On Saturday, the MMA leader returned to our screens for its latest pay-per-view event, UFC 281.
After a couple of low-key weeks back at Las Vegas’ Apex facility, the UFC returned to a sold-out crowd in style, this time inside the prestigious surroundings of New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
And in an appropriate billing for such an iconic venue, the UFC brought with it two title fights, a blockbuster lightweight showdown, the final walk of a former champion and legend of the sport, a couple of New Zealand’s best at 155 pounds, and a fiery Liverpudlian looking to deliver a third “people’s meatbow” of the year.
But did the star-studded card deliver on the high expectations? Let’s find out with the positives and negatives from UFC 281.
Positive – “Black Jag” Opens CKB’s Account
I think Joe Rogan took the words out of every viewer’s mind when he branded Carlos Ulberg‘s performance as “flawless.” The New Zealander marked the first of four City Kickboxing outings in New York, and to say he brought some early-card success for the team would be an understatement.
In a fight that promised fireworks from the moment it was put together, Ulberg shared the Octagon with Nicolae Negumereanu. With 12 knockouts between them in 19 wins, there were no prizes for guessing how this one would end.
And from minute one, “Black Jag” went about his work, first disabling the Romanian’s leg with a truly thunderous low leg kick. From there, Ulberg methodically picked Negumereanu apart from the outside with his length and reach, constantly snapping his head back with a crisp jab.
When Negumereanu looked to counter one, Ulberg shut the lights out with a perfect lead hook. While the damage was largely done, the New Zealander finished things for good with a follow-up shot that left the Romanian out cold for a while.
It’s hard to think of many who’ve experienced a breakout year quite like Ulberg. That, as well as seeing his evolution into a more patient and technical striker, is a positive for fans and the light heavyweight division.
What wasn’t a positive, however, was the fact more people weren’t in their seats to witness the brutal KO. I’ll never quite understand the low turnouts for the prelims, especially for a card filled with notable talent throughout. Come on New York…
Positive – Double Knockdown!
It was a battle of the hooks in the third fight of the night as Michael Trizano and Seungwoo Choi threw down in a quick but memorable war. Not much gets me off my feet so early on in cards, but one exchange in this bout did just that.
It’s first worth noting that the way this matchup played out was a positive in itself. The pair of featherweights moved proceedings back up the violence scale after a slightly forgettable previous bout.
From the opening seconds, both men threw hard and fast in search of the knockout finish. At one stage, it appeared that the South Korean was edging closer to forcing a referee intervention. Trizano, however, had something to say about that, flooring Choi with a flush left hook less than 10 seconds until the end of the first round.
The method of victory was a fitting end for a fight that featured an ultra-rare double knockdown, with both men trading virtually identical left hooks early in the frame.
The moment was resemblant to the double knockdown at ONE: Heavy Hitters this past January, when light heavyweight kickboxers Giannis Stoforidis and Beybulat Isaev traded left hooks that left both men on the ground.
On that occasion, only one man returned to their feet…
Negative – Hello? NYSAC?
There’s nothing quite like a commissioner putting a halt to Bruce Buffer announcing the decision for a fight by entering the Octagon with pen and paper in hand and doing some… editing? Adding? Honestly, who the hell knows.
That concerning incident went down after strawweights Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Silvana Gómez Juárez had fought for 15 minutes and were standing in the center of the cage ready to hear their fate.
The common theory seems to be that the cageside official responsible for noting the scorecards and tallying them made a mistake somewhere along the way, perhaps noting the scores the wrong way around.
But whatever the reason, however unintentional, it certainly wasn’t a good look. It’s unlikely that any explanation will prevent some from coming to some damning conclusions.
Negative – The Fall Continues…
It was hard to decide whether to deem the light heavyweight contest between Dominick Reyes and Ryan Spann a positive or negative. And with “pogative” and “nesitive” not rolling off the tongue nicely, I’ve had to fall on a side.
On the one hand, “Superman” Spann emerged as a legitimate contender at 205 pounds. While stoppage losses to Anthony Smith and Johnny Walker had stalled his rise, the 31-year-old made it back-to-back wins on Saturday night with his biggest scalp to date, knocking out former title challenger Reyes with a shot that screamed power as soon as it landed.
While the devastating first-round finish and the addition of a new contender in the light heavyweight mix were positives, there was another, less-enjoyable side to the coin.
After suffering consecutive KO losses to Jan Blachowicz and Jiří Procházka, with the shot from the latter being particularly brutal, Reyes spent a lengthy period on the sidelines. UFC 281 marked his first outing in 18 months, and “The Devastator” was in search of the form that nearly saw him dethrone Jon Jones in 2020.
But having been rendered unconscious again, the future inside the Octagon is uncertain for Reyes. That’s not an outcome many would’ve hoped for ahead of Saturday’s event.
Positive – Moicano Makes A Statement
At UFC 281, Renato Moicano delivered an A+ performance in more ways than once.
The Brazilian faced formerly ranked lightweight Brad Riddell in the featured prelim. While most gave the New Zealander, who’s an experienced kickboxer, the edge on the feet and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Moicano the advantage on the ground, the American Top Team representative dominated in all areas.
In the standup realm, it was Riddell who looked out-gunned, as Moicano put the pressure on with a crisp jab. And aside from a near-error that he rectified quickly as the fight hit the canvas, the Brazilian had little to no trouble taking the back and locking in a rear-naked choke that received little resistance before a tap.
As well as the result, though, Moicano also made an impact with one of the most memorable post-fight interviews of all time. In addition to Joe Rogan and New York receiving some expletive-laden love, the Brazilian also took aim at the rankings panel.
While he no doubt made a whole host of fans earlier this year when he stepped up on a few days’ notice to go five rounds with Rafael dos Anjos, Moicano may have doubled his fanbase at UFC 281.
Get “Money Moicano” a ranking.
Positive – Back To It
Perhaps against any other fighter, Claudio Puelles’ performance would have marked a negative. But given the tough run he’s been on since the start of the pandemic, a victory for Dan Hooker overrides the Peruvian’s peculiar display.
While not exactly against elite striking opposition by any means, “The Hangman” returned to his vintage feints and found a home for most of his shots. To get to that stage, however, he did have to navigate some hairy situations on the ground in round one.
But after showing top defense against Puelles’ patented leglocks, Hooker went to work in round two, while his opponent did much of the opposite. Despite his corner telling him to set up his level changes, “The Peruvian Prince” spent the remainder of the bout attempting Imanari rolls.
There’s something poetic about Puelles promising to establish his name globally with a big win in his pre-fight video package, but receiving chants of “you’re a p*ssy” inside MSG. That’s MMA for you.
In the end, a body kick sat Puelles down. While he slowly returned to his feet, the same shot brought proceedings to an end soon after. Although the kicks certainly connected, Puelles looked to have lost hope after falling short of a submission in round one, so I wonder whether those same strikes would have ended the fight had he been faring better.
While the occasion may have gotten to the more inexperienced lightweight, it certainly didn’t for Hooker, who returned to the win column and cemented his spot inside the top 15. To see a fan favorite who’s dedicated so much to the sport bounce back after a tough run was certainly a positive.
Negative – A Tough End
Never has a brutal knockout been received with as much silence as Chris Gutierrez’s was at UFC 281.
You’ve got to feel for “El Guapo.” Against any other opponent, his first-round victory on Saturday night would have lifted the MSG roof. Unfortunately, it came against a departing legend and former champion who is widely loved.
There was perhaps one result that everyone was praying wouldn’t come to fruition, and it was a repeat of Edgar’s previous two outings, which saw him knocked out cold by Cory Sandhagen and Marlon Vera.
Showing the cruel nature of the sport, the MMA Gods weren’t about to let “The Answer” roll off into the sunset with a final victory. Instead, one perfectly timed knee tested Edgar’s chin beyond its means.
I can’t quite recall ever witnessing a knockout that left me so motionless and disheartened. While Edgar’s career will rightfully be celebrated now, it’s hard not to see its conclusion as a negative.
Positive – “The Diamond” Shines Again
If you’d have told me last December, when Dustin Poirier had just lost a second title undisputed title fight and suggested he might be finished at 155 pounds, that a year later he’d be in an absolute lightweight war with Michael Chandler, I’d have said no chance.
Through two rounds, the bout went about as I’d expected. When Chandler focused on his strengths, he was largely dominant, but when he brawled with Poirier — even though he found success — he ran the risk of getting caught and taking damage.
That appeared to add up by round three, when his more labored takedown efforts were dismissed and eventually reversed, with “The Diamond” securing a body triangle and a rear-naked choke submission for the victory.
For the past year, Poirier has held a high position on the lightweight ladder but been an absent figure with an uncertain future. He’s now likely one victory away from a third crack at undisputed glory, should he so pursue.
And what better way to announce your re-arrival in the title conversation than becoming the first to submit Chandler in professional MMA?
Positive – Order Resumed At 115
While it was perhaps expected, it was great to see Zhang Weili back at her best and back on the strawweight throne.
Even when she was knocked out at UFC 261, it didn’t feel like “Magnum” had been usurped as the best and most well-rounded athlete in the division. For me, she should’ve been back with the gold around her waist seven months later when she went five rounds with Rose Namajunas.
Nevertheless, while the scorecards didn’t go her way that night, she’s since made up for it with a path back to gold that’s felt like an inevitability, culminating with a submission victory over Carla Esparza on Saturday night.
While the first round was competitive and fun to watch, Zhang picked up the pace in the second, stunning “Cookie Monster” on the feet before reversing a level change and locking in a rear-naked choke.
With that, Zhang has joined the small group of two-time women’s champs inside the Octagon, and deservedly so.
Positive – And New!
He did it again.
By that, not only did Alex Pereira beat Israel Adesanya for the third time in his combat sports career, but he did it in the same fashion as their 2017 rematch — knocking “The Last Stylebender” out after being comfortably outpointed.
Heading into the final round, it was no secret who was ahead. And in similar fashion to Leon Edwards‘ come-from-behind victory over Kamaru Usman, “Poatan” appeared somewhat disheartened and on his way to certain defeat.
But with the almighty equalizer that sits in the Brazilian’s fists, he can never be counted out.
In terms of the stoppage, I don’t see much of an issue. Adesanya certainly wasn’t showing intelligent defense, and I find the narrative that you should have to “put the champion out” fairly ludicrous.
A new champion is usually a positive, especially when it comes as an upset and in such dramatic fashion. And given that a victory for Adesanya would have a meant a reign that had exhausted challengers, Pereira’s win is definitely a positive in terms of freshening up the weight class.
What were your positives and negatives from UFC 281?