We're counting down the hours now until UFC 281 kicks into life, bringing one of the best fight cards of the year exclusively live to BT Sport this Saturday night as the UFC returns for its annual stop at the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Given the history of the venue as one of the most revered in all of combat sports, it's only right that some of the UFC's biggest superstars are in action this weekend, headlined by Israel Adesanya vs Alex Pereira in an unmissable middleweight world championship main event.

Adesanya, the reigning undisputed king of the 185lb division, has a score to settle with his challenger Pereira too having lost on both of the previous two occasions that the pair have fought.

Pereira will be full of confidence too having rendered "Stylebender" brutally unconscious on their last meeting back in 2017 as he looks to make it four wins from four in the UFC and take home the 185lb strap.

And in the second of our two world title fights this weekend, Carla Esparza puts her strawweight belt on the line in her first defence when she takes on the former champion, Zhang Weili.

Esparza edged out Rose Namajunas to snatch the belt at UFC 274 but will be looking for a more emphatic performance against one of the division's most dangerous competitors.

And if it's violence you're looking for, then Dustin Poirier vs Michael Chandler cannot fail to deliver as the two lightweight rivals look to settle their differences on the big stage in a three-round contest that could steal the show at UFC 281.

With all that to look forward to - and that's without even mentioning Molly McCann's MSG debut as she goes for a third straight spinning elbow KO inside a year! - it's set to be one of the most memorable fight cards of 2022.

It all goes down exclusively live on BT Sport 2HD from 1am this Saturday night, so here are five reasons you can't miss UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira.

Can Adesanya beat the bogeyman?

Israel Adesanya is a man who should be used to rematches by now given two of his last three fights in the UFC have been reruns against recent opponents.

However, this weekend the 33-year-old enters into a trilogy rematch of sorts against a familiar foe under a different set of circumstances as he takes on Alex Pereira in defence of the UFC 185lb middleweight crown.

Undefeated in the UFC as a middleweight, Adesanya’s two rematches to date have both come against men he has beaten once already in the form of Marvin Vettori and Robert Whittaker.

“If there’s ever a fight, I have to win, it’s this one”
- Israel Adesanya

But Pereira poses an entirely new problem for “The Last Stylebender” (23-1, 15 KOs) to navigate, burdened by the experience of defeat to the Brazilian banger on two occasions previously.

Pereira, 35, will feel he has the measure of the champion after those pair of wins, which came under the Glory of Heroes kickboxing promotional banner and included a brutal knockout victory the last time the two men shared the ring.

Those victories have seen Pereira, (6-1, 5 KOs) fast-tracked at considerable speed through the UFC with the sole purpose of matching the pair up for their third fight; it will be just Pereira’s fourth trip to the Octagon when he makes his ring walk this Saturday night.

Despite his inexperience, “Poatan” has been impressive since making his debut almost a year ago to the day, picking up two bonus-winning knockouts and three straight wins to earn his shot at the crown.

A hellacious KO win over Sean Strickland last time out put the rest of the 185lb division on notice and confirmed Pereira as a force to be reckoned with among the middleweight elite – but has this opportunity come too soon in his transition from kickboxer to mixed martial artist?

That’s the feeling among some heading into this contest who believe Adesanya’s experience at the highest level of the UFC over such a long period of time will give him the edge against the dangerous challenger.

And the champion is certainly not short on motivation to put on a masterclass either, revealing how he has taken inspiration from one of the biggest fights in boxing history to help focus his mind during an interview posted on his YouTube channel.

“I was watching Claressa Shields and Floyd Mayweather talk on FaceTime about when he fought Pacquiao," he said.

"He said he got up from the seat for every round. He always just thought like, ‘Forget every other fight. If there’s ever a fight I have to win, it’s this one.'

“I feel that. That’s me right now. If there’s ever a fight I have to win, it’s this one. That’s why everything is different this camp. There’s no excuses."

Will Adesanya reap long-overdue revenge on his former tormentor? Or can the Brazilian secure a hat-trick of wins on the biggest stage of them all?

Will China crown a champion again?

Zhang Weili will look to further embellish her status as China’s most successful UFC export by reclaiming the strawweight title against Carla Esparza on Saturday night.

Weili became her country’s first ever UFC champion when she dethroned Jessica Andrade in style back in 2019 but eventually lost the belt in her second defence after a stunning head kick KO from Rose Namajunas at UFC 261.

“Thug Rose” edged Weili out via split decision in the rematch at UFC 268 too, but she would later lose the title against Esparza, coming up short after five rounds that will not live long in the memory at UFC 274 earlier this year.

22-3 (11 KOs)
Zhang Weili's record

In the meantime, Weili went back to work to ensure she returned to the top table in double-quick time, knocking out the former champion Jonna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 275 in June to cement her position as arguably the most dangerous woman without a belt in the entire promotion.

That showing pocketed the 33-year-old a performance bonus and proved to be Jedrzejczyk’s final fight as the Pole was sent off into retirement in brutal fashion.

Weili will be hoping she can replicate the feat against Esparza on Saturday night by securing an explosive victory against another legend of female mixed martial arts – but Esparza has all the tools to make it a tricky night for the Chinese challenger.

Renowned as a talented grappler, Esparza will want to take the contest into her comfort zone on the mat, negating Zhang’s relentless volume striking and technical stand-up game in the process.

The gameplan is hardly a secret – but Weili feels as though she is ready for the challenge wherever the fight ends up, telling the Fruiting Body podcast this week: “It’s my first time fighting a wrestler, I’ve never fought a wrestler before. I’m very excited and I also want to test my wrestling and my controlling skills.”

Can she reclaim her place at the top of the 115lb tree – or will Esparza upset the oddsmakers once again and keep the strawweight title under American command?

No hype needed

If Dustin Poirier vs Michael Chandler does not steal the show this Saturday night, something must have gone wrong because on paper this might be the most exciting match-up you’ll see for the rest of the year in the UFC.

There’s a fair suggestion it deserves to be a main event given the credentials and the calibre of the two lightweight contenders – but with three rounds scheduled at Madison Square Garden this weekend, it promises to be a lively affair from the first bell.

And there’s plenty riding on it too with both men perched inside the top five and seeking to secure a big victory to bolster their chances of returning to title contention in the near future.

Poirier is sat second on the lightweight ladder behind the recently deposed champion Charles Oliveira and has been out of action for 11 months since coming up short against the Brazilian on his second attempt at UFC gold at UFC 269 last December.

Broken in the aftermath of defeat that night, Poirier even hinted that he was considering retirement but thankfully the 33-year-old still feels he has unfinished business in the sport and returns looking to make a statement against one of the biggest names in the division.

Meanwhile, Chandler has title ambitions of his own and despite what appears to be a relatively modest 2-2 record on paper, the 36-year-old has become one of the biggest draws anywhere across the 155lb landscape since coming over to the UFC.

That is in large part thanks to his inimitable and breathless Octagon presence: Chandler has pocketed performance bonuses in three of his four UFC appearances, including a Fight of the Year showing in defeat to Justin Gaethje at UFC 268.

That was the second of successive losses – something that has happened only once previously in Chandler’s entire career – and threatened to leave the Missouri man frozen out of the lightweight title picture for the foreseeable future until he delivered a stunning reminder of his abilities at UFC 274.

Arguably scoring the KO of this calendar year, Chandler destroyed the former interim champion Tony Ferguson with a front kick from hell, rendering “El Cucuy” out cold for the first time ever.

It was a viral moment that arguably boosted Chandler’s profile more than any moment of his career so far and certainly helped land the three-time Bellator champion a showdown against another huge name in Poirier.

The build-up to this one has not lacked for fireworks either as both men needed separating when they came face-to-face in the crowd at UFC 276 earlier this year.

Speaking to Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole this week, Chandler attempted to explain the origins of the rivalry.

“We got the same goals in mind, the same work ethic in mind, the same reasons why we fight, really,” he said.

“And ultimately, Dustin was one of those guys that if you put a Mount Rushmore up of the guys that I respect the most, not just in my division, but in the entire sport, he would go up on my Mount Rushmore.

“I've also had more interactions with him than I have other guys, and very cordial, respectful interactions. But then after some of the things that he said and after some of the things that I said, I think both of us kind of scratched our head and said, ‘You know what? I don't know if I like that guy as much as I thought I was going to.’

“Now, ultimately, here we are about to fight. And I rest assured the fans are going to be in for a treat. I know Dustin Poirier has put his best foot forward. I know I've trained, and I'm going to put my best foot forward. And whoever gets the W, you know, win, lose, or draw, there's going to be a handshake and a hug and a mutual respect after our performance at Madison Square Garden.”

Neither will want to take a backwards step this Saturday night – and we won’t be taking our eyes off the screen for one second!

Frankie’s farewell

The sport waves goodbye to one of the true legends of the game this weekend as the former lightweight champion bows out from the sport on a card deserving of his presence.

Frankie Edgar is finally hanging up the gloves after a storied career spanning more than 15 years on what will be his 30th Octagon appearance.

Now 41 and on a cruel 1-4 run over the course of his last five fights, Edgar has decided the time has come to walk away from the sport in which he became a legend.

“I know I can’t fight forever,” Edgar told MMA Fighting of his decision.

“I could definitely string it on a couple more years probably but I know I’ll never move on to what’s the next chapter in my life. I think now I’m being selfish when I’m still trying to chase this and I’ve got a family and kids that want to have goals of their own.

“They want me around and probably want me to be able to speak good and have my wits about me. I just know it’s probably the best time.”

The New Jersey native competed across three weight divisions during his legendary UFC tenure and quickly became a promotional favourite thanks to his unwavering will to win and propensity to entertain.

No fighter has pocketed more Fight of the Night bonuses in UFC history than Edgar, who shares the record of eight alongside Nate Diaz and Edson Barboza.

There’s a good chance we might well see Edgar go clear and hold the record outright this weekend too with “The Answer” assigned a tough match-up for his farewell bout in Chris Gutierrez.

Gutierrez is undefeated in his last seven trips to the Octagon, beating the likes of Vince Morales, Andre Ewell and Danaa Batgerel last time out.

The 31-year-old will be knocking on the door of the UFC rankings with another win, eyeing up Edgar’s soon-to-be-vacant spot on the bantamweight ladder with what would surely be the biggest victory of his career.

Will Gutierrez spoil the party – or can Edgar rediscover some of the old magic for one last dance?

Meatball takes the Big Apple!

It’s fair to say Molly McCann has taken the world of MMA by storm after piecing together two consecutive spinning elbow finishes on her last two UFC appearances.

The lovable Scouse warrior returns Stateside after those pair of wins on home soil looking to further enhance her burgeoning reputation as a superstar among the women’s flyweight landscape as she takes on Erin Blanchfield on Saturday night.

Now ranked for the first time in her UFC career, McCann is firmly on the road to contention and could take another giant leap up the 125lb ladder with a fourth straight UFC win against Blanchfield who is currently perched in 13th, two places higher than “Meatball” in the rankings.

Victory would also mark her best winning run since coming over to the UFC as the Cage Warriors flyweight world champion back in 2018 and as one of the biggest names in the division already, those once-fanciful thoughts of McCann fighting for UFC gold would become an increasingly real prospect.

However, she cannot get carried away and overlook the woman standing in front of her this weekend as Blanchfield has proven herself well worthy of her place in the flyweight ecosystem.

The New York-based fighter will be competing in front of her own people and looking to extend a six-fight win streak against the most high-profile opponent she has ever shared the Octagon with.

Can Blanchfield pour ice on McCann’s title ambitions? Or will “Meatball” make Madison Square Garden her own?

Watch UFC 281: Adesanya vs Poirier exclusively live on BT Sport 2 HD from 1am on Saturday night. Click here to find out all the ways you can watch along across the BT Sport network.