UFC 281: Zhang Weili taps out Carla Esparza, reclaims strawweight title

NEW YORK — Zhang Weili’s athleticism was on display from the early moments of her strawweight title fight with Carla Esparza on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden.

Zhang was too quick, too strong and, ultimately, too good for Esparza, who tried to use her wrestling skills but to no avail. Zhang lost her title to Rose Namajunas at UFC 261 when she was knocked out by a head kick. She then dropped a split decision to Namajunas in the Garden last year.

After a win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in June, she earned a title shot and made the most of it. She locked in the second-round submission of Esparza after a brilliant display of high level mixed martial arts.

“Today is my dream come true,” she said in the cage after her victory made her a two-time champion. She’s the third fighter in the division’s history, following Esparza and Namajunas, to have two stints as champion.

Zhang closed as a massive -400 favorite at BetMGM and looked every bit of it once the bell rang. Esparza tried to circle and move and then use her wrestling, and had moderate success.

But Zhang was able to fend off her attacks and was constantly threatening submissions.

“I had so many ways to finish her,” Zhang said.

Esparza would have had to have been at her absolute best technically and she was not that on this night. Zhang was able to take advantage of her mistakes and began another reign as champion.

She only made one successful defense of her title last time before losing it to Namajunas. Undoubtedly, the new goal switches to making a number of defenses this time around.

With her evolving technique and her physical skills, it’s not out of the question she’ll be on top for quite a while.

China's Zhang Weili, left, grapples with Carla Esparza during the second round of a women's strawweight title bout at the UFC 281 mixed martial arts event, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in New York. Zhang stopped Esparza with a rear neck choke in the second round. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)