Former champion Zhang Weili is favored to reclaim the UFC Women’s Strawweight Championship this weekend at the UFC 281 event in New York City.
Zhang will face current two-time champion Carla Esparza in the co-main event of the night, following Esparza’s split decision win against Rose Namajunas in May. Zhang returns after her spinning backfist knockout of Joanna Jedrzejczyk in June.
The strawweight title is just one of two belts on the line this Saturday at UFC 281 as Israel Adesanya prepares to defend the UFC Middleweight Championship against Alex Pereira in the main event.
Read on for the latest Carla Esparza vs. Zhang Weili betting odds, fight predictions and staff picks.
Carla Esparza has tailored her championship style around her roots as a two-time All-American Collegiate wrestler. She has a somewhat unusually passive style of footwork for her wrestling game, often skirting the outside of the cage and forcing others to chase her so that she can look for reactive shots and level change from far away to avoid engaging inside the pocket. She has difficulty in drawn-out exchanges both due to her short reach and a lack of comfortability slipping and rolling without moving. This is negated by striking in bursts with large lunges forward similar to her takedown style.
She finishes her takedowns by securing grips behind the knee or knees and turning the corner and is comfortable if she ends up in the guard. From here, she enacts instant pressure and stacks her opponent’s hips, which is helped by her compact stature. This both keeps her safe from most submissions and opens the guard, in the same way, the “can-opener” works and allows her to pass and land devastating elbows with her weight coming down. The con to this method is she can also move into opponents’ elbows from the bottom if they can frame off and time her correctly, as she is constantly pushing down with her weight. Passing the guard, she has a variety of positions she has great success with, a strong crucifix, side control, and scarf hold, and she transitions very quickly and efficiently between them.
There’s no debate that Zhang’s key to victory is stopping the takedown. She is by far the more polished striker with her Sanda skills, as well as the more powerful one. She often starts her fight with a feeling out period, utilizing low-risk moves like her inside low kick, feints, and jabs, however, low kicks may be deterred by the threat of Esparza’s takedowns. However, watch for Zhang to still set up head and body kicks with her hands; she has an aggressive style that will likely push Esparza back. However, instead of chasing Esparza, Zhang needs to cut off the octagon to force Esparza’s back to the cage, so she can’t draw Zhang onto her level changes. If the two tie up it’s Zhang’s viscous elbows and knees against Esparza’s wrestling, but because Esparza tends to do her best work from attacking the hips and Zhang does her best grappling from the upper body, I give Zhang the edge in the clinch.
Overall I do think that Zhang can control the fight on the feet, back Esparza into a corner, and land the far more damaging shots. On the mat, she is in danger, but if she can use the cage effectively and stay away from ending up flat with her shoulders pinned, she does have a physicality that Carla rarely has to face.
Pick: Zhang Weili to win (bet now at MyBookie)
Second-time champion Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza will look to earn her first title defense on Saturday night after winning the belt for a second time following a controversial and boring championship fight against Rose Namajunas in May. Esparza represents one of the few remaining specialists in the UFC. She is a high-level wrestler with heavy top control, dangerous ground and pound, and a solid submission game. But that’s about it. Esparza is a lackluster striker, an average defensive grappler, and limited in her ability to finish fights. However, she is the champion, and that speaks to how dominant her wrestling can be.
Most fights begin with Esparza taking the center of the octagon with a wide base and active hands. Her active hands are not meant to actually land, rather, they are meant to occupy the eyes of her opponent so she can create an opening to shoot a takedown. Esparza averages 3.25 takedowns per 15 minutes but only lands them at a 35% clip. Her wrestling is at a high enough level that her takedown attempts should be more successful, but because of her lack of striking, opponents have been able to ignore the feints on the feet and focus on dropping their hips when “Cookie Monster” inevitably shoots. While Esparza doesn’t always secure the takedown, she does two things very well that help her be able to shoot over and over until she can land the attempt. First, Esparza is willing to let the attempt go if her opponent drops their hips and prevents Esparza from an advantageous position. Esparza is intelligent and experienced enough to realize when she isn’t in position to land the takedown and, rather than futilely, try to drive through bad positioning, she’ll release and reshoot later. Second, Esparza does an excellent job protecting her neck and arms while shooting a takedown so opponents can’t defensively submit her. Again, her intelligence and experience factor into her success. Esparza’s fights tend to come down to a simple question, can she get the takedown in at least 3 of the 5 rounds? Because her grappling tends to be more position over finish, she is unlikely to end the fight early. But, her top game is active enough and fundamentally sound that if she lands her attempt, the round tends to end with her on top. So, Esparza’s game plan is to win at least three rounds with a takedown and top position.
Weili “Magnum” Zhang is a completely well-rounded and calculated killer in the cage. She has volume striking, legitimate power, and precise accuracy on the feet. She is a strong and successful wrestler, landing 34% of her 2.09 takedown attempts per 15 minutes. Zhang also has a slick jiu-jitsu game and is able to secure submissions, especially from top position. Beyond her skillset, Zhang has great cardio, a willingness to engage in and withstand firefights, and a championship mentality. On paper, and often in the octagon, Zhang is the whole package. Her only two professional losses came at the hands of ex-champion Rose Namajunas. The first was a stunning head-kick knockout, and the second was a controversial split decision. In those two losses, Zhang appeared to struggle against a patient but explosive counter striker who had the technique and physique to land from a range that Zhang could not. Besides that specific circumstance, Zhang has proven she can find success in all other types of fights and against all other types of fighters.
In striking matches, even if she is the shorter fighter, Zhang can match technique v technique against anyone in the division. Her hand speed is elite, and her ability to safely bob in and out of range is impressive. Once in her range, Zhang hits like an anvil and can deal real damage with a variety of Muay Thai strikes. Zhang’s ability to land with speed, power, technique, and variety over the entire 15 minutes separates her from nearly everyone else in the weight class. In fights against grapplers, Zhang has shown an ability to offensively wrestle with well-timed shots that often fluidly follow her striking. Once on the mat, much like her striking, Zhang remains technical but looks to deal damage. Most important in this matchup is Zhang’s takedown defense. She is impressively strong, a recent video showed her lifting Francis Ngannou, heavyweight champion and mammoth of a human, over her shoulder. Besides her natural strength, Zhang is twitchy and able to scramble well even if her opponent lands a takedown.
I’m going with Zhang here. Despite being the perpetual underdog who seems to overcome wide odds and cash at plus money often, I don’t like Esparza’s chances here. She’ll be noticeably slow compared to Zhang, have no match on the feet, be in danger each time she tries to setup a takedown, and could even be takedown herself. Esparza might be able to land a takedown or two early, maybe even win a round or two, but over the course of 25 minutes, I like Zhang to hurt Esparza and even put her away.
Pick: Zhang to win inside the distance (bet now at MyBookie)
Carla Esparza is one of the most underappreciated champions currently in the UFC. Her dominance in the wrestling department over elite challengers earned her a shot at the belt verse one of the most talented strikers in the division, Rose Namajunas. While earning the shot, Carla did little to nothing in that fight, which perhaps justifies the notion, by many fans, that she does not “deserve” the belt. But, I will contend that Esparza did enough to win the belt, and if one can fight the easiest path to victory, then they, having good fight intelligence, deserves the win.
While the degree of backing by fans is suspect, Esparza will not care whatsoever as she continually has defied the odds of what many believe her skills to be. She does so through hard work and a relentless pursuit of what she does extremely well in the octagon, wrestling. This wrestling is perhaps unmatched in the division, and what Esparaza is able to do on the mat, once fully controlled, is quite impressive as she displayed elite ground and pound against Yan Xionan, who herself, just looked incredible just one fight after getting demolished by “The Cookie Monster” – Carla Esparza. Having the ability to make elite challengers look lost, particularly on the mat, is what makes Esparaza incredibly dangerous, but prior to shooting in on a shot, Carla looks to be a slow-moving, non-threatening striker. Because of this, the importance of getting a takedown is paramount in this fight. If she can, she has the elite ground skills to inflict significant damage, if she cannot, the difficulty in outstriking her new challenger will likely loom large.
Where Esparza is a doubted champion by many, Weili Zhang, a former champion, is widely believed to be the most dangerous strawweight and one that is destined to get her belt back. From a skill standpoint, it is hard to argue that Zhang is deficient nearly anywhere the fight goes. While she herself would say she prefers to keep the fight standing, where she can implement her lightning-quick movement and strikes with underlying power, she can also wrestle quite well. The wrestling success she has is seen far greater when she offensively shoots a shot contrary to defending, creating a scramble, and ending in the dominating position. While this is often the case for many solid, but perhaps non-elite wrestlers, Zhang will need to showcase the ability to defend shots taken in this fight. Luckily though, Zhang not only has the tools in her fight belt to do so but also has the movement to keep the slow-moving Esparza at bay coupled with having the ability to solely focus on defending a future shot, as she can fight freely on the feet from a mental battle knowing she is just simply head and shoulders the better striker of the two. This ability to be continually aware of defending a takedown will greatly aid in her ability to do so, and if done, she, keeping the fight standing, will likely find a finish before the 25-minute duration is complete.
On paper, this fight is grappler vs. striker, both of which have skills in the other’s fight department. The major difference is that while Esparza fights consistently fight over fight, with perhaps limited ability, Weili is somewhat inconsistent but has skills to separate herself from the division if maximized. Often, I would elect to choose the more consistent fighter, but, Weili is simply too talented to ignore. Couple this with the fact that she put forth her most seasoned performance in her last time around, and it leaves me believing she has turned the corner and is ready to show that she is head and shoulders the best strawweight in the UFC. And, if she maximizes her ability, I fully expect her to find the finish in this matchup.
Pick: Zhang to win inside the distance (bet now at MyBookie)