Chris Gutierrez will walk to and compete in the octagon at Madison Square Garden as one of biggest betting favorites and maybe the smallest fan favorite. That has little to do with him and everything to do with his opponent, Frankie Edgar.
Edgar, a former lightweight champion and as respected a fighter the UFC has ever had, will face the bantamweight Gutierrez in his retirement fight.
“I respect Frankie for what he has done,” Gutierrez said Wednesday at UFC 281 media day in Manhattan. “He's a pioneer. He has paved the way for a lot of us coming up.”
Gutierrez (18-3-2) fights out of Jersey City, so he figures to have a nice amount of local fans in the crowd. But enough to drown out the rest of the sold-out MSG crowd all presumably cheering and trying to will Edgar (from Toms River, New Jersey) to one more legendary fight and win?
“My job is to go in there and win. It’s not going to be bittersweet. He’s had his run,” Gutierrez said. “I'm sure he's going to have a lot of love here. But at the end of the day, I'm not fighting the crowd, I’m fighting him. So whether I get booed or not, I don’t give a [expletive].”
Edgar figured on having “a bunch” of people there, but what stood out more to him is the group that’s run with him since he was fighting in underground fights in the city before MMA was even legal in New York. He said he sold 16 tickets to that fight and earned $10 per person.
“A lot of people that were in the crowd for that Bronx fight will also be in the crowd here,” Edgar said. “That’s what means more.”
Michael Chandler’s lightweight bout against Dustin Poirier marks the third fight at MSG for Chandler. He’s 1-1 in those fights, but he has a more unique two-fight streak he’d like to see come to an end.
“I have taken an ambulance ride from Madison Square Garden twice,” Chandler said. “The last one was just precautionary obviously because it was such a war. The first one was an injury. But that's the fight game.
“I plan on going out there and actually being able to not spend five hours in the ER here in New York City on fight night. I want to get in, get out, kiss my wife, collect my paycheck and then go celebrate with some friends and family.”
From the Little Apple to the Big Apple
Huntington’s Matt Frevola has fought at Madison Square Garden before. And Saturday’s hometown fight matters just as much to him now as it did four years ago at UFC 230.
“Just walking around, going to my bagel spot, Bagels on Main, and they go, ‘When’s your next fight?’ and then I go ‘I’m fighting at the Garden.’ And then their eyes light up,” Frevola said. “It's a big deal for a kid from Long Island to be fighting at Madison Square Garden.”
The honest lies of Dan Hooker
Every fighter feels great before a fight. Or so they say. It’s usually not until after the fight when they reveal any significant injuries suffered in the camp that they fought through during the bout.
Dan Hooker, the New Zealand lightweight who faces Claudio Puelles in the pay-per-view open, make it clear how he feels now that he moved up a weight class and has 10 less pounds to cut before weigh-ins.
“This close to a fight, I could be walking out in the street and can hit by a car and break my arm, I'm still going to tell you that I feel incredible,” Hooker said. “But I actually do feel incredible this time.”
A New York moment for ‘Meatball’
This is the sixth UFC card at Madison Square Garden since New York legalized MMA in 2016. Fighters still are asked about the magnitude of fighting at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” located in the biggest media market in the world. For some, it’s just another fight. For others, it’s a chance to compete in front of the home crowd. For “Meatball” Molly McCann, a flyweight from Liverpool, England, it means a bit more.
“I think every single one of you know exactly how hard I've worked for this moment, for this event. I feel like a kid on Christmas,” McCann said. “It's like your last Christmas you believe in Father Christmas. When you wake up on Christmas Day and get to open your presents. I'm just that excited to get in there and experience the venue, the arena, the fans, the Irish, the English, even the Americans. I'm here for it at all.”
McCann (13-4), coming off a pair of knockouts via spinning back elbow, faces Erin Blanchfield (9-1) in a prelim bout. Might the New York moment be overwhelming come fight night for her?
“I don't feel any pressure of where we are,” McCann said. “It will always be the pressure of the fight. The same as every fight. You get the little butterflies, you get the moments of doubt.”
Poirier’s seven streaks of one
With a fight resume 13 years and 36 fights deep and littered with current and former champions, perhaps there’s one thing that stands out the most for Dustin Poirier: He has never lost back-to-back fights.
That’s a testament to his talent, his drive and mental strength. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by Poirier, either.
“It's something that's in the back of my head,” Poirier said. “I'd love to keep that trend going obviously and bounce back and show that I can overcome and improve. I think even after wins, I've come in and shown new wrinkles in the game and improvements. But this is just another one of those moments where I can show growth and show my dedication to the sport by putting on a good performance.”
What might Carla Esparza, making the first title defense of her second reign as women’s strawweight champion, present that Zhang Weili, a former champion, might be concerned about in their co-main event? Her grappling? Her striking? Her setting of traps?
“I don’t fear anything from Carla Esparza,” Zhang said.
Esparza didn’t appear offended by the former champion’s characterization of the current champion.
“I think probably a lot of people have felt that about my game,” Esparza said. “But it doesn’t really matter what she thinks or what she says. I’m going in there with my best game and this is probably one of the best camps I’ve had. So I’m just ready to go in there as the best me and prove the world wrong.”
Return of ‘The Devastator’
Dominick Reyes hasn’t fought since May 1, 2021, the longest layoff of his eight-year career. Reyes, a former defensive back on Stony Brook University’s football team, hasn’t won a fight since Oct. 18, 2019, a run of three bouts against three of the last four light heavyweight champions.
“I’m Dom 2.0,” Reyes said. “My defense is heavily upgraded. My offense is even better than it’s before.”
The seventh-ranked Reyes left his home in California to train with former light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira’s camp in Connecticut for this fight against No. 12 Ryan Spann. Also in that camp training with Reyes was Alex Pereira, who fights Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title on Saturday.
Reyes (12-3) credited Teixeira for helping him reset his game and his mindset.
“He helped me a lot with living in the now, just living right now and appreciating everything you have,” Reyes said. “Nothing's guaranteed. So no matter what, 15 minutes or less, that's my show.”