On Saturday, May 7, the UFC returns to the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Ariz. as UFC 274: Oliveira vs. Gaethje brings a stacked card to the Grand Canyon State.
Back at UFC 268 in Nov. 2021, Justin Gaethje delivered a “Fight of the Year” performance to kick off the main card against Michael Chandler. Later on in the night, his teammate Rose Namajunas defended her strawweight title in a rematch against Weili Zhang. This time around, it will be Rose Namajunas up first, as she looks to defend her title against Carla Esparza in teh co-main event, followed by Gaethje challenging Charles Oliveira for the undisputed UFC lightweight title.
Gaethje came up short in his first title bid in 2020 against Khabib Nurmagomedov, succumbing to a triangle choke in the second round of their fight at UFC 254. His challenge this weekend is a different type of submission threat in Oliveira. The Brazilian has 20 career wins by submission and holds the distinction of the most submission finishes in UFC history with 15 inside the Octagon. He also holds the record for most finishes in the promotion’s history with 18. He looks to add to those records by becoming the second man to submit Gaethje.
The first time Namajunas fought Esparza was in The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale, which also crowned Esparza as the inaugural UFC strawweight champ after a third-round submission. It was Namajunas’s fourth professional fight, not including the bouts on the show. Since then, “Thug Rose” went on to win, and subsequently defend, the strawweight title with back-to-back victories over Joanna Jędrzejczyk, before losing it to Jessica Andrade in May 2019 after a scary knockout by slam.
In July 2020, Namajunas won the rematch over Andrade, but the Brazilian had already lost the belt to Zhang. In 2021, not only did Namajunas knock out Zhang to regain the strap in April, but she went on to beat her again by decision in November. With Esparza rounding out her game and evolving as a fighter, she is currently riding a five-fight winning streak that has earned her another crack at the belt this weekend.
Also on the main card is a clash between longtime lightweight standouts Donald Cerrone and Joe Lauzon. Both men are in the back half of their careers and have struggled recently. Lauzon has lost three of his last four, but comes into this fight on the heels of a win over Jonathan Pearce. Cerrone has lost five of his last six contests with a no-contest mixed in against Niko Price. Both of these men are in need of a victory to maintain their standing as fighters that fans love to watch.
The UFC 274 early prelims air live on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ starting at 6 p.m. ET. The preliminary card continues on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET and also airs on ESPN. At 10 p.m. ET, the main card will broadcast on ESPN+ pay-per-view. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The last time Justin Gaethje challenged for the UFC lightweight crown, he was submitted by Khabib Nurmagomedov; can he avoid that same fate against the promotion’s all-time submissions leader in Charles Oliveira?
Sumian: This title fight is easily the most exciting pay-per-view headliner we have had to date in 2022. Both fighters are extremely entertaining, combine for nine fight of the night awards, and live to entertain fans from start to finish. Oliveira is looking to establish his own legacy by compiling a title reign worth of the history books, while Gaethje looks to become the first former World Series of Fighting champion to win an undisputed UFC championship.
Earning six “Fight of the Night” bonuses in nine UFC bouts is a very difficult feat to accomplish – especially on top of three “Performance of the Night” bonuses. Gaethje has done just that, while also becoming an interim UFC lightweight champion. The former WSOF lightweight champion has undoubtedly been one of the best signings in recent memory and continues to dazzle fans with his thunderous power, resilience, and no-quit attitude.
Gaethje looked fairly good in his title fight with Nurmagomedov, and many believed he won the first round. Unfortunately, he fell victim to the slick submission skills of the champion in Round 2. He returned to action against Michael Chandler almost a year later, and he picked up the decision win after a wild back-and-forth battle. He is capable of knocking out any formidable lightweight who is willing to stand and trade with him. He possesses elite fundamentals, dangerous counter-striking and fight-ending leg kicks. Gaethje will have to be near perfect if he hopes to defeat the surging Charles Oliveira come Saturday night.
Oliveira has leveled up, plain and simple. The current undisputed lightweight champion is on a 10-fight winning streak, which includes capturing the belt against Chandler and a title defense against Dustin Poirier. Oliveira began his UFC career primarily as a grappler with slick submission skills and mid-level striking. Since then, he has become an extremely versatile champion capable of finishing opponents on both the feet and ground. To put it simply, he has become a near-perfect fighter and has turned what few weaknesses he had into strengths. The lightweight division is extremely crowded and features a number of contenders. If Oliveira continues to fight the way he has been, while making improvements, we could be seeing the start of a long and prosperous title reign.
There is no doubt that Gaethje’s path to victory is striking and striking often. He will have to batter the champion with his signature leg kicks and looping hooks, and be ready to counter when Oliveira misses. Oliveira will need to approach this fight similarly to how he did when he faced Poirier by weathering the early storm. The main difference between Gaethje and Poirier is that Gaethje has much better takedown defense and will not go down easy. However, Oliveira’s striking has vastly improved and he will hold a considerable height and reach advantage.
The last fight for both of these combatants was very telling on how this lightweight clash will play out. While Oliveira has continuously gotten better, Gaethje has continued to favor engaging in slugfests that are entertaining, but risky. Chandler was able to stun him in Round 1 and convincingly win the round. Gaethje bounced back strongly in Rounds 2 and 3, but his best chance of winning still remains in pulling his opponent into “stand-and-bang” fights. Oliveira will not make this mistake.
The champion has matured considerably as a competitor and will use that experience to negate the amount of damage Gaethje can do to him with his power. In Round 3, Oliveira will stun the challenger and eventually secure a choke to retain his title. Expect the Brazilian to defend his belt at some point in the back half of 2022, while Gaethje’s days as a title contender begin to fade permanently.
Petela: The clearest path to victory for Charles Oliveira is to get this fight to the canvas and take one of Justin Gaethje’s limbs home with him. For Gaethje, his best chance at winning the title is by leaving Charles Oliveira looking up at the lights inside the Footprint Center after he regains consciousness. However, over the years Oliveira has vastly improved his striking and is a daunting threat on his feet as well. He doesn’t shy away from getting into extended striking battles and showed in his title-winning performance against Chandler that he can more than hold his own. Despite having a chance at victory if this turns into a kickboxing match, the smart move for Charles Oliveira is to avoid the power punching of Gaethje long enough to capitalize on a mistake, get the fight to the canvas and score yet another submission win.
However, that simply won’t happen. Gaethje landed six or seven thudding leg kicks in the first six or so minutes of his title fight with Nurmagomedov, before being taken down and submitted. Those leg kicks were beginning to do significant damage to Nurmagomedov, and were it not for the well timed and perfectly executed takedown, that fight could have ended very differently.
While Oliveira is an absolute world-class grappler, he doesn’t have the same level of offensive wrestling skills as Nurmagomedov and instead the NCAA Division I All-American wrestler Gaethje will be able to use his defensive wrestling to keep this fight upright. Not only will that lead this fight to turn into an absolute barnburner, it will give the challenger the opportunity to wear down the champion with those leg kicks.
Expect a hobbled Oliveira to laboriously try and close the distance early in the fourth round and be met with a chopping leg kick that is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Oliveira will try and pull guard, but Gaethje will have none of it and beckon him back to his feet where he will land a huge right hand that ends the fight and gives Gaethje his long-awaited UFC title.
Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza met for the inaugural women’s strawweight championship back in 2014; does Namajunas get her revenge and retain the belt?
Petela: It’s unfair to say that Carla Esparza was at her peak when she claimed the inaugural strawweight title eight years ago, but I think that version of her is closer to her best version than the 2014 Rose Namajunas was to her own best version. Basically, Namajunas has improved more since the first fight than Esparza.
Namajunas relied almost exclusively on her jiu-jitsu earlier in her career, but, under the tutelage of Trevor Wittman, she has blossomed into, not only a well-rounded mixed martial artist, but a fearsome striker. This was showcased in her first round TKO of Joanna Jedrzejczyk to capture the strawweight championship.
Namajunas will be fleet-of-foot throughout this fight and cut masterful angles that stifle the offensive wrestling of Carla Esparza. Expect a frustrated Esparza to shoot a desperation takedown in the fourth round, which will be successfully defended by the champion. Namajunas will then circle to her opponent’s back and latch onto a rear-naked choke to pick up the submission victory and retain her title while evening the score at one win apiece between her and “Cookie Monster.”
Sumian: I agree with my colleague that Namajunas will emerge victorious. However, I have her achieving victory in a much more dominant manner. Remember when Esparza lost her title to Jedrzejczyk in her first defense? This fight will be very reminiscent of that finishing sequence. Namajunas will use her angles and vastly superior striking to constantly batter the challenger with hard shots early and often. In Round 2, she will land a powerful uppercut-hook combination that sends her into survival mode against the cage. Namajunas will calmly follow and unleash a furry that will force the referee to step in and signal the end. As my colleague mentioned above, Namajunas has improved leaps and bounds since 2014 and this title defense will only show that she is here to stay as a reigning champion.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 272?
Sumian: Rose Namajunas. She will avenge a loss that occurred approximately seven years ago and look good doing so. She is one of the most popular champions in MMA today and extremely skilled. Esparza will make things interesting using her wrestling, but the well-roundedness of the champion will be too much for her. Namajunas will find herself defending her belt for a third time against another familiar foe in her next Octagon appearance.
Petela: Trevor Wittman. Seriously, all he does is coach champions. That trend will continue this weekend as Rose Namajunas retains her title, and Justin Gaethje captures lightweight gold in the main event. Wittman doesn’t run a huge gym and doesn’t work with many fighters, so it’s not like he’s looking for good performances out of his fighters to encourage other athletes to move to Colorado. However, with victories in the co-main event and main event, his stock as a coach will rise even further, and he will be off to a good start in terms of being 2022’s Coach of the Year.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 272?
Petela: Tony Ferguson. It wasn’t long ago that the ill-fated showdown between Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov was poised to be a showdown of the two greatest lightweights in UFC history. Since the fifth iteration of that fight fell through, Ferguson has fallen on hard times, getting stopped by Justin Gaethje with the interim title on the line, nearly having his arm ripped off by current champion Charles Oliveira, and losing a lopsided decision to Beneil Dariush. A fourth straight loss this weekend will be just another nail in the coffin for “El Cucuy”, who may go down as the greatest lightweight never to hold the undisputed championship.
Sumian: Next week’s UFC event. UFC 274 is going to deliver the most entertaining and fan-friendly card of the year thus far. It features legends, such as Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, engaging in exciting fights and title fights that will deliver star-making finishes. Whatever event follows will have an extremely difficult time at matching the intensity and entertainment value that we are treated to on Saturday.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Sumian: Whether he wins or loses, this is the end for Shogun Rua. The MMA community will say goodbye to one of the most entertaining and legendary light heavyweights of all time, as he makes his final walk to the Octagon. Rua has had an extremely successful career competing in both Pride and the UFC and is well-liked by the MMA world. Expect the crowd to cheer for the former champion as he looks to end his career on a high note and ride off into retirement an accomplished and happy man.
Petela: There are a few high profile veterans who have fallen on hard times in the latter stages of their career – in particular, Cowboy Cerrone. He is winless in his last six fights, losing five of them and earning a draw against Niko Price that was ultimately overturned to a no-contest after Price tested positive for marijuana. If Cowboy comes up short in this legends match against Joe Lauzon, it might be time for him to think about hanging up the gloves to avoid taking any more punishment than he already has over a long and storied career.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: The early prelim welterweight fight between Francisco Trinaldo and Danny Roberts. Trinaldo is 1-1 since moving up to welterweight, and the 43-year-old has shown he is still a dangerous opponent for fighters trying to build their profile on the name of the veteran brawler. Roberts has won two straight and has looked good the last few times he’s stepped in the cage, but he has been plagued by inactivity over the past several years. It will be fun to see these two hard-hitting welterweights square off early on in the night.
Sumian: I have had my eye on the flyweight showdown between Brandon Royval and Matt Schnell ever since it was announced. The fight has been delayed a couple of times for various reasons, but these two will finally throw down this coming weekend. Both are resilient, gritty and fast-paced flyweights, and they combine for 16 submission victories. This will be a crazy grappling affair that features various transitions, submission attempts and constant action.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Sumian: Khaos Williams by first-round knockout. Williams is an under-the-radar welterweight and is 4-1 in his UFC career. He will make quick work of Randy Brown and quite possibly earn himself a fringe top-15 ranking come next week. Expect the Michigan native to make a statement when he enters the Octagon on Saturday night.
Petela: Brandon Royval. After back-to-back losses, he got back on track the last time he fought by defeating Rogerio Bontorin. He will continue to build momentum and work his way back into title contention by stopping Matt Schnell. This fight will have a handful of high-level scrambles as these two talented grapplers meet, and, ultimately, Royval will find the opening to snatch up a crafty submission that earns him an extra $50,000 for his efforts.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Breakfast for dinner – specifically, a Denver omelet. This night will be headlined by two fighters who call Denver home, and they will both leave with gold wrapped around their waist. Rose Namajunas will successfully defend her title, and Justin Gaethje will claim the championship from Charles Oliveira. So chop up some onions and peppers, get out the ham and bacon and crack a couple eggs to make yourself a nice Denver omelet.
Sumian: “Finish him!” This card is going to deliver finish after finish. Expect a minimum of eight, once the evening is said and done. Similar to the infamous tagline from The Karate Kid, UFC 274 is going to be as entertaining as it gets. This is the perfect card to get together with both hardcore MMA fans and casuals since it features something for everyone. Sit back, relax, and enjoy what should be the best card of 2022 so far.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje
StrawW Championship: Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza
LW: Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson
LHW: Mauricio Rua vs. Ovince Saint Preux
LW: Donald Cerrone vs. Joe Lauzon
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Randy Brown vs. Khaos Williams
Women’s FW: Macy Chiasson vs. Norma Dumont
FlyW: Brandon Royval vs. Matt Schnell
HW: Blagoy Ivanov vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
WW: Francisco Trinaldo vs. Danny Roberts
Women’s FlyW: Tracy Cortez vs. Melissa Gatto
FlyW: Kleidison Rodrigues vs. C.J. Vergara
Women’s StrawW: Ariane Carnelossi vs. Loopy Godinez
BW: Journey Newson vs. Fernie Garcia
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