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Carla Esparza works out at Gracie University in Torrance, California

Coach Conversation | UFC 281: Esparza vs Zhang

Eliot Marshall And Eric Nicksick Answer The Biggest Questions Around UFC 281's Co-Main Event Between Strawweight Champion Carla Esparza And Zhang Weili

Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the people that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.

For UFC 281, Kyte called upon highly respected head coach Eliot Marshall, formerly of the Elevation Fight Team, and Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick to provide their thoughts on four points heading into the strawweight championship bout between two-time champ Carla Esparza and former titleholder Zhang Weili.

Best Trait of Each Fighter

Carla Esparza reacts after her victory over Rose Namajunas during the UFC 274 event

Carla Esparza reacts after her victory over Rose Namajunas during the UFC 274 event at Footprint Center on May 07, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC

At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else?

Marshall: The best trait of Carla Esparza, physically, is obviously her wrestling, and then she’s just great with keeping it going. She is not — failing at it doesn’t mess with her too badly; she’ll just be like, ‘Okay, I missed that one; let’s go again.’ That can be very hard to do.

Zhang Weili is very well-rounded physically, and I would say she has an unrelenting will to win. I think you can see it in the first Rose fight where she was like, ‘No, I can fight; I’m all right.’ Physically, it’s her well-roundedness, and mentally, she’s really going to try to win.

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Nicksick: The thing that jumps off the page to me with Weili is her power, her striking. I think she’s kind of a wrecking ball — and I mean that skillfully — and her vision in the pocket.

I think the wars she’s been in the last few years, she’s kind of tailor-made for that champion or contender position. With Joanna for a while, it was ‘she’s the champ or she’s fighting for the belt’ and I think that’s (the same with Weili).

For Carla, it’s her wrestling, her ability to chain things together, and time her level changes.

Path to Victory for Each Fighter

Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.

So, how does either woman get it done on Saturday night?

Marshall: I don’t think that Weili will have the same game plan that Rose had where the fight stays on the feet a lot and nothing happened. Weili is going to come to fight, and so her path to victory is to keep it on the feet and to pin Carla’s back to the fence.

If she has Carla walking that line of the Octagon, it’s going to be very difficult for Carla to start to get off with her takedowns and her striking; any of it. Weili has to be the aggressor, and I know she’s been working a lot on her wrestling to be able to defend that.

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Obviously, Carla’s is to get Weili down and ride out a 25-minute — I hate to say it — ridiculously boring decision.

Nicksick: For Carla, if the crowd is booing, she’s winning. She’s got to stay on the same movement that she had with Rose — she can’t stay in front of Weili — and she’s got to do a lot against the cage to make Weili pummel and work, but then get down on the legs to wrestle.

She’s going to have to mind her Ps and Qs and make this a boring, ugly fight if I’m being honest.

On the other side, Weili is going to have to sprawl-and-brawl most of this fight because I know Esparza is not going to engage her in the kind if fight that she wants. Staying focused is going to be very key for Weili in this fight because if she chases after things, that’s what Esparza wants for easy takedowns.

She also has to wrestle three seconds longer this fight, meaning when Carla gets in on a takedown — let’s say you defend or you sprawl or you’re able to get her off your legs, it’s the re-shot you have to worry about, so the moment you get her redirected or defend the takedown, you’re going to have to wrestle three seconds longer than you actually think because Carla is probably trying to chain something together or re-shoot right away.

I think this is a bit of a softball win for Weili if she can do all the right things and not get over-exerted on trying to knock this girl out; just take your time, and you’ll find your shot.

X Factor

Zhang Weili of China celebrates after her knockout victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in a flyweight fight during the UFC 275 event

Zhang Weili of China celebrates after her knockout victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in a flyweight fight during the UFC 275 event at Singapore Indoor Stadium on June 12, 2022 in Singapore. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?

Marshall: Weili’s mindset — if she’s scared of the takedown.

If she’s scared of the takedown, it will look more towards the Rose fight, and if she’s not scared of the takedown, she should get Carla out of there in the first or second round, in my opinion. Even if Carla gets her down, if she’s able to get up a couple times, that’s going to be very frustrating for Carla.

UFC 281 Countdown: Full Episode | Adesanya vs Pereira | Esparza vs Weili | Poirier vs Chandler

Nicksick: I think the biggest thing to me is how will Carla engage in this fight. I think there is a lot of pressure on her because of the backlash from the Rose fight, and I wonder what does that do to her psyche. I wonder how it makes her feel that people are like, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t even be the champ.’

Will that alone — that bulletin board material — take Carla out of her element and fight this fight in a way she shouldn’t? I wonder if that background noise is going to make this a different fight for Carla?

One Coaching Curiosity

Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.

Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.

PHOTO GALLERY: Carla Esparza Works Out In California Ahead Of UFC 281

So what is that one thing in this matchup?

Marshall: Can Weili push Carla backwards? Can she make Carla ride the fence? That’s the key to this fight for me. Even if it takes longer than the first round, if Carla is the one that is on her heels, she’s not going to be getting any takedowns. Carla needs to be the one that can press forward and shoot.

Nicksick: If I’m Weili, everything in my playbook is on — I don’t shy away from the wrestling at all. If you see the opportunity to fit in or take her down. I think she’s confident enough in her top-side wrestling, her transitional wrestling that everything can be in play.

UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 12, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!