Two championship fights and a splashy bout in one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s deepest divisions highlight U.F.C. 281 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
Israel Adesanya, the U.F.C.’s middleweight champion, will attempt to defend his belt for the seventh time against Alex Pereira, a rising mixed martial arts contender who defeated Adesanya twice in the earlier stages of their careers in kickboxing fights. Adesanya, who joined the U.F.C. in 2018, holds an undefeated record in the 185-pound middleweight division and has lost only once in mixed martial arts, when he challenged for the 205-pound light heavyweight belt in March 2021. But despite his dominant recent performances, Adesanya has become a polarizing figure among U.F.C. fans for not knocking out an opponent since 2020.
In the co-main event, Carla Esparza, the women’s strawweight champion, will face Zhang Weili, who is also a former champion and lost the belt last April via knockout to Rose Namajunas.
Esparza, the inaugural 115-pound champion in 2014, defeated Namajunas in a split decision in March, but has been booed and criticized this week for that fight’s lack of action. Fans have been more supportive of Zhang, the U.F.C.’s first Chinese-born champion.
Before the title fights, Dustin Poirier, a U.F.C. veteran and former interim champion, will face Michael Chandler in a bout carrying significance atop the men’s lightweight division. Poirier, who joined the U.F.C. in 2011, rose to fame after completing a trilogy of fights against the star Conor McGregor.
Chandler, a former champion in Bellator, another promotional company, joined the U.F.C. in 2021. He quickly became a fan favorite after exciting fights against the former champion Charles Oliveira, Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson, whom Chandler knocked out with a vicious front kick in May.
Both fighters are ranked within the top five of the division, and the winner will likely earn a title shot or a fight against Oliveira, the now-No. 1 contender who lost the belt last month to Islam Makhachev.