UFC 281 fight card: Michael Chandler vs. Dustin Poirier, Frankie Edgar’s retirement among must-watch fights

There is a lot to dig into UFC 281 on Saturday. An exciting grudge match between UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and Alex Pereira will rekindle their glory days on the kickboxing circuit. Adesanya isn’t the only champion putting on her belt.

The women’s strawweight crown is also at stake when Carla Esparza attempts to make her first defense of the 115-pound belt against former titleholder Weili Zhang. Esparza is in her second title reign after winning the inaugural title in 2014 over Rose Namajunas. Zhang bounced back from her title loss to Namajunas with a thunderous knockout of Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

The UFC presents a loaded card at Madison Square Garden in New York. Scan the program and a number of familiar names will jump off the page. Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler, former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, Dan Hooker, Dominick Reyes and Molly McCann all have a home at UFC 281. It’s another well-rounded fight card for the promotion’s regular outing in the Big Apple.

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Let’s take a look at three fights, plus some honorable mentions, that deserve your attention at UFC 281.

Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler

Poirier and Chandler are frontrunners for a Fight of the Night or Performance of the Night on any card they occupy. Put the two together and you’re sure to have fireworks. Poirier collected eight consecutive performance bonuses between 2017 and 2021, excluding a no-contest against Eddie Alvarez that was classified in their rematch. His last two performances weren’t award-worthy, but they were still memorable encounters with Charles Oliveira and Conor McGregor. Chandler has been pumping adrenaline since signing with the UFC in January 2021. He won bonuses in 75% of his fights, scored a all-time highlight KO vs. Tony Ferguson and was part of CBS Sports’ 2021 Fight of the Year. Add in the implications for a title shot or No. 1 contender’s bout, and you’ve got a main card fight that can’t be missed.

Frankie Edgar vs. Chris Gutierrez

The UFC’s answer to Rocky Balboa is expected to take his final walk on Saturday. Celebrating a hero like Edgar is reason enough to give his retirement fight a spot on this list. The legacy of the former lightweight champion is bulletproof. A three-division threat, Edgar won the UFC lightweight title, fought for the featherweight crown and ranked in the bantamweight division. His 1-1-1 split with Gray Maynard is one of the longest trilogies in MMA history and he swept the legendary BJ Penn in the three fight epic. It’s a shame that a dream match against Dominick Cruz didn’t materialize, but you could really insert anyone as the B-side here. This match is about sending an all-time great inside an iconic venue, just steps away from his home in New Jersey. Could things end badly Edgar? For sure. The fighting game is not particularly kind to its veterans. But Edgar deserves the spotlight regardless of the outcome.

Dan Hooker vs. Claudio Puelles

A main card sweep to watch this collection of matches. You could trade this fight for a number of other worthy ones on the card: the long-awaited return of Reyes or the continued rise of McCann to highlight just a few. But we’ll settle for the madness that Hooker and Puelles have to bring. Hooker was definitely on the decline after a five-round decision against Poirier in June 2020. It’s worth considering, however, that his four losses in this career-worst skid are to three active top-five fighters and a UFC champion. Hooker is a lot of fun — a killer finisher with 17 shutouts in 21 career wins. He should keep a close eye on Puelles, a submission specialist with a nasty habit of grabbing knees. UFC 281 is a huge platform to elevate Puel. He will have to work diligently to avoid Hooker’s eight violent limbs and tear one from Hooker’s body.

Honorable mentions: Dominick Reyes vs. Ryan Spann, Brad Riddell vs. Renato Moicano, Molly McCann vs. Erin Blanchfield and Carlos Ulberg vs. Nicolae Negumereanu

Who wins Adesanya vs Pereira? And how exactly does each match end? Visit SportsLine now for detailed picks for every fight at UFC 281, all from the incomparable expert who has earned more than $13,000 in MMA over the past three years, and find out.

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