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The
Ultimate Fighting Championship
has clearly stacked its numbered
events since fans returned a little over a year ago, and UFC
274
on Saturday at the Footprint Center in Phoenix is no
exception. The show will see local product Justin
Gaethje
challenge Charles
Oliveira
for the lightweight title in one of the most
potentially exciting bouts the promotion can put together, and the
main event gets some strong support in the form of Rose
Namajunas
’ strawweight title defense against Carla
Esparza
—the woman who happened to beat “Thug Rose” in the UFC’s
inaugural championship fight at 115 pounds. Beyond that, there is a
clear focus on name value with some high-profile vets in action.
Michael
Chandler
takes on Tony
Ferguson
in a bit of a cruel pairing for the fading “El Cucuy,”
while a Mauricio
Rua
Ovince St.
Preux
rematch and a first-time Donald
Cerrone
-Joe Lauzon
clash look even enough that they might still be entertaining at
this late stage of everyone’s careers. If not, the top two fights
alone figure to make this a must-watch affair.

Now to the UFC 274 “Oliveira vs. Gaethje” preview:

UFC Lightweight Championship

C | Charles
Oliveira
(32-8, 20-8 UFC) vs. #1 LW | Justin
Gaethje
(23-3, 6-3 UFC)

ODDS: Oliveira (-165), Gaethje (+145)

It is difficult to say which has been the wilder ride: Oliveira’s
path to the UFC’s lightweight title or his reign now that “Do
Bronx” has championship gold. Oliveira burst onto the scene as a
20-year-old in 2010, racking up impressive submissions over
Darren
Elkins
and Efrain
Escudero
to immediately mark himself as a top prospect. That
caused the UFC to rush him into one-sided losses against Jim Miller
and Donald
Cerrone
that seemed to make Oliveira a cautionary tale as far
as how the promotion’s aggressive matchmaking can destroy a
talented prospect’s confidence. Oliveira’s grappling skill remained
absolutely electric, but even during his more successful stretches,
he remained plagued by a sense of unreliability, whether it was
constant weight misses or his tendency to completely crumble
against adversity at certain points in his fights. A 2019 victory
against David
Teymur
—the fourth stop on Oliveira’s current 10-fight winning
streak—seemed to be a bit of a turning point. Oliveira suffered a
series of eye pokes that would have mentally derailed him earlier
in his career, but he instead steeled himself and scored yet
another submission. Eventually, a December 2020 win over what is
now clearly a faded version of Tony
Ferguson
set Oliveira up to fight Michael
Chandler
for the vacant lightweight strap; and it figured to be
a huge test for Oliveira. Chandler’s ridiculous horsepower and
aggression had historically been exactly the type of approach to
obliterate Oliveira early and without much issue. Indeed, Oliveira
nearly got finished almost immediately, but he fought through
adversity for an absolutely wild five-plus minutes, giving up tons
of momentum changes in multiple phases until the Brazilian kicked
off the second round with a knockout win. It was much the same
story in Oliveira’s December title defense against Dustin
Poirier
. Oliveira absorbed a beating early but is now suddenly
unbreakable mentally. He staged another comeback, this time
securing a standing rear-naked choke for the win in the third
round. If nothing else, Oliveira’s title reign has been a success
in providing some of the highest-level wild violence the sport has
seen. That is even before facing the man whose whole deal is
violence: his challenger here in Gaethje.

A former collegiate wrestler, Gaethje came to prominence in World
Series of Fighting, where he quickly earned a name as one of the
most violent men in the sport. Gaethje had a relatively simple
approach of charging down his opponents and trying to score a
knockout while shelling up defensively. Even if opponents at the
WSOF level could see Gaethje coming, they could not do anything to
stop him, as “The Highlight” would rely on his unbreakable nature
to come out on top in some brutal wars of attrition. Gaethje kept
that reputation going in his UFC debut—a wild win over Michael
Johnson
that saw him nearly get knocked out multiple times in
one of the best fights of the year—but then the worry became that
he was hitting the UFC just as his body was betraying him. Poirier
and Eddie
Alvarez
were each able to outmaneuver and break down Gaethje as
he attempted to pressure, and with the former WSOF champion
suffering stoppage losses in each case, it was unclear how he would
fare going forward. As it turns out, he is doing quite well. With
just an extra bit of thought behind his aggressive approach,
Gaethje was able to spend the remainder of 2018 and all of 2019
nuking some opponents before laying a 24-minute beating on Ferguson
to earn an interim title, which in turn set him up for a fight
against Khabib
Nurmagomedov
. Gaethje figured to be Nurmagomedov’s toughest
test to date, so it is a testament to the Russian’s all-time great
status that he made the Arizona native look like easy work in what
looks to be his final fight. After a year-plus layoff, Gaethje
picked right back up where he left off, squaring off with Chandler
in November for an all-time great war that saw both men try to
destroy each other for 15 minutes. Gaethje is clearly one of the
best lightweights alive and one of the most violent fighters in the
sport’s history, so it is a pleasure to see him once again fight
someone else who fits that description—and with a belt on the line,
to boot.

The safest predictions for this fight are madness and violence, and
from there, it is basically anyone’s guess. Oliveira seems to be
the one who will force things early, and from there, it is off to
the races. If Oliveira’s recent fights portend anything, it is that
the champion will likely find himself nearly getting finished.
After that, who knows? This could be the fight where things even
out for Oliveira and it gets stopped before he can stage a
comeback, or he can get right back on his horse and start charging
Gaethje down and start the madness once again. Gaethje’s leg kicks
should provide a weapon to slow Oliveira down, but that is provided
the fight gets particularly far. This should be another Oliveira
fight with repeated exchanges that result in things being over
sooner rather than later. This one is more about the action than
the result, and while Gaethje could just make this quick work,
Oliveira has earned the benefit of the doubt to somehow come back
from the brink of destruction once again. The pick is Oliveira via
second-round submission.


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