The UFC returns to Madison Square Garden in New York City for UFC 281 on Saturday. The event features two title fights. The main event is a middleweight title bout between champion Israel Adesanya and challenger Alex Pereira. This is an exciting stylistic matchup because Pereira beat Adesanya twice in kickboxing matches and has the elite striking skills to potentially give Adesanya his toughest fight to date at middleweight.
The co-main event is a women’s strawweight title bout between champion Carla Esparza and former champion Zhang Weili. Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler is also on the main card, along with a retirement fight for Frankie Edgar.
DraftKings is hosting a huge UFC 281 fantasy MMA tournament that pays out $750,000 in total prizes, including $200,000 to first place. Set your DraftKings fantasy MMA lineups here: UFC $750K UFC 281 Special [$200K to 1st].
Ottman Azaitar ($7,700)
Despite being a -140 favorite on DraftKings Sportsbook, Azaitar cheaper than his opponent, Matt Frevola ($8,500). Azaitar is the 11th cheapest fighter on the slate and is the only favorite to have a price tag lower than $8,000.
Azaitar is 13-0 in his career and 2-0 in the UFC, with both of his UFC wins coming via first-round knockout. Azaitar has sparkling striking metrics in a limited sample, landing over eight significant strikes per minute while absorbing under two significant strikes per minute. Frevola has absorbed slightly more strikes than he has landed, which is a red flag in his striking metrics. All of the factors above make Azaitar a strong candidate to produce good fantasy value at his cheap price tag.
Zhang Weili ($9,400)
Weili’s opponent, Carla Esparza, is a strong wrestler and relies on her offensive wrestling to give her the upper hand in fights. Despite only officially recording two takedowns in her title fight win against Rose Namajunas, the threat of the takedown spooked Namajunas into inactivity. With Namajunas reluctant to commit to offense out of respect for Esparza’s wrestling, only 67 total significant strikes were landed in 25 minutes between the two fighters, with Esparza accounting for 30 of them.
This is a general theme in Esparza’s fights—low striking volume. Esparza is landing only about two significant strikes per minute in her UFC fights, a rate nearly three times less than Weili, who is landing roughly six significant strikes per minute. Weili should have a significant edge in striking in this matchup, and Esparza needs to be successful with her offensive grappling to win this fight.
Weili’s physical strength could be the difference maker in this matchup. Weili is one of the strongest fighters in the women’s division, which could present problems for Esparza. UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou recently posted a video of Weili snatching a single leg on Ngannou and lifting him off the ground, showcasing her incredible strength relative to her division.
If Esparza struggles with Weili’s physical strength and cannot consistently take Weili down or hold Weili down, Weili will be in a good position to utilize her superior striking and beat Esparza on the feet. Esparza has absorbed more strikes than she has landed, which is a red flag in her striking metrics.
Weili’s plus striking volume gives her good fantasy scoring upside, and she is also a safe play, which is reflected in her -340 moneyline on DraftKings Sportsbook. Since this fight is five rounds, there are also potentially 10 extra minutes to generate fantasy scoring.
Dustin Poirier ($8,900)
Poirier is landing about 5.6 significant strikes per minute, which is plus striking volume that will aid in fantasy scoring. Poirier also has pop, which could result in a quick finish against his opponent, Michael Chandler. Chandler has a shaky chin and has been officially knocked down three times in his last three UFC fights. Chandler also got dropped by an aging Tony Ferguson in his most recent fight, although Chandler was able to get back to his feet quickly enough to avoid it being officially classified as a knockdown in the official fight statistics.
Chandler is a skilled opponent, but Poirier has better cardio and has showcased a better chin recently, which could give him the edge in this fight. Poirier could very realistically win this fight by first-round knockout, which could result in over 100 DraftKings fantasy points (DKFP). Poirier has scored over 100 DKFP in 13 of his last 14 wins.
Israel Adesanya ($8,600)
Adesanya is a tall and lengthy kickboxer who has enjoyed a significant reach and range advantage over most of his opponents at middleweight. Adesanya uses his length to position himself just outside of his opponent’s striking range, which makes it difficult to land a clean shot on Adesanya. Adesanya then punishes his opponents with his superior striking from distance, and his takedown defense and defensive grappling have been good enough to fend off the grapplers he has faced at middleweight.
Adesanya carries more risk than normal this weekend because Alex Pereira presents a significant matchup problem for Adesanya. Pereira can match most of Adesanya’s advantages at middleweight. Pereira is an elite kickboxer who is huge for the division, and his height, reach and striking skill are very similar to Adesanya’s. Adesanya will not be able to position himself outside of Pereira’s striking range to the same degree that he has enjoyed in most of his middleweight fights, and this is dangerous against someone as explosive as Pereira.
However, Adesanya carries a significant advantage in UFC experience and UFC title fight experience. Adesanya has fought in eight five-round title fights in the UFC, something that Pereira has not experienced yet. Pereira only has seven total MMA fights. Title fight experience and five-round MMA fight experience could be the difference maker in this fight between two fighters who are very even in terms of skill.
If Adesanya can keep himself safe early, let Pereira slow down and then take over in the championship rounds, he could position himself to win late in the fight using precision striking.
All views expressed are my own. I am an employee of DraftKings and am ineligible to play in public DFS or DKSB contests. The contents contained in this article do not constitute a representation that any particular strategy will guarantee success. All customers should use their own skill and judgment in building lineups.