Alex Pereira stunned Israel Adesanya, and Madison Square Garden, with a dramatic final-round flurry to turn the fight on its head, stop Adesanya and capture the undisputed UFC middleweight title at UFC 281.
Adesanya had fought to a near-flawless gameplan through the first four rounds as he largely kept out of danger, while peppering the challenger with strikes and chopping him with leg kicks. The champion even came close to claiming a first-round finish after badly rocking Pereira in the final seconds of the round, as the horn saved the challenger from a first-round stoppage defeat.
Despite the fight being contested between two former kickboxing stars, the bout went to the canvas on numerous occasions, with Adesanya dominating the action on the mat as the Nigerian-born Kiwi looked to wear heavy on the Brazilian and sap the challenger’s gas tank.
Heading into the final round, that plan appeared to have worked, with Pereira breathing heavily, but he managed to back Adesanya up against the fence, then unloaded with a heavy barrage of shots that first stunned, then briefly dropped, the champion.
Adesanya gamely tried to avoid the onslaught, but was unable to defend himself fully and, with Pereira continuing to throw bombs at “The Last Stylebender,” referee Marc Goddard stepped in to spare Adesanya further punishment at the 2:01 mark of the final round.
It brought a dramatic end to a spectacular night of fights in New York City, as the fans in the Big Apple were treated to a thrilling card of bouts at The Garden.
Zhang recaptures strawweight title
In the co-main event, China’s Zhang Weili became a two-time UFC women’s strawweight champion with a second-round submission of Carla Esparza.
The first round saw Zhang push the pace as she stalked the champion, throwing strikes. But then the fight went to the mat, promoting wild scrambles between the pair as they looked to get the upper hand.
The fight went to the mat again early in the second round as Esparza went for a takedown. But Zhang brilliantly scrambled her way to her opponent’s back, then trapped Esparza before locking up a rear-naked choke to force the tap at the 1:05 mark.
Poirier submits Chandler in wild scrap
The main card also featured a wild lightweight scrap between a pair of former champions, as former interim UFC lightweight champion Dustin Poirier claimed a dramatic third-round submission victory over three-time former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler.
In an explosive opening round, the pair went back and forth in a breathless stand-up battle, with Poirier connecting with straight shots and Chandler winging heavy hooks. Initially, Chandler had Poirier in trouble against the fence, but by the end of the round it was Poirier pouring on the power, with Chandler looking close to being stopped.
Somehow “Iron Mike” survived the round, and went on to completely dominate Round 2 as he took Poirier to the mat and kept him there with relentless top pressure, submission attempts and a sprinkling of solid ground shots.
It meant that the the fight was up for grabs heading into the third and final round and, when Chandler picked up Poirier and went to slam “The Diamond,” things were looking good for the former Bellator man. But Poirier scrambled well and eventually worked himself onto Chandler’s back, before locking up a rear-naked choke to force the tap at the two-minute mark.
No fairytale ending for ‘The Answer’
Former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar’s final fight in the octagon didn’t go according to the New Jersey native’s plan as he was spectacularly knocked out by Chris Gutierrez in their bantamweight bout.
Edgar, who has served the UFC with distinction across three weight classes during his career, was hoping to claim one more victory to put the capstone on a Hall of Fame-worthy career. But his fairytale ending wasn’t to be, as a perfectly-timed knee up the middle from Gutierrez instantly knocked “The Answer” out cold.
The finish left the Madison Square Garden crowd stunned, but the crowd respectfully responded to Gutierrez’s post-fight interview, as he revealed his coach Marc Montoya’s recent cancer diagnosis, and also paid respect to Edgar’s career.
The crowd then showed their appreciation for Edgar, who brought the curtain down on his career before leaving the arena floor, accompanied by his wife and children.
Hooker too smart for Puelles
Dan Hooker knew he was facing a tricky opponent in the Peruvian leglock specialist Claudio Puelles, but the Kiwi showed smart defensive skills on the mat – and a crisp striking game – as he claimed a second-round TKO finish with an impressive performance.
Puelles appeared to have Hooker in trouble as he rolled for a leg and attempted to lock up a submission. But, despite being in a perilous position, Hooker stayed calm and managed to avoid trouble before eventually working his way free.
With the fight in the stand-up, it was all Hooker, as the New Zealander peppered the Peruvian with strikes, before eventually finishing his man with a pair of crushing front kicks to the body, the second of which folding up Puelles, who went down and was unable to get up.
After his win, Hooker called for a spot on the upcoming UFC 284 card in Perth, Australia on February 12.
UFC 281: Official Results
- Alex Pereira def. Israel Adesanya via TKO (punches)– Round 5, 2:01– for middleweight title
- Zhang Weili def. Carla Esparza via submission (rear-naked choke) – Round 2, 1:05 – for women’s 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
- Renato Moicano def. Brad Riddell via submission (rear-naked choke) – Round 1, 3:20
- Ryan Spann def. Dominick Reyes via knockout (punch) – Round 1, 1:20
- Erin Blanchfield def. Molly McCann via submission (Kimura) – Round 1, 3:27
- Andre Petroski def. Wellington Turman via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
- Matt Frevola def. Ottman Azaitar via knockout (punch) – Round 1, 2:30
- Karolina Kowalkiewicz def. Silvana Gomez Juarez via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
- Michael Trizano def. Choi Seung-Woo 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