UFC 281 Predictions: WMMA Rankings Staff Picks

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UFC 281 takes place on Saturday, November 12, 2022, from Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, United States.

A strawweight championship fight will co-headline the event when Carla Esparza makes the first defense of her title against Zhang Weili.

Flyweights will feature on the preliminary card when top-fifteen-ranked contenders Erin Blanchfield and Molly McCann collide. Meanwhile, one-time UFC strawweight title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz returns to take on Silvana Gomez Juarez in the early prelims.

Ahead of Saturday’s big event, four members of the WMMA Rankings Staff Team have made their predictions and analysis for the fights. Take a look below.


Tonya
@T_WMMARankings

Bolu
@Bfalase

Brittany
@BritJadeWrites

Nick
@NICKATNITE111

Carla Esparza vs. Zhang Weili, strawweight title


Tonya: It’s pretty safe to say Esparza’s game plan will be to shoot for takedowns as often as she can and maintain ground control when she does.  With a 60% takedown defense as well as some pretty explosive power in her hands, Zhang Weili is as well-equipped as any to evade Carla’s takedowns and keep the fight standing.  Weili is more well-rounded and more powerful.  Furthermore, she recently hoisted Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou into the air like an oversized teddy bear.  Therefore, anticipate Zhang Weili to come out of this bout victorious with a decision win. 
Winner: Zhang Weili

Bolu: Stylistically, the champion’s plan must be to outwrestle Zhang. Despite showing great improvement on the feet, Esparza’s striking doesn’t compare to Zhang’s who has shown time and time again, she can compete with the best strikers in the division. Zhang tends to switch stances constantly throughout her fights, giving her opponents different angles to read and calculate if Esparza doesn’t register them. Despite this, Zhang tends to get caught up in exchanges which is something she cannot do against a seasoned wrestler like Carla. If she finds herself in the pocket of Carla, I’d expect a takedown attempt. Zhang has shown she’s one of the most well-rounded fighters in the world. Ever since moving to train with Henry Cejudo, we’ve seen the Chinese fighter shoot for takedowns more than ever, especially in her second fight with Rose Namajunas, where she landed six takedowns throughout their five-round war.

Most would expect Zhang to have a defensive wrestling-based camp to prevent Carla from getting takedowns despite her vast improvement in her ground game. If Zhang can stop Carla from taking her down, her significant advantage in striking should give her a great chance of scoring a TKO/KO victory. Zhang’s wrestling and jiu-jitsu should be good enough to prevent a submission loss, so Carla’s camp may be looking to simply outpoint Zhang to a decision victory if she can’t pick up on any defensive mistakes. I think this fight will be interesting to watch. Might not be the high-paced action we saw between Zhang and Joanna but will be a great technical aspect to watch and intriguing to see who has the greater advantage in their favored disciplines. That being said, I think Zhang finally regains her belt on Saturday night and does it in style. Zhang Weili by TKO in round 3.
Winner: Zhang Weili

Brittany: I have to be honest I think Zhang makes this look easy. I see it mirroring Carla’s fight against Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Zhang gets the stoppage victory. 
Winner: Zhang Weili

Nick: Carla Esparza is one of the greatest strawweights of all time. While she might not have the crazy highlight reel moments that some of her peers have, the longevity in which she’s been able to remain and compete at the very top of the division is something special. In addition to her numerous championship accolades in and out of the UFC, her resume boasts wins over the likes of Rose Namajunas, Yan Xiaonan, Marina Rodriguez, Michelle Waterson, Virna Jandiroba, and Alexa Grasso— just to name a few. With all of that considered, I do not think that the oddsmakers are being disrespectful toward Esparza by making her the underdog in this fight. It is more of a testament to Zhang’s skills than anything else. Weili is one of the most dangerous, athletic, and skilled fighters in all of WMMA. It is hard to picture a path to victory in this fight against Weili, even for someone as experienced and durable as Carla. 
Winner: Zhang Weili


Erin Blanchfield vs. Molly McCann, flyweight bout


Tonya: Meatball Molly has been on a spinning back-fist tear as of late.  Blanchfield will need to rely heavily on her grappling prowess and accurate takedowns.  Conversely, if McCann hasn’t improved her takedown defense, she may be in for a long night.  Logic would say that Blanchfield is going to get the win, frustrating Molly with relentless takedowns and suffocating ground control.  However, Molly seems to have the MMA Gods on her side right now, so prepare for the Molly McCann hype train to keep rolling right on through for a KO victory.
Winner: Molly McCann

Bolu: Blanchfield vs McCann is your good old-fashioned, wrestler vs striker matchup. When you look at all of Meatball Molly’s losses, they’ve come from her opponent, taking her down and controlling her for 15 minutes and Erin Blanchfield’s strategy should be expected to be the same. For McCann to win she’s got to stay on her feet. With her power, McCann will need to make as much as possible of the first minutes of each round if she can’t avoid being taken down. Although McCann has had a brilliant 2022 so far, I see her run coming to an end. Blanchfield to win by decision.
Winner: Erin Blanchfield

Brittany: This is a giant step up for Molly and I think she’ll come up short. While Erin hasn’t faced anyone with Molly’s power I think she’ll be able to nullify her offense with her wrestling prowess. 
Winner: Erin Blanchfield

Nick: Blanchfield is a pretty hefty favorite going into Saturday’s event and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone given her UFC run thus far. I was quite surprised when they made this fight because stylistically it seems like a really tough matchup for McCann. It would be foolish to count out “Meatball”, but I’m predicting a dominant decision win for Blanchfield. 
Winner: Erin Blanchfield


Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Silvana Gomez Juarez, strawweight bout


Tonya: Striker vs striker in this early prelim matchup.  Karolina is likely the more technical of the two and Silvana is the more powerful.  Karolina recently broke a five-fight losing streak against Felice Herrig earlier this year, and although her losses have been to top-tier fighters, it’s hard to see her winning this one against the more durable Gomez Juarez.  Look for Silvana to throw some major hands and ultimately get the KO win.
Winner: Silvana Gomez Juarez

Bolu: The opening women’s bout of the night can be best described as volume vs power. Karolina Kowalkiewicz tends to apply pressure with multiple strike combinations to eventually break down her opponent whereas Silvana Gomez Juarez has that one-punch KO power. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Pole decided to take Gomez Juarez down. Despite scoring a huge knockdown on Vanessa Demopoulos she failed to recognize an armbar from the bottom, which is something I’m sure she’s worked on. Kowalkiewicz, who finally broke her five-fight losing streak earlier this year, has to be wary of the right hand of Gomez Juarez. If that connects cleanly, the fight could be over in an instant. I’m backing the power of Gomez Juarez to get the job done in round one.
Winner: Silvana Gomez Juarez

Brittany: I think experience benefits Kowalkiewicz here however I do feel like the two are quite evenly matched. I expect Kowalkiewicz to squeeze out a decision win. 
Winner: Karolina Kowalkiewicz

Nick: I like Gomez-Juarez and am always impressed with the power and conviction she strikes with. With that being said, Karolina Kowalkiewicz is one of my all-time favorite fighters and I just can’t bring myself to pick against her. I think the switch to ATT with Coach Parrumpa and a new environment has been great for her. I expect KK to execute a well-thought-out game plan that involves a lot of clinch work and grappling to get the win!
Winner: Karolina Kowalkiewicz


The UFC 281 main card will be aired live on pay-per-view from 10 pm ET. The prelims will be aired on ESPN+ and ESPNews from 8 pm ET, whilst the early prelims will show on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass from 6 pm ET.

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