This article is part of our DraftKings MMA series.
UFC 281 takes place Saturday at Madison Square Garden, and Jon Litterine is back to break down the top fights, plus offer his DFS picks and predictions for the key matchups on the card.
If you're hoping to turn the event into an opportunity to build your DFS bankroll, DraftKings.com has you covered with a full slate of contests, including a $750k UFC 281 Special with $200k to first place. Players get a $50,000 budget to select six fighters, and the scoring rules are noted at the bottom of the column. Let's get to the action...
Main Event - Middleweight Championship
This will be Adesanya's sixth defense of his UFC Middleweight Championship. He's been untouchable during the first five fights, picking up a knockout of Paulo Costa in addition to unanimous decision victories over Jared Cannonier, Marvin Vettori, Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker, the man many consider to be the best 185-pounder on the planet other than Adesanya. It would be nice to see Izzy fight with a bit more authority and seek out the finish more aggressively, but it's impossible to argue with the results.
This is a matchup of arguably the two most gifted pure strikers in the history of the sport. You're going to hear an awful lot about how Adesanya and Pereira fought twice in their kickboxing days, with Alex winning both of them, one via decision and the other via knockout. Those bouts took place in 2016 and 2017, and I put little stock in the result, other than the fact perhaps Pereira gets a boost of confidence knowing he has defeated the champion in the past.
I would be totally shocked if this developed into anything other than a kickboxing match. Both men are 6-foot-4, with Izzy entering with a one-inch reach edge. Neither man has landed a takedown in his UFC career, although if either has the ability, now would be the time to lean on that skill.
I'm pretty confident in saying Pereira has more pure power than Adesanya. Izzy should have the technical edge, but it's important to keep in mind that Alex is far more competent on the feet than anyone Adesanya has faced to date. The champion isn't going to be able to stand at distance and outpoint his opposition in a boring manner as we have seen in some of his recent title defenses. Pereira can match his length and also has the power to close the show.
It's quite clear Alex is a live underdog. I don't think that's debatable, especially when you take into account some of Izzy's so-so performances to date.
Still, when push comes to shove, I'd rather bet on Adesanya's track record of excellence over the theoretical long-term upside of Pereira.
I expect a close and competitive fight in which both men have their moments. Give me the champion to retain by a close decision.
UFC 281 PICK: Adesanya
Co-Main Event - Women's Strawweight Champion
The inaugural UFC Women's Strawweight Champion, Esparza had a stretch from March 2015 to September 2017 in which she lost four of seven fights. She's been unstoppable since, winning six straight, including a split decision victory over Rose Namajunas this past May to regain the gold. It's a fight Carla probably deserved to win, but it was close, as many of her recent fights have been. Of those six straight wins I previously mentioned, five were via decision, with three being split, and one being a majority decision. In short, I don't feel Esparza has the skill set to hang onto the belt for an extended period of time, but she's one of the better fighters in a weak division.
Like Esparza is now, Zhang will have an opportunity here to become a two-time UFC champion. Zhang won her first title by shocking Jessica Andrade in August 2019. She took a split decision from Joanna Jedrzejczyk in arguably the best female fighter in the history of the sport in March 2020. She then lost her title to Namajunas in April 2021 and dropped a split decision to Rose a little over six months later before knocking out the since-retired Jedrzejczyk this past June.
Unlike the main event in which both men employ a similar style, these two competitors couldn't be any more different. Esparza relies almost entirely on her wrestling game to be successful. She is averaging 3.25 takedowns per 15 minutes, and has landed multiple takedowns in five of her past six fights. Carla is deceptively strong at the point of attack for a woman that stands 5-foot-1. Zhang's no slouch herself in terms of grappling, averaging just over two (2.09) takedowns per 15 minutes, but there's zero reason for her to be rolling on the ground with Esparza when she has such an advantage on the feet.
Esparza's striking has improved over time, but it's still not a strength of hers. Due to all the time she spends on the mat, Carla averages just 2.2 significant strikes landed per minute. For comparison's sake, Zhang averages 5.78 per minute. Zhang also has an overwhelming power edge, although Esparza has shown an ability to take a beating in the past.
Zhang can be reckless on the feet at time with her stand-up defense, but I don't think Esparza has the necessary striking skills to take advantage of that. I have a difficult time seeing Carla winning this fight unless she lands multiple takedowns and racks up a ton of control time.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've been low on Esparza throughout her UFC run, and she's burned me countless times. I'm still going back to the well.
In a fight scheduled for five rounds, Carla is going to have to rack up a ton of control time in multiple frames in order to win a decision. Zhang is deceptively strong for her size and will enter as the bigger woman. Her edge in the striking game is just too much for me to ignore. Esparza appears to be way undervalued, but I still think Zhang regains the championship.
UFC 281 PICK: Zhang
Both of these men recently fought Charles Oliveira for the UFC Lightweight Championship. Although both men lost, Poirier and Chandler -- Chandler in particular -- got off to a hot start and very easily could have emerged victorious. This is a fight that makes too much sense.
Dustin is 7-2 in his last nine fights dating back to November 2017. Those seven victories have come against Conor McGregor (twice), Dan Hooker, Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje and Anthony Pettis. The setbacks came against Oliveira and Khabib Nurmagomedov. In short, has been one of the best fighters in the world for several years and has the track record to prove it.
I had my doubts regarding how Chandler would fare following his move from Bellator to the UFC, but the early returns have been better than I expected. Chandler has fought considerably better than his 2-2 record would lead you to believe. The two setbacks (Oliveira, Gaethje) could have easily been victories. He may not be on the same level as the best 155-pounders on the roster, but Chandler clearly isn't far off.
Poirier and Chandler are both high-volume strikers with legitimate power. Both can get in trouble if pulled into brawls, although one could very easily make the argument that's the type of fight in which both men are best equipped to succeed.
I don't expect either man to wrestle here. Both have a background in that area and are above-average grapplers, but we have a big enough sample size to believe is a stand-up brawl will be the most likely outcome. I'm not entirely sure which man I favor if that's the case, but it's worth mentioning four of Chandler's last five losses have come via knockout.
I'm fairly confident I would take Poirier all things being equal, but as you can see from the DK Salaries and Vegas odds, they aren't. There's enough uncertainty regarding the result here for me to roll with Chandler as a shockingly massive underdog. I just feel the gap between the two if much closer than the numbers lead you to believe, and thus Chandler is too much of a value to ignore.
UFC 281 PICK: Chandler
Now 41 years of age, Edgar, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, has announced this would be his last professional fight. It's nice that Frankie, a New Jersey native, gets to go out on his own terms at Madison Square Garden. Edgar just turned 41 years of age in mid-October and is clearly and understandably slipping from both an athleticism and durability standpoint. He's lost four of five dating back to July 2019, although the UFC hasn't done him any favors regarding who they have matched him up against.
Gutierrez has faced extremely soft competition to date, but his 6-0-1 mark in his last seven fights is impressive nonetheless. Two of those wins came via knockout and two others via split decision. Chris has the look of a solid all-around fighter, with no elite skill to fall back upon in the event of trouble, but no significant hole in his game, either. I don't expect him to shoot up the rankings at age 31, but Gutierrez is better than countless fighters in the company that are barely hanging onto a roster spot.
No disrespect to Gutierrez, but the gap in talent between he and Frankie's last ten opponents is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. During that stretch, Edgar has faced Marlon Vera, Cory Sandhagen, Pedro Munhoz, The Korean Zombie, Max Holloway, Cub Swanson, Brian Ortega, Yair Rodriguez, Jeremy Stephens and Jose Aldo. Not saying this is the case, but Frankie could have had plenty left in the tank and still lose the vast majority of those bouts.
If Gutierrez has one thing going for him, it's his durability. Frankie's last knockout victory came in December 2015 against Chad Mendes, so no one should be expecting him to put away an opponent that hasn't been stopped via strikes in nearly 25 professional bouts.
Your view of this fight should ultimately come down to whether or not you feel Edgar is completely washed. Some guys get a bump knowing it's the last time they will be lacing up the gloves, while others are seemingly more content with their situation.
I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Frankie turned back the clock and put on a vintage performance, but everything we have seen of late suggests Gutierrez should win this fight.
UFC 281 PICK: Gutierrez
Hooker's willingness to fight all comers (in any weight class) has left his UFC run on life support. "The Hangman" has lost four of five dating back to June 2020. It must be pointed out that those four defeats came against current UFC Lightweight Champion Islam Makhachev, Chandler, Poirier and most recently, Arnold Allen, in a featherweight fight. I'm 100 percent certain Hooker would be in far better shape if he was a bit more selective regarding who he stepped into the Octagon against, but since he wasn't, he needs to do whatever is necessary to emerge from this one victorious.
Puelles will be no easy mark, however. Claudio was knocked out on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America 3 back in November 2016, but has won each of his first five fights with the company, including his last two via kneebar.
The most stark difference between these two is the level of competition they have gone up against. Puelles' best UFC victory is against Clay Guida. Hooker fought all the guys I mentioned earlier, plus Paul Felder, Al Iaquinta, Gilbert Burns, etc. You get the idea.
Hooker is tough as nails despite the fact he's been knocked out three times in his career. I'm worried about his durability given all the wars he has been in over the years, but he should have a significant edge over Puelles on the feet.
That said, Claudio averages 2.74 takedowns per 15 minutes and we have seen Dan pinned to the mat for long stretches at a time in the past. He offers very little resistance when taken down, which is why I assume Puelles will sell out to ensure this fight ends up there.
I'm taking Hooker, but don't feel great about it. Both the DK salaries and Vegas odds seems correct for this one. Puelles has a clear path to victory and his greatest strengths correlate with Hooker's greatest weaknesses. This fight is closer than one might expect at first glance.
UFC 281 PICK: Hooker
Erin Blanchfield (9-1-0) v. Molly McCann (13-4-0)
DK Salaries: Blanchfield ($9,500), McCann ($6,700)
Vegas Odds: Blanchfield (-390), McCann (+320)
Odds to Finish: +140
UFC 281 PICK: Blanchfield
Karolina Kowalkiewicz (13-7-0) v. Silvana Gomez Juarez (11-4-0)
DK Salaries: Kowalkiewicz ($8,200), Gomez Juarez ($8,000)
Vegas Odds: Kowalkiewicz (-115), Gomez Juarez (-105)
Odds to Finish: -105
UFC 281 PICK: Kowalkiewicz
Carlos Ulberg (7-1-0) v. Nicolae Negumereanu (13-1-0)
DK Salaries: Ulberg ($8,400), Negumereanu ($7,800)
Vegas Odds: Ulberg (-120), Negumereanu (+100)
Odds to Finish: -175
UFC 281 PICK: Negumereanu
Note: All odds accurate as of time of posting, and taken from the DraftKings Sportsbook, if available, before searching elsewhere. Stay up to date for UFC 281 with more MMA betting content.
DraftKings MMA Scoring
Note: Scoring has been updated as of early-2021! Please review the scoring changes below.
Strikes: +0.2 PTS
Significant Strikes (SS): +0.2 PTS
Control Time: +0.03 PTS/SECOND
Takedown (TD): +5 PTS
Reversal/Sweep (REV): +5 PTS
Knockdown (KD): +10 PTS
Fight Conclusion Bonuses
1st Round Win (1rW+): +90 PTS
2nd Round Win (2rW+): +70 PTS
3rd Round Win (3rW+): +45 PTS
4th Round Win (4rW+): +40 PTS
5th Round Win (5rW+): +40 PTS
Decision Win (WBD+): +30 PTS
Quick Win Bonus: +25 PTS
(fight is finished in 60 seconds or less)
- Significant Strikes are any Distance Strike or Clinch/Ground Strikes that are considered "Power Strikes" by official scorers.
- A Significant Strike will count as both a strike and a significant strike and will be worth a total of 0.4 Pts
- Control Time is the time spent in the dominant position on the ground or in the clinch. +0.03 points are awarded per second.
- A Knockdown is awarded to a fighter who knocks his/her opponent down due to debilitation for what the official scorers consider an appreciable amount of time.
- A Quick Win Bonus is awarded to the winning fighter if they win in the first round in 60 seconds or less.