sit atop this division for a long time.

My pick: Zhang via 2nd round knockout

Result: Zhang via 2nd round submission

Alex Pereira def. Israel Adesanya

It’s always interesting when you get a couple of fighters with some history in the main event. It’s even more interesting when that history goes all the way back to their kickboxing days, long before they ever set foot in the octagon. Adesanya didn’t appear to be apprehensive about attacking the challenger who previously knocked him out with his signature left hook. The champ almost ended the fight in the closing seconds of the first round but Pereira was saved by the bell. The challenger than managed to take the second round, landing a head kick and securing a takedown. Adesanya controlled the next two rounds though and went into the fifth and final seemingly with a 3-1 lead. Pereira found most of his success whenever he was able to back the champ up to the cage and let his hands go. For one reason or another, Adesanya allowed himself to be backed up against the fence with about three minutes left in the fight and Pereira got exactly what he needed. The challenger landed a few huge punches that rocked the champ and had him on wobbly legs. The ref jumped in for what looked like a potentially questionable stoppage but it was an impressive, explosive performance for the new middleweight champion. An immediate rematch for these two seems very likely.

My pick: Adesanya via decision

Result: Pereira via 5th round knockout

The UFC will return to ESPN+ on Saturday, November 19th for UFC Fight Night: Lewis vs. Spivac. Be sure to check back for a preview of the event.