Joining a blockbuster headliner between middleweight king Israel Adesanya and Alex Pereira later this year will be the first defense of Esparza’s second reign. While the American initially appeared hesitant to confirm former strawweight queen Zhang as her challenger, renowned reporter Ariel Helwani recently confirmed that the promotion were targeting the showdown for its yearly visit to New York City’s MSG.
And after journalist Chris Presnell, who covers Asian/Chinese MMA, reported that both sides had signed on for the November 12 date, Eurosport’s Marcel Dorff confirmed the booking on Thursday.
Esparza Targets First Defense, Zhang Pursues Second Reign
At UFC 281, Esparza (19-6) will look to extend her second reign beyond the length of her first. After submitting Rose Namajunas to be crowned inaugural champion in 2014, “Cookie Monster” was immediately dethroned by Joanna Jędrzejczyk, after which she went 3-3 across her next six outings.
But in what was a record-breaking resurgence to the throne, Esparza joined “Thug Rose” in the two-time champs’ club by outpointing her at UFC 274 this past May. Given the manner of the win, which was widely branded one of the worst title fights in UFC history, Esparza will no doubt look to legitimize her hold on the belt with a convincing first defense.
If Esparza’s to extend her winning streak to seven, she’ll have push past the challenge of former titleholder Zhang (22-3). “Magnum” had a 21-fight win streak — which included a title-winning performance against Jéssica Andrade and a FOTY defense opposite Jędrzejczyk — snapped courtesy of consecutive losses to Namajunas in 2021.
But in a rematch against Jędrzejczyk at UFC 275 in June, Zhang burst back into the title picture with a memorable spinning back fist KO victory. While she initially called for an opportunity to reclaim the belt in the neutral territory of Abu Dhabi, where the UFC is heading in October, the Chinese standout will need to perform on US soil to return to the throne she occupied between 2019 and 2021.
The current fights expected to take place at UFC 281 on November 12 are as follows:
Israel Adesanya (C) vs. Alex Pereira (middleweight championship main event)
Carla Esparza (C) vs. Zhang Weili (women’s strawweight championship)
Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler (lightweight)
Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann (light heavyweight)
Molly McCann vs. Erin Blanchfield (women’s flyweight)
Mike Trizano vs. Seung Woo Choi (featherweight)
Who do you think will have their hand raised at UFC 281, Carla Esparza or Zhang Weili?