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China’s Zhang Weili celebrates after defeating Carla Esparza in a women’s strawweight title bout at UFC 281 in New York. Photo: AP

UFC 281: Zhang Weili submits Carla Esparza to reclaim strawweight title, Alex Pereira stuns Israel Adesanya

  • Chinese superstar becomes two-time champ with a ruthless masterclass in Madison Square Garden, on a night of wild action
  • Pereira’s power proves too much for Adesanya, stopping the reigning middleweight champ with a standing TKO in the fifth round

Zhang Weili’s long road back to the title came to a sweet conclusion, with the Chinese MMA superstar submitting Carla Esparza in the second round of a ruthless Madison Square Garden masterclass on Saturday night.

There also was a dramatic finale in New York, with the long-reigning middleweight champion Israel Adesanya dethroned in dramatic fashion by his personal boogeyman, the Brazilian Alex Pereira, in the fifth round.

Mercilessly booed 18 months ago in Florida when she lost the belt to Rose Namajunas, Zhang was cheered to the rafters on US soil this time – even despite fighting another American.

“I have come back for my belt,” Zhang told UFC commentator Joe Rogan, through a translator. “This is the best moment. I want to say thanks to all my supporters, family members and my friends all around the world.

“Last time I won the belt, it was in China. This time I came to the US, and I felt the same level of support from all of you guys.”

China’s Zhang Weili, punches Carla Esparza during the second round. Photo: AP

With the difference in striking massively in favour of the 33-year-old “Magnum”, she also showed off her vastly improved ground game, honed at her new Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA base in Phuket, Thailand, with jiu-jitsu icon and black belt Josh Hinger in her corner.

A wild scramble closed out the first round, with Zhang twice close to getting a rear-naked choke. She then pulled it off early in the second.

“I have so many ways to finish her, submission is only one of them,” Zhang added.

Chinese MMA trailblazer Li “The Leech” Jingliang was in the front row, proudly waving the country’s flag, with a large contingent of his compatriots turning up to support Zhang.

“To everybody who has experienced failure, you should never give up on what you want to do. The victory will come back,” Zhang said.

China’s Zhang Weili grapples with Carla Esparza during the second round. Photo: AP

Esparza, who swiped the belt from Namajunas in May after Zhang had come up short for a second time against “Thug Rose”, was gracious in defeat.

“I expected her to be great everywhere,” Esparza said. “She has great striking, and her grappling’s been improving. I knew she was going to be strong. At this level you can only expect the best.”

It was a night of wild action in New York, encapsulated by a stunning end to the main event, which “The Last Stylebender” had been comfortably winning until getting caught late in the final round by his old nemesis Pereira.

“Poatan”, who had handed Adesanya the only knockout defeat of his career to date during their kickboxing days, gave the Nigeria-born New Zealander his first in MMA, remarkably in just his fifth professional fight in the sport.

The referee stops the fight after Alex Pereira knocks down Israel Adesanya during the fifth round. Photo: AFP

There was also a crazy lightweight shoot-out between Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler, third from the top of the bill.

After a thrilling first round of fearless striking, where both men hurt each other badly, Chandler – with his nose badly broken – took a possible 10-8 in the second after an early takedown, forcing Poirier to fight off choke attempts for several minutes.

But Poirier showed all his guile and nous to get his fellow American Chandler’s back in the third, and slap on his own rear-naked choke – this one successful, and possibly setting up a title shot against Islam Makhachev.

“I was surprised,” Poirier (29-7, 1 no contest) said after the fight. “He’s a little bit more durable than I thought. I hurt him at the end of the first round and he was still there, I thought I would put him away.”

Dustin Poirier battles Michael Chandler. Photo: AFP

In a bizarre lightweight opener to the main card, Dan Hooker got a second-round TKO via body kick over Claudio Puelles – who irked the crowd by looking to constantly grab the Kiwi’s leg, instead of engaging on the feet.

Hooker (22-12) hurt the Peruvian (13-3) with a front kick up the middle, and went back to it repeatedly, with Puelles eventually unable to get back to his feet.

Former lightweight champion and retiring legend Frankie Edgar then ended his career on a sad note in his home state, suffering a first round flying knee knockout by Chris Gutierrez (19-3-2) at bantamweight.

Frankie Edgar after getting knocked out at UFC 281. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

It was a sixth loss in his last eight fights for the 41-year-old American Edgar (24-11-1), the last three of them coming via highlight-reel knockouts. Madison Square Garden chanted his name when he eventually got to his feet after several minutes, and he was in tears.

“I’ve got my family here, that’s all that matters,” Edgar said after the fight. “Congrats to Chris.”