UFC 281: Brazilian bogeyman stuns the champ on a historic night in New York

Alex Pereira is the new UFC middleweight champion of the world after securing a dramatic fifth-round finish against Israel Adesanya on a thrilling night of fights at UFC 281.

By George Mills Published: 14 November 2022 - 5.03pm

What in the heck just happened?

UFC 281 came and went like a tornado on Saturday night, ripping through a riotous Madison Square Garden and delighting fight fans with what was arguably the best card of the year.

There were 11 finishes from the 14 fights throughout the night including 7 that did not make it out of the first round, setting a new UFC record for the most first-round stoppages on a card.

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Not only that but we saw two new UFC champions crowned too as both Alex Pereira and Zhang Weili snatched belts away from the incumbent rulers of their respective divisions on what was a truly special evening in the Big Apple.

However, there was some bad news on the night as Molly McCann’s MSG debut turned from a dream into a nightmare when she came up against the young and talented Erin Blanchfield.

McCann was barely able to register a punch before being taken down and dominated in the wrestling exchanges by New Jersey native Blanchfield.

The 23-year-old controlled McCann with relative ease and all but snapped McCann’s arm in half with a brutal kimura, eventually forcing the brave Scouse flyweight to tap midway through the first round.

Even on a card that produced such violence, Dustin Poirier vs Michael Chandler stood out as a particularly wild affair, living up to every bit of the hype between two of the most entertaining men in the history of the 155lb division.

It was Poirier who eventually triumphed following a frenzied back-and-forth war that saw both men repeatedly hurt until “The Diamond” locked in a rear-naked chokehold in the final stanza to secure the tap from a bloodied Chandler.

Despite all that came before it, Pereira’s stunning victory over Adesanya will remain the main talking point from UFC 281 – and rightly so – after he became Brazil’s latest UFC champion and an overnight superstar thanks to his brave and brilliant win over “Stylebender”.

It was anything but plain sailing for Pereira who was forced to show his heart in the dying moments of the first round when a stinging combination from the champion right on the bell left “Poatan” visibly discombobulated.

A few more seconds on the clock might well have seen Adesanya complete the job inside the opening stanza but Pereira made sure to make his reprieve count when he was saved by the bell.

That’s despite losing many of the middle rounds to Adesanya, who looked as sharp and focused as we’ve seen him in recent times – until a costly lapse in a near flawless performance saw him get clipped by the brick-fisted Brazilian with two minutes gone of the final round.

7-1 (6 KOs)
Pereira's pro MMA record

Adesanya had been wary of Pereira’s power all night and the climactic flurry showed just why with every shot seemingly scrambling the champion’s senses before referee Mark Goddard brought a halt to proceedings to save Adesanya from what looked likely to become a highlight reel finish for the challenger.

A look at the judges’ scorecards in the aftermath of victory showed all three had the contest poised at 3-1 in the champion’s favour before Pereira found the finish which will be a source of further frustration for Adesanya, knowing he was so close to victory.

The most likely outcome of the result seems to be a rematch in the first half of 2023 which, given Adesanya’s dominance over the past three years atop the 185lb throne, would be all he deserves.

But if the 33-year-old New Zealander instead opts to take some time out of the sport having been one of the most active champions in recent UFC history, there will be no shortage of suitors fancying a crack at the newly-crowned champion.

Robert Whittaker would likely be top of that list and arguably the major beneficiary of the title upset alongside Paulo Costa, who are scheduled to meet at UFC 284 in a contest that now looks of great significance next year.

Might we also have seen the start of a new dawn in the strawweight division?

It certainly feels that way given the emphatic nature of Zhang Weili’s victory over Carla Esparza to snatch back control of the 115lb throne.

The Chinese challenger was more than a match for the outgoing champion Esparza in the opening round and made her dominance count not long into the second, outgrappling the veteran to secure the title via rear naked chokehold.

Could a trilogy showdown against Rose Namajunas be next for Weili? The American former champion is the only woman to have beaten Weili since 2014 – and she did so on back-to-back occasions at UFC 261 and UFC 268.

Brazil’s Amanda Lemos is also a name likely to be in the mix for Weili’s first defence of her second strawweight reign having dispatched of Marina Rodriguez stylishly on her last Octagon outing.

If you missed any of this weekend’s UFC 281 card, you can catch up on the full thing right now on the BT Sport website and app.

The Fight Week review show is also live for your perusal too with Michael Bisping, Adam Catterall and Nick Peet mulling over all the results with their immediate reaction to a stunning night at MSG. Click here to watch the full episode.