Fire up the mystic ball! With only hours now until UFC 281 gets underway this Saturday night, exclusively live across the BT Sport network, we've been busy making our picks for how the big fights might go down across the card.

It's shaping up to be a truly sensational night of action in the Octagon as Israel Adesanya tops the bill in his redemption showdown against former kickboxing tormentor Alex Pereira.

The Brazilian challenger has twice defeated Adesanya - the last time in skull-shattering fashion when he found a home for his trademark left hook back in 2017 that rendered "Stylebender" out cold in brutal style.

Can he repeat the feat on the biggest stage of all - or will Izzy show his class to claw one back in the trilogy?

There's another world title fight coming your way too as newly-crowned strawweight queen Carla Esparza defends her belt for the first time when she takes on the former champion Zhang Weili.

Plus we might as well give both these men their bonus cheques right now as Dustin Poirier takes on Michael Chandler in a scintillating lightweight scrap between two of the most entertaining men in the promotion.

And that's before we've even got to Molly McCann's return to action on the big stage as she makes her Octagon walk for the first time as a ranked UFC athlete on Saturday night.

"Meatball" takes on the hometown fighter Erin Blanchfield with ambitions of making it three spinning elbow knockouts in a year - she couldn't do it, could she?

So get yourself in the mood for UFC 281 by reading all our thoughts on all the main card fights scheduled this weekend to give our picks on who is going to win at UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira. 

Israel Adesanya vs Alex Pereira

Israel Adesanya will make his sixth defence of the undisputed middleweight championship on Saturday night when he takes on Alex Pereira in a cracking main event at UFC 281.

The pair know each other very well having tangoed on two previous occasions with Pereira coming up trumps both times, including a devastating knockout on their last meeting at Glory of Heroes 7 back in 2017.

Since then, Adesanya has become one of the most dominant champions in UFC history while Pereira remains a relatively unknown quantity inside the Octagon.

The Brazilian challenger has been fast-tracked to the very top for this exact match-up, entering only his eighth pro MMA fight and just his fourth in the UFC.

But “Poatan” is a combat sports veteran and has looked like he belongs among the very best strikers in the promotion – not just the 185lb division – since making his debut a little over a year ago.

His jaw-spinning knockout of Sean Strickland last time out was exactly what the UFC had in mind to ensure they could send the 35-year-old off into a trilogy showdown against Adesanya at UFC 281, and so all eyes now turn to the champion to see how he handles the pressure.

The ice-cool New Zealander has so far appeared completely unflustered by the presence of his former tormentor and promised to make the main event resemble a “horror movie” for Pereira on his way to another successful title defence.

But there are plenty of reasons to believe this could be anything but straight forward for “The Last Stylebender” at Madison Square Garden.

Standing eye-to-eye with Adesanya at 6ft 4ins and boasting an equally long reach, Pereira’s physical presence alone threatens to negate some of Adesanya’s natural advantages over most of the other middleweights in the UFC.

And Pereira has shown he’s not here to mess around either; blessed with a hellacious left hook and having so far landed at 6.29 significant strikes landed per minute (SSLpM) and 60% striking accuracy compared to Adesanya’s 3.93 SSLpM and 49% accuracy.

So what will the champion do when faced with one of the most intriguing tests of his tenure so far?

Could he look to expose Pereira’s grappling inexperience, borrowing the blueprint from his friend Francis Ngannou’s win over Ciryl Gane in January?

Or will he look to exorcise the demons of his previous two defeats by beating Pereira with a display of striking brilliance?

I think pride and pressure will extract brilliance from the 33-year-old this Saturday night; despite his long and dominant reign atop the division we have not seen an emphatic performance from Adesanya since his two-round demolition of Paulo Costa at UFC 253.

That changes this weekend.

Verdict: Adesanya via TKO R3

Carla Esparza vs Zhang Weili

The women’s strawweight title is up for grabs in this one as the incumbent queen Carla Esparza makes the first defence of her second reign against the former champion, Zhang Weili.

At 35 and as one of the most tenured fighters in women’s MMA, Esparza’s game plan is hardly a secret to her opponents.

The “Cooke Monster” looks to apply heavy pressure and hunt for takedowns before doing her best work with ground-and-pound or submissions from top position.

A six-fight win streak says that tactic has served her well on her late-career renaissance so far – but with three of those wins coming by split decision, the California resident has been sailing close to the edge of defeat for a little while.

Weili will be well prepared for what to expect on Saturday and with a decent, if unspectacular, 60% takedown defence, she might feel she has enough in the locker to stuff Esparza’s best attacks – particularly given Esparza’s unimpressive 35% takedown accuracy.

If that is the case and the Chinese challenger can keep the contest on the feet, there looks to be a clear path to victory for the 33-year-old having demonstrated time and again her striking prowess over the years.

A performance of the night win during her rematch against Joanna Jedrzejczyk back in June only bolstered her credentials in that department, securing an 11th KO in 22 career victories.

I expect Weili to win this one comfortably, most likely by knockout late on against a tiring Esparza.

Verdict: Weili via TKO R4

Dustin Poirier vs Michael Chandler

Let’s be honest, anything could happen here, couldn’t it?

Two men renowned for their propensity to cause chaos lock horns in the lightweight division as former interim champion Dustin Poirier takes on Michael Chandler in a fight being billed “the people’s main event”.

Louisiana man Poirier looked a broken man after coming up short on his second attempt at the undisputed lightweight crown last time out at UFC 269.

On that night, Charles Oliveira sank in a sickeningly familiar rear-naked chokehold in the third round, just like Khabib Nurmagomedov had done at UFC 242 two years earlier, to end Poirier’s dreams of the belt emphatically.

The good news for Poirier is that he’s far less likely to fall victim to that same manoeuvre a third time against Chandler this weekend.

That’s not to say Chandler is not capable; the former Division I college wrestling standout has seven career submissions and uses his athleticism expertly during scrambles on the canvas.

However, the 36-year-old former Bellator champion much prefers to mix it on the feet – and sometimes to his own detriment, as his Fight of the Year showdown against Justin Gaethje last November proved.

I envisage this fight mirroring that war with Gaethje in many ways: both men have great chins, superb cardio and a true warrior spirit, which makes it tricky to separate the two.

In the end though, I think Poirier is a superior striker who has fought higher level opponents over a longer period of time and, when coupled with Chandler’s tendency to absorb damage, the “Diamond” should get the job done.

Verdict: Poirier via UD

Frankie Edgar vs Chris Gutierrez

We’ll be saying farewell to Frankie Edgar this weekend as the New Jersey legend bows out with one final Octagon appearance when he takes on a dangerous opponent in Chris Gutierrez.

Edgar, the former lightweight champion and future UFC Hall of Famer, is no spring chicken anymore at the ripe age of 41 and having lost four of his last five, has wisely decided to hang up the gloves at long last.

But not before one last Octagon walk – and fighting so close to home at an arena as iconic as MSG, who can blame him?

Unfortunately, the fight game is no place for sentimentality though and “The Answer” could be in for another tricky night this Saturday.

He faces an in-form man in Gutierrez, who carries a seven-fight undefeated streak and 10 years’ youth advantage into the Octagon to face Edgar.

A win for “El Guapo” might see him finally enter the 135lb ladder too and he’ll be eyeing the soon-to-be vacant spot left by the departing 12th-ranked Edgar if he can keep his unbeaten run intact.

Could Edgar turn back the clock and produce one last performance to be proud of? If anyone can, it is him.

The former Division I college wrestler never knows when he is beaten and has dragged many a man into deep waters where he knows only he can survive.

No fighter has more Fight of the Night bonus wins than Edgar, who also holds the record for the greatest total fight time in UFC history.

He’ll be hoping for one last hurrah to go out with a bang in some style on Saturday – but Father Time looks to have gotten a good grip on Edgar already.

For that reason, I see Gutierrez getting the job done – and possibly even by knockout – to silence what promises to be a partisan crowd inside MSG.

Verdict: Gutierrez via KO R3

Dan Hooker vs Claudio Puelles

Your favourite fighter’s favourite fighter returns to the lightweight division this weekend as Dan Hooker takes on Claudio Puelles in desperate need of a win to turn his career around.

The popular New Zealander has been on a miserable run of late, dropping 1-4 in his last five – albeit with the caveat that he has faced some of the most fearsome killers in the UFC.

Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler, Islam Makhachev and Arnold Allen are names not to be sniffed at – and Hooker will feel he has the talent to show he deserves to remain in that company.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that the City Kickboxing man needs to win soon, regardless of the level of competition.

Unfortunately, as Frankie Edgar may well find out on Saturday, there are no layups in the UFC – and certainly not in the form of Claudio Puelles.

The Peruvian star, who trains at Sanford MMA in esteemed company alongside the likes of Vicente Luque, Gilbert Burns and Derek Brunson, is one of the rising stars of the 155lb landscape having won five straight since defeat on his promotional debut.

A mean grappler with a ferocious appetite for leg locks, three of his five UFC wins have come by way of kneebar, including a bonus-winning victory against Clay Guida last time out.

Still only 26, “El Nino” has plenty of learning and development left ahead of him – but a win over Hooker would put him right in the mix for a spot in the rankings come Sunday morning.

I have a feeling this will be Hooker’s night. He’ll take confidence from the City Kickboxing allies around him on this card and bounce back from successive losses in good style.

If his takedown defence can hold up against the young contender, Hooker’s striking should be clean enough to put Puelles out inside the distance.

Verdict: Hooker via TKO R2

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