Mixed Martial Arts, Sports

The Red Corner: UFC 274 preview, a pair of belts on the line

PETER MOORE/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Crowns for the UFC’s lightweight and strawweight divisions will be up for grabs Saturday in Phoenix, Arizona as part of one of the most stacked cards of the year to date. 

The lightweight division’s highly decorated king, Charles Oliveira (32-8), will attempt his second title defense in an intriguing matchup with No. 1 contender Justin Gaethje (23-3). Oliveira’s spoils of war are immense, for he holds records for most finishes and submissions in the promotion’s history. Oliveira will meet an equally capable foe in Gaethje, whose knockout power has been instrumental in securing double-digit finishes to his name. 

Oliveira enters Saturday on a massive 10-fight win streak that is characterized by an impressive 90% finish rate. Oliveira claimed the lightweight throne after a back-and-forth classic with Michael Chandler (22-7) last May. Oliveria dug deep to survive a chaotic first frame with Chandler that included a deep guillotine choke and a barrage of ground and pound. “Do Bronx”  then turned the fight script on its head and cemented his claim to eternal glory with a stunning knockout in the first 19 seconds of round two. 

As part of his second title defense, Oliveira drew Dustin Poirier (28-7) last December and survived being dropped in the first round yet again. He then took complete control of the fight by way of his smothering grappling and destructive ground strikes. A standing rear-naked choke at the start of the third round would keep the belt in Oliveira’s corner. 

Gaethje reclaimed his No. 1 contender status by defeating Chandler last November in a war billed by many as being the greatest of the year. Gaethje’s iron chin and striking prowess were on full display and were key to out-pointing Chandler on the scorecards. Saturday will mark Gaethje’s second crack at the undisputed status, for he failed to unify the straps in October 2020 in what was lightweight G.O.A.T. Khabib Nurmagomedov’s (29-0) last dance. 

How Oliveira can win:

Unlike many fighters who earn the title of being dubbed “finishers,” Oliveira is a true master of the art — being dangerous on both the ground and the feet. Oliveira’s grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu may very well be the best in the UFC. Should the fight reach the canvas, it becomes Oliveira’s world, even from bottom position. Oliveira’s immense skill set on the ground is balanced with high-level striking, which makes him a difficult opponent to prepare for. 

Oliveira’s downfall is his chin, as evidenced by his last two outings that each saw him succumb to his opponent’s power. Oliveira again faces a dogged brawler in Gaethje, a man whose power may be the champ’s greatest test yet. Engaging in a slugfest will more than likely end poorly for Oliveira, so relying on his ground game and unrivaled mastery of submissions can add yet another stoppage to the UFC leader.  

How Gaethje can win:

Gaethje is a balanced fighter in every sense of the word. His striking features slick attacks from both his hands and feet which allow him to attack his opponent from anywhere. The chin, body and legs are all targets that Gaethje can target as part of any multi-step combination. Gaethje’s striking is grounded by a solid wrestling base that will need to be finely tuned in preparation for Oliveira. 

Fighting under the tutelage of The Red Corner’s 2021 Coach of the Year, Trevor Wittman, Gaethje will be prepared for any fight scenario. However, if Gaethje is to realize his coronation dreams it will be because of his power. 

Peter’s prediction: And Still: Oliveira via R2 SUB

Charles’ prediction: And Still: Oliveira via R2 KO/TKO

UFC 274’s co-main event features Gaethje’s teammate, Rose Namajunas (11-4), in her second defense of the strawweight belt. Namajunas meets No. 2 ranked contender Carla Esparza (18-6) in a rematch eight years in the making. 

The pair of UFC vets crossed paths on the finale of Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter in December 2014. The first all-female installment of the prolific reality show, contestants battled for a chance to fight for the inaugural UFC strawweight championship. Esparza got the better of Namajunas in their matchup and claimed the title via a third-round rear-naked choke. 

Namajunas’ second meeting with Esparza will mark her fourth-straight rematch, a streak that dates back to her first title fight with Joanna Jędrzejczyk (16-4) in November 2017, where she infamously stole gold from the champ as a +500 underdog. 

Namajunas last made the walk in November 2021 as part of her second title fight with Zhang Weili (21-3). “Thug” battled to claim a razor-thin split-decision on the scorecards, retaining her championship belt. 

Esparza, who ceded her belt to Jędrzejczyk in her first title defense in March 2015, has waited seven years for another shot at reclaiming the title. “The Cookie Monster” enters the rematch on a five-fight win streak in the UFC that was punctuated by a vicious TKO finish of Yan Xiaonan (14-3) in May 2021.  

How Namajunas can win: 

Namajunas is dangerous both on the feet and on the ground. Despite owning more submission victories, Namajunas has deadly power that seems to strike at the most unexpected times.

Namajunas’ submission chops make her a threat to end the fight on the mat, as well, but her cardiovascular system will allow her to ride out a five-round war if needed. In avoiding a repeat of her first meeting with Esparza, Namajunas should make use of her height and reach advantage to keep Esparza at bay and rack up significant strike points. 

How Esparza can win: 

While Esparza certainly possesses finishing abilities in both the stand-up and ground departments, the majority of her victories come outside the distance. However, her latest TKO of Xiaonan serves as a reminder that her power still rings true. 

Esparza will need to neutralize Namajunas’ distance management and consistently land with authority if she is to beat the champ on the scorecards. She faces an uphill battle in regards to a size disadvantage, but if Esparza can infiltrate Namajunas’ defenses, she is capable of bringing the belt home. 

Peter’s prediction: And Still: Namajunas via Decision 

Charlies’s prediction: And Still: Namajunas via Decision 

Today, I leave my gloves in the Octagon. This column will be my last for both The Red Corner and The Daily Free Press, as I will be graduating this month. Over these past two years, I’ve been able to live through one of my childhood dreams of being a sports journalist. I am eternally grateful to have gone on this journey alongside my brother, which made it all the more special. 

Long live King Francis. 

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