UFC 281 Co-Main Event Prediction: Carla Esparza Is a Huge Betting Underdog as the Defending Champion

profile image of David Manyun
carla-esparza-rose-namajunas-womens-strawweight-championship-bout-aspect-ratio-16-9
Carla Esparza celebrates after her victory over Rose Namajunas in their women's strawweight championship bout. Christian Petersen/Getty Images/AFP.

The UFC is back in New York for one of the most highly anticipated pay-per-view events of 2022. The UFC odds are available, and we want to make some serious dollars this weekend.

In a rare instance, a UFC titleholder will enter Saturday’s fight card as a massive betting underdog. That champion is none other than Carla Esparza.

But it isn’t difficult to understand why when she faces the intimidating force of Weili Zhang. Zhang returns following a vicious knockout success over Joana Jedrzejczyk.

Read on for our complete betting guide taking a first look at this weekend’s co-main event clash between Esparza and Zhang, including the updated odds and our free expert UFC picks, predictions, and analysis.


Carla Esparza vs. Weili Zhang

UFC 281 Strawweight Co-Main Event Bout

Saturday, November 12, 2022 – 11:00 PM EST at Madison Square Garden

Carla Esparza

  • Pro MMA Record: (19-6-0) (3 KOs, 6 submissions, 13 decisions)
  • Age: 35
  • Height: 5'1"
  • Reach: 63.0"
  • Affiliated Gym: Team Oyama
  • Origin Fighting Style: Wrestling

The newly created women’s strawweight title was decided during The Ultimate Fighter 20 tournament in 2014. Carla Esparza exceeded expectations in defeating Rose Namajunas and becoming the first-ever title holder in this weight class.

However, the title reign was cut short during her first defense against the striking prowess of Joanna Jedrzejczyk. But after a long and grueling seven-year journey back to the top, Esparza repeated her 2014 success when stripping Rose of the championship earlier this year.

Now, a two-time title holder, behind a six-fight win streak, Esparza will attempt to defend the championship and continue proving her doubters wrong.

Tough Title Defense

Unfortunately for Esparza, her first title defense is against one of the most formidable women’s top-ranked strawweight competitors, Weili Zhang.

A sturdy grappling defense has been the bane of Esparza’s career, as she heavily relies on her wrestling background to assist her success. And this doesn’t bode well now that she’s facing a solid all-rounder like Zhang.

Carla Esparza Best Available Odds: (+300) at Bovada (visit our Bovada Review)


Weili Zhang

  • Pro MMA Record: (22-3-0) (11 KOs, 7 submissions, 4 decisions)
  • Age: 33
  • Height: 5'4"
  • Reach: 63.0"
  • Affiliated Gym: Black Tiger Fight Club
  • Origin Fighting Style: Sanda/Shuai Jiao

Weili Zhang’s eight-year professional MMA tenure without tasting defeat placed Chinese women’s MMA on the map.

She entered the UFC roster, dominated the opposition, and stripped Jedrzejczyk of the strawweight title. Then she met her match.

Rose Namajunas has been the kryptonite of Zhang’s superstar potential. Back-to-back losses to Rose undoubtedly dropped the Chinese fighter’s stock, but despite these losses, there’s no denying how talented she truly is.

Complete Dominance Beyond Rose Namajunas

Nobody expected a high kick knockout from Namajunas to end Zhang’s impressive streak at UFC 261. Even the two ladies' rematch presented Zhang as a betting favorite. Yes, she’s that damn good.

Although Rose has been the kryptonite of Zhang’s UFC success, Esparza has equally been the kryptonite of Rose’s UFC success. Does MMA math work this way? Certainly not.

Styles make fights, and with a background in Shaolin Kung Fu, Sanda, Shuai Jiao, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Zhang boasts the skillset to cause Esparza some severe problems inside the octagon.

Weili Zhang Best Available Odds: (-336) at BetOnline (visit our BetOnline Review)


Esparza vs. Zhang: Breakdown and Analysis

Esparza Fight Style and How Can Esparza Beat Zhang?

Esparza can provide the basic striking fundamentals a wrestler needs to engage their apparent need to grapple. We shouldn’t expect the champions' game plan to differ at UFC 281. Esparza will want and need to wrestle.

The power of Zhang in grappling exchanges and striking battles could present an overly cautious version of Esparza. But the champ’s confidence will be imperative because she’s outmatched on the feet, in power, and overall MMA ability compared to the challenger.

Zhang’s Fight Style and How Can Zhang Beat Esparza?

Zhang’s grappling background is a massive plus in this bout, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she took Esparza down with her takedown to prove a point. Watching Zhang deliver countless high-class striking performances makes it simple to forget her ground game, but it's real and very notable.

Can Zhang be taken down? Of course! She can often find herself throwing jabs and hooks like a crazy woman, giving Esparza the opportunity to shoot. But it’s Zhang's scrambling ability that will shine through, and her overall strength, that cannot be matched by Esparza, will make it simple to get back up.


Esparza vs. Zhang: Betting Picks and Odds

The available odds at the top-rated sportsbooks heavily favor the challenger, and this is a rare occurrence in championship bouts. This is a testament to how talented Zhang is, and unless she’s faced against Rose, I can’t envision anybody in this division overcoming her complete set of skills.

Across a twenty-five-minute bout, I envision Esparza feeling the power of Zhang and panicking to the point where she’s forced to spam takedowns. This is where Zhang will shine and stop the fight with a barrage of strikes, causing Esparza to curl up and take punishment until the referee steps in.

Instead of backing Zhang to win by KO/TKO for a miserable price of +135, taking this fight to end inside the distance at -160 makes much more sense from a betting perspective.

UFC Pick: Fight Goes the Distance/No (-160) [1.60u to win 1u] at BetOnline

BetOnline logo
Fight Goes the Distance/No (-160)
Visit Site

UFC 281 Main Card and Odds

UFC 281 Preliminary Card and Odds

*The line and/or odds on picks in this article might have moved since the content was commissioned. For updated line movements, visit BMR’s free betting odds product.