Two championships will be on the line at UFC 274, which promises to be a non-stop thrill fest at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Headlining a star-studded main card is a war for the lightweight gold as champion Charles Oliveira collides with the most feared striker in the division in Justin Gaethje.
The co-main event is a rematch over seven years in the making with Rose Namajunas putting her strawweight title on the line against old rival Carla Esparza.
There are two other epic lightweight fights on the agenda, decorated top-10 contenders Michael Chandler and Tony Ferguson facing off and a clash of legends in Donald Cerrone and Joe Lauzon, along with another big rematch between former light heavyweight champion Mauricio Rua and Ovince St. Preux.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Charles Oliveira (1.57) v Justin Gaethje (2.40) (Lightweight Championship)
The main event is a much-anticipated showdown that guarantees fireworks. It’s a fascinating and sure to be thrilling battle scheduled for five rounds but will almost certainly finish inside the distance.
It’s a collision of fire and ice, oil and water. Gaethje (24-3) is a volcanic vessel of violence, a destroyer with dynamite in his hands known as “The Highlight” because of his flair for producing jaw-dropping finishes.
He relishes all-out war and as the hardest-hitting 155-pounder on the planet, who’s willing to die to be the last man standing, he’s racked up 19 knockouts and won countless performance and fight of the night bonuses.
His last fight was no exception, an instant classic 15-minute slugfest that saw him overcome Chandler last November. He’s won five of his last six Octagon outings dating back to 2018, including winning the interim title with a brutal TKO of Ferguson.
His lone loss in this span came against Khabib Nurmagomedov, who retired undefeated after retaining his title by becoming the first man to submit Gaethje in 2020. Oliveira (32-8-1NC) will seek to become the second.
The champion’s a stone-cold assassin. Everything he does is calculated and precise. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is a submission artist at his core but his extraordinary evolution sees him sit at the summit as the most complete lightweight in the world.
“Do Bronx” has blazed a trail of destruction to the top, stringing together a 10-fight win streak over four years, with nine of those victories coming by stoppage. At the peak of his powers, the 32-year-old’s the UFC’s all-time leader in submissions (15) and finishes (18).
His crowning moment came last May when he survived an early knockdown and stopped Chandler with strikes in the second round and he successfully defended the title with a third-round submission win over Dustin Poirier in December. He was the underdog on both occasions.
The Brazilian’s finally earned the bookies’ respect and it’s understandable why he’s the favourite for his second title defence; he has more ways to win (TKO, submission or decision) and a four-inch reach advantage, whereas Gaethje probably needs a knockout.
Gaethje has questioned Oliveira’s heart, which had been a criticism that had long followed him, but he proved his warrior will in the above-mentioned title fights. Staying calm in the storm Gaethje promises to bring will be key, as will straight, technical striking and well-timed entries.
He’s the excellence of execution, but he’s never faced a devastating power puncher like Gaethje. The champion does get hit – he got tagged by both Chandler and Poirier and has been knocked out four times – and he won’t be able to scramble his way out of danger if he gets hit by a Gaethje bomb.
Add Gaethje’s rock-solid foundation as a Division I All-American wrestler, which should enable him to stuff Oliveira’s takedowns, and he’s a real value underdog.
Rose Namajunas (1.46) v Carla Esparza (2.70) (Strawweight Championship)
The co-main event marks a full-circle moment for the combatants and the strawweight division itself. The women’s 115-pound division was launched with a title tournament under The Ultimate Fighter spotlight in 2014.
Namajunas and Esparza advanced to the final, where the experience and dominant wrestling of Esparza saw her sink in a rear-naked choke in the third round to become the inaugural strawweight queen.
Over seven years on, the pair are vastly different fighters as they countdown the days until they finally square off for the second time. Namajunas (12-4), who was a fresh-faced 22-year-old submission specialist in the maiden meeting, is now a complete, confident and cerebral fighter.
“Thug” has fulfilled her destiny twice over as the only two-time women’s champion in UFC history. The evolution of her striking is nothing short of amazing and saw her capture both of her championships in spectacular fashion.
Last year, she ended Zhang Weili’s historic reign and 21-fight win streak with a lightning-quick head kick and went on to win the rematch by split decision.
After being crowned the first-ever strawweight queen of the UFC, Esparza (19-6) was brutally stopped by Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her next fight. Her long road back to the title has seen her pick up nine wins and suffer two losses.
Extending her current win streak to five last May by smashing Xiaonan Yan with brutal ground and pound, her first stoppage win since submitting Namajunas, was the statement she needed to earn another crack at the belt.
Considering how she controlled the first fight, and the success Weili had in the wrestling department against Namajunas in their rematch, it’s no secret Esparza will look to shoot early and often.
Namajunas and her mentors are masters of rematches. The genius of Trevor Whittman, Pat Barry’s intimate understanding of and ability to get the best out of his fiancé and, most importantly, Namajunas’ ability to execute her game plan to a tee have seen her win every high-profile sequel in her career.
In 2018, she retained her crown in a five-round striking masterclass against Jedrzejczyk, whom she’d dethroned via first-round knockout, and she put on a similar clinic in 2020 to avenge her loss to Jessica Andrade ahead of her back-to-back wins over Weili.
She might still give up a takedown or two but her footwork is so much better and fight IQ is so much higher than in the first encounter with Esparza that she should be able to maximise her two-inch reach advantage, stick and move for the most part and outpoint the challenger.
Michael Chandler (1.25) v Tony Ferguson (3.85) (Lightweight)
Don’t let the odds fool you – this has the potential to be an all-time classic between two of the greatest lightweights of their generation. Both are fierce, fan-favourite finishers looking to get back on track and make a statement.
Seventh-ranked Ferguson (26-7) has all the skills in the book, makes the most of his lanky frame and is a fantastic athlete. Above everything, though, he’s a blood-thirsty enigma, a unique, unpredictable mad scientist who went on a 12-fight tear and won the interim title in his prime.
Then he ran into Gaethje, who wailed on him for almost 24 minutes before the referee had finally seen enough. That 2020 beat-down remains the only time the tough-as-nails veteran was stopped by strikes but he hasn’t been the same since.
Heavy defeats to Oliveira and Beneil Dariush followed and highlighted that he was no longer the “El Cucuy” of old. However, with his long reach, sharp elbows and slick submissions, he’s a dangerous match-up for the compact Chandler (22-7).
The former three-time Bellator champion hit the ground running when he finally joined the UFC and had one of the greatest debuts in the promotion’s history when he knocked out the dangerous Dan Hooker in the first round last January before losing to this weekend’s headliners in thrilling high-stakes wars.
“Iron” went from almost knocking out Oliveira in the first round to capture the vacant title to being stopped in the second and then came up short in an unbelievable brawl against Gaethje that took Fight of the Year honours and will earn both men places in the Hall of Fame.
Fifth-ranked Chandler is a complete fighter as well. His clear advantages in this fight are his one-punch knockout power and exceptional explosiveness. He’ll be too much for Ferguson, whose superhuman durability should see it go the distance.
Ovince St. Preux (1.40) v Mauricio Rua (2.95) (Light Heavyweight)
Eight years after St. Preux (25-16) knocked out the Brazilian legend, the lethal light heavyweights hook ‘em up again.
Rua (27-12-1) is MMA royalty, an iconic savage who ran roughshod in Pride and knocked out Lyoto Machida to win the UFC title back in 2010. Twenty-one of his 27 wins are by KO, but the last of those came in 2018.
“Shogun” last fought in 2020 when he was TKO’d by Paul Craig and the time away will serve him well. St. Preux fought twice in that period and was stopped in both, although, it’s important to note both bouts were at heavyweight.
As he returns to the 205-pound division, “OSP” still has the same advantages he did in the first rumble against Rua, including a four-inch reach advantage, and now also has more weapons as Rua has essentially become a boxer in the twilight of his career. Therefore, history’s set to repeat itself.
Donald Cerrone (1.57) v Joe Lauzon (2.40) (Lightweight)
Legends collide in what should be an epic main card opener. Both are bonus machines who’ve produced highlights and been in bangers that’ll stand the test of time and while the low-key dream match comes at the end of their careers, the OG gunslingers promise to rock the house.
Cerrone (36-16-2NC) has more wear and tear, to put it mildly, and is winless in his last six dating back to 2019, which is the last time Lauzon (28-15) fought in a winning effort against Jonathan Pierce that snapped a three-fight losing skid.
Why, then, is Cerrone the favourite? Because “Cowboy” has the grappling skills to negate Lauzon’s biggest strength – his jiu-jitsu – and he’s the superior striker. His whips don’t crack as hard as they used to, so he looks primed to pick up a decision win.
Alternative Bets: Cerrone by decision at 4.50. Cerrone is a notoriously slow starter and has melted under early blitzes on several occasions, so it’s worth considering the juicy options on Lauzon, from 2.45 outright, 5.50 by KO/TKO/DQ and 6.50 by first-round finish to 10.00 by first-round KO/TKO/DQ.