Well, this is awkward.
Charles Oliveira had finally figured it out. Or so we thought. After joining the UFC as a talented upstart in his early 20s and messing around at featherweight, “do Bronx” was staring at a barely above-.500 record. But he bit the bullet and committed to lightweight where he eventually rattled off 10 straight wins and established himself as the best lightweight in the world (at least according to the MMA Fighting Global Rankings).
On Friday, his old nemesis The Scale came a knocking.
Oliveira missed championship weight by half a pound at the official weigh-ins, using up almost the entirety of the initial two-hour window before making his first attempt and then taking another hour before stepping to the scale again. Both times he came in at 155.5 pounds. His UFC 274 main event challenger Justin Gaethje showed up minutes after the weigh-ins began, hitting 155 on the dot. It was later announced that Oliveira would be stripped of his title and that only Gaethje would be eligible to leave Footprint Center in Phoenix with the belt around his waist.
Controversy has emerged regarding discrepancies between the hotel scale and the official scale used Friday, but until that matter is further investigated and resolved this situation can only be seen as an utter disaster for Oliveira. He is in the midst of a historic run in what has long been regarded as the UFC’s deepest division and while a win over Gaethje will still be undeniably impressive, it will also be marred by those last few ounces that he couldn’t shed.
The co-main event is also high on drama, but for all the right reasons.
Back in December 2014, Rose Namajunas was a gifted prospect who was already making a name for herself in Invicta FC and on The Ultimate Fighter 20. Carla Esparza was also a cast member on the long-running reality show, but she was far more established in the strawweight division and when she collided with Namajunas in the TUF 20 tournament finals, she ran through her less experienced opponent to become the UFC’s inaugural champion at 115 pounds.
Fast forward to now, Namajunas is a two-time UFC champion and Esparza has earned the opportunity to beat her again on the strength of a five-fight win streak. Does Esparza still have the formula to make “Thug Rose” wilt or is this Namajunas’ chance to avenge another loss?
In other main card action, Michael Chandler meets Tony Ferguson in a lightweight dream fight, light heavyweight legend Mauricio Rua rematches Ovince Saint Preux, and lightweight fan favorites Donald Cerrone and Joe Lauzon fight in the pay-per-view opener.
What: UFC 274
Where: Footprint Center in Phoenix.
When: Saturday, May 7. The six-fight early prelims begin on ESPN and ESPN+ at 5:30 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Charles Oliveira (1) vs. Justin Gaethje (3)
Weight-cutting issues aside, the days of questioning Charles Oliveira’s durability, maturity, and sheer heart are over. This man has proven he can take a hit, come back guns blazing, and choke out anyone. Justin Gaethje will be the next name on that list.
There’s no denying that Gaethje’s wrestling background has given him an edge against plenty of fighters looking to take him down, but at the highest level we’ve seen the cracks. Oliveira isn’t Khabib Nurmagomedov with his entries, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s always been freakishly strong and all he needs is one moment to get a solid bodylock on Gaethje, get him to the ground, and get his back. Then it’s over.
Gaethje’s hammer hands and absurd toughness make him a constant threat and there’s a better than good chance that should he lay hands on Oliveira like Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier did, Oliveira won’t climb out of that hole this time. A war of attrition could also go in Gaethje’s favor as he’s never lost a decision and only grows stronger as a fight goes on, something we haven’t seen enough of from Oliveira.
I’m picking Oliveira because I’m wholly confident that he finds a finish before the championship rounds. Oliviera by second-round submission.
Rose Namajunas (1) vs. Carla Esparza (3)
One thing to factor in when considering Rose Namajunas’ chances of retaining on Saturday is how she’s fared when going to the scorecards. In a pair of championship rematches against Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk and a three-round rematch with Jessica Andrade, “Thug Rose” was effective and convincing, but not dominant. I personally feel Jedrzejczyk was the least controversial of those three decisions, while the fight with Andrade could easily have been a draw and Zhang was the closest call. Carla Esparza is an entirely different beast than her fellow former champions, but I mean that in a good way.
In a five-round fight, wrestling is an invaluable tool when it comes to swaying the judges, especially when you can stay busy on the ground like Esparza. Her grappling offense could prove to be Namajunas’ Achilles heel even with both fighters having evolved in the years since their first meeting. There’s only so many things you can do when an opponent can consistently put you on your back, which I expect Esparza to do often in this matchup even if it takes time for her to break Namajunas’ defenses down.
Namajunas is such a deadly and versatile finisher, there won’t be a moment in the fight where Esparza is comfortable. But the inaugural strawweight champion thrives in adversity and is incredibly difficult to put away with only Tatiana Suarez, Jedrzejczyk, and Megumi Fujii having stopped her inside the distance. Namajunas is capable of matching that feat, I just don’t see it happening on Saturday because a prime Esparza is going to be in grind mode and she won’t leave Namajunas any openings.
Whoever wins, a third meeting between the two is likely to happen and maybe then I’ll pick Namajunas to finally topple Esparza. This time though, it’s Esparza once again beating Namajunas to capture a UFC title.
Michael Chandler (6) vs. Tony Ferguson (7)
It pains me to say that I’ve lost faith in Tony Ferguson.
In fairness to “El Cucuy,” three straight losses to Beneil Dariush, Charles Oliveira, and Justin Gaethje are nothing to be ashamed of. However, I have a habit of holding on to the diminishing returns of previously elite fighters for too long. I won’t make the same mistake with Ferguson that I made with Tyron Woodley, a former champion that I picked time and time again to pull out of his career spiral even as it became clearer with every disappointing performance that that wasn’t going to happen.
Besides, if we’re going to shine a positive light on a fighter despite their recent results, we should really start with Michael Chandler, right? The longtime Bellator lightweight king has had an eventful a 1-2 start to his UFC career and even in his defeats he’s looked like a legitimate contender. He nearly knocked out Oliveira and willingly brawled with Gaethje for 15 brutal minutes!
Add in the fact that Ferguson turned 38 in February (and we’re talking a hard 38 given the wars he’s put his body through) and you can understand why I might not be buying into his rejuvenation. I believe the will to fight is still there, but the body stops cooperating at some point. Ferguson has hit that wall, Chandler hasn’t yet.
What a downer, eh? On a much more positive note, I am expecting this to be a competitive fight until Chandler pulls away in the third, so not only should the matchup live up to lofty expectations it will also hopefully yield an extra $50,000 for both men.
Mauricio Rua vs. Ovince Saint Preux
“Shogun” is pretty good in rematches!
Prior to losing a series to Dan Henderson, Mauricio Rua was the man nobody wanted to see twice as he emphatically avenged losses to Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida, and Mark Coleman while also handing Alistair Overeem a couple of knockouts. Obviously, two fights is still a small sample size in the grand scheme of things but there’s something to be said about Rua’s adaptability and competitiveness.
All of that is to say that Shogun has the tools to beat Ovince Saint Preux this time and the likelihood of “OSP” dropping him in 34 seconds again is exceedingly unlikely. I think Saint Preux will actually look to go to his grappling more in the hopes of tiring out the near 20-year veteran, before hunting for a submission in the later rounds.
His recent fight against Paul Craig excluded, Rua has typically shown a strong wrestling game so don’t be surprised if he not only stuffs Saint Preux’s takedown attempts but turns the tables and scores takedowns himself. That actually might be his best shot at neutralizing Saint Preux’s reach advantage and avoiding any skateboard-related mishaps.
X-Games chicanery aside, Rua is the superior striker, which is the main reason that the outcome of their first fight was so shocking. Run this one back 100 times and I highly doubt Saint Preux ever puts Rua down like that again. Fortunately, we’re getting one more time, and that will be enough for Rua to right a wrong.
Shogun by knockout.
Donald Cerrone vs. Joe Lauzon
I’m going Joe Lauzon by decision, but do we really have to pick a winner here?
This is a delightful piece of matchmaking and how valuable UFC veterans should be booked going forward. It’s stylistically perfect, it matches up two beloved MMA lifers who somehow have never fought before, and the result of the fight frankly doesn’t matter as long as both guys get paid and everyone has a good time watching it. Hell, Donald Cerrone and Lauzon will probably enjoy this one more than anyone else at Footprint Center, even as they’re beating each other bloody.
It makes sense to go with the more active Cerrone, but I actually love that Lauzon has taken a “I’m just going to fight when I want to” approach to the latter stages of his career. “J-Lau” has always been one of the brightest minds in the business and if he can afford to live comfortably and only step into the octagon when he’s properly trained and healthy, then more power to him. That’s a solid philosophy for extending your career!
Lauzon is younger, has taken the aforementioned time off to heal his body, and skill for skill he can fight Cerrone anywhere. Not that the last factor matters too much as you get the feeling there’s an unspoken agreement between these two to just let it rip for three rounds. But Lauzon should be crafty enough to mix in takedowns and ground-and-pound for good measure.
I don’t know if there will be two Fight of the Night bonuses handed out on Saturday, but I’m confident both Cerrone vs. Lauzon and Chandler vs. Ferguson will deliver in a big way, so Uncle Dana please be loose with that checkbook this weekend.