NEW YORK – Alex Pereira is making this look easy.
In only his fourth UFC bout, and eighth MMA fight overall, Pereira unleashed a flurry of shots on Israel Adesanya in the fifth round to force a referee stoppage. Pereira had already defeated Adesanya twice in kickboxing, becoming the only man to ever knock out Adesanya – and he has now taken his title with a TKO victory.
Pereira (7-1 MMA, 4-0 UFC) tagged Adesanya (23-2 MMA, 12-2 UFC) with a right hand in the fifth, then unloaded on him. It was too much to withstand, and the sequence ended with Adesanya taking his first-ever loss as a middleweight. With the win, Pereira is the new undisputed middleweight champion.
In a fight that felt like the knockout blow was constantly looming, Pereira stalked Adesanya. He endured some of Adesanya's best offense, especially at the end of the first, when Adesanya landed a right then left as the round ended. Pereira attempted a roundhouse kick in the second, exhausting all resources in his repertoire for a knockout, but Adesanya's patience and footwork caused a constant headache for Pereira.
A takedown from Adesanya in the third led to him controlling the round. He pivoted to take Pereira's back, then refused to relinquish it. Adesanya moved to a full mount with 80 seconds left in the round, and that led to some ground-and-pound from Adesanya, who delivered a vicious combo to fully dominate the round. The key for Pereira was to keep Adesanya stationary. It took him into the fifth round to find the right shot to stagger Adesanya, but he capitalized once he hit it.
Remarkably, Pereira now has three wins against Adesanya. This will undoubtedly lead to a rematch, where it will be especially odd to see Adesanya as the challenger instead of the champion. The 35-year-old Pereira is the new middleweight king, finding the type of notoriety that eluded him during a decorated career in kickboxing. He couldn't have chosen a better spot to stake his claim to being the best in the world, using Madison Square Garden as his platform to once again defeat Adesanya.
For the third time, Pereira has defeated Adesanya. And now Pereira has taken his gold, finishing one of the greatest fighters to ever step in the octagon.
A new women's strawweight champ crowned
Carla Esparza came to New York seeking her first-ever title defense.
It didn't happen. And if it ever does, it will need to come in a future title reign.
Zhang Weili dominated Esparza en route to a second-round submission victory, regaining the belt and reclaiming her place as the best women's strawweight fighter in the world.
The edge in the first round belonged to Weili (23-3 MMA, 7-2 UFC), who was able to land with more consistency and control Esparza on the mat. Weili's strikes are incredibly powerful, and it clearly affected Esparza in the opening round. But Weili isn't just stronger–she is also quicker.
Before Esparza (19-7 MMA, 10-5 UFC) tapped to the rear-naked choke, she had been riding a six-fight win streak. But she took a couple ferocious strikes in the opening round, and then failed to keep up with Weili's speed in the second. This was redemption for Weili, who lost in MSG a year ago in a bout for the title against Rose Namajunas.
The victory could elevate Namajunas back into the title picture. She has already defeated Weili twice, so there is potential for that trilogy bout. The loss is a severe disappointment for Esparza, who had clawed her way back to the title after losing it seven years ago. It is unlikely that Esparza will get an immediate rematch, making her path back to the title for a third reign that much more difficult.
Poirier forces Chandler to tap in bloody bout
Dustin Poirier was temporarily out of the title picture.
That is no longer the case.
Poirier overcame a textbook Michael Chandler performance, dictating the pace in the third round with a phenomenal rear-naked choke submission victory. Chandler is known for his explosiveness in the opening round, and he lived up to his reputation. But Poirier persevered, overcoming a difficult second round spent largely on the ground to make Chandler tap in the third.
The first half of the opening round saw Chandler land combinations, takedowns, and strikes to the head, and it briefly appeared Chandler had the fight won – until Poirier started landing. The final 90 seconds of the round was all Poirier, with Chandler barely surviving the round as the crowd at MSG erupted.
Chandler found a much-needed respite on the ground in the second round, dripping blood all over Poirier before fighting to gain control of his back. He was not able to lock in the choke, but the approach won him the round. Chandler added in some ground-and-pound shots, too, making it anyone's guess how the judges scored the first round. But that didn't matter when Poirier secured the rear naked choke in the third.
Poirier (29-7 MMA, 21-6 UFC) was coming off a loss, but this win rewrites his future. He has now won eight of his last 10, and this was a convincing performance, especially by getting the finish. The loss for Chandler (23-8 MMA, 2-3 UFC) is damaging. He now drops under .500 in his five UFC bouts, removing him from title contention. But Chandler's future is secure as long as he keeps putting forth such spectacular fights, which he has done on all five occasions in the UFC.
Poirier has to be on an extremely short list of contenders for Islam Makhachev. The first title defense for Makhachev will be against Alexander Volkanovski, but it is likely between Poirier, Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush to see who gets the next shot. The performance at MSG may be enough to elevate Poirier to the top of that list.
Guitierrez ends Edgar's career with vicious knee
A left knee to the face is the final blow of Frankie Edgar's storied career.
Chris Gutierrez made a statement in this bout, showcasing why he should break into the bantamweight top-15 rankings. The knockout victory is incredibly important for Gutierrez (19-4-2), who sends Edgar (24-11-1) into retirement with a vicious blow.
Edgar pieced together an iconic MMA career, but the curtain inevitably falls. Doing the honors tonight was Gutierrez, who left no doubt in this bout. He earned a spot in the rankings, and this fight cements his place as a frightening opponent for anyone in the division.
Hooker drops Puelles to pick up TKO win
It wasn't pretty, but Dan Hooker is back in the victory column.
Hooker (22-12 MMA, 12-8 UFC) ended a two-fight losing streak by defeating Claudio Puelles in the opening bout of UFC 281. Puelles (12-3 MMA, 5-2 UFC) was clearly overmatched, and Hooker delivered the final blow with a body kick in the second round for the TKO win.
This was a clash of styles. Puelles desperately wanted to fight on the ground, repeatedly dropping to his back without any contact to force him in that direction. Hooker did an outstanding job of keeping Puelles within his range and forcing him out of his wheelhouse. Once he picked up on Puelles' timing, it was only a matter of when – and not if – Hooker was going to finish the fight.
Complete UFC 281 results include:
MAIN CARD (ESPN+ pay-per-view)
- Alex Pereira def. Israel Adesanya via TKO (punches) – Round 5, 2:01 – to claim middleweight title
- Zhang Weili def. Carla Esparza via submission (rear-naked choke) – Round 2, 1:05 – to claim strawweight title
- Dustin Poirier def. Michael Chandler via submission (rear-naked choke) – Round 3, 2:00
- Chris Gutierrez def. Frankie Edgar via knockout (knee) – Round 1, 2:01
- Dan Hooker def. Claudio Puelles via TKO (body kick) – Round 2, 4:06
PRELIMINARY CARD (ESPNews, ESPN+)
- Renato Moicano def. Brad Riddell via submission (rear-naked choke) – Round 1, 3:20
- Ryan Spann def. Dominick Reyes via knockout (punches) – Round 1, 1:20
- Erin Blanchfield def. Molly McCann via submission (kimura) – Round 1, 3:37
- Andre Petroski def. Wellington Turman via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
PRELIMINARY CARD (ESPN+)
- Matt Frevola def. Ottman Azaitar via knockout (punches) – Round 1, 2:30
- Karolina Kowalkiewicz def. Silvana Gomez Juarez via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
- Michael Trizano def. SeungWoo Choi via knockout (punches) – Round 1, 4:51
- Montel Jackson def. Julio Arce via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
- Carlos Ulberg def. Nicolae Negumereanu via knockout (punches) – Round 1, 3:44
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.