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UFC 274 takeaways: Charles Oliveira doesn’t need a belt to be crowned the best lightweight alive

UFC 274: Oliveira v Gaethje Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Charles Oliveira may not leave Arizona with a UFC title around his waist, but there’s no longer any denying what he’s become: The best damn lightweight on the planet.

Oliveira’s brilliance in a one-round romp over Justin Gaethje headlined a roller-coaster night at UFC 274, which also saw Carla Esparza steal the strawweight title away from Rose Namajunas in a snoozer, Michael Chandler score one of the most vicious finishes of 2022 with his Knockout of the Year candidate over Tony Ferguson, and much more. There’s plenty to discuss, so let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 274.

1. The lightweight champion of the world has a name, and that name is Charles Oliveira.

It’s only fitting that after one of the most chaotic weeks in UFC history, Oliveira showed once again that there are few in MMA who delight more in that chaos. Faced with the mother of all high-stress situations, “Do Bronx” was magnificent all over again, sauntering through Justin Gaethje’s unique brand of hell with a swiftness and ease that bordered on alarming. His feat was even more impressive when you consider the roller-coaster of emotions Oliveira rode in the 36 hours between Friday morning and Saturday night. The frustrations that must have hit him like a 100-ton cinder block, and the righteous fury that must have coursed through his veins by the time those octagon doors slammed shut.

No one wants to become the answer to a bad trivia question, nor lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars of purse money, the culmination of their life’s work, and potential pay-per-view points worth an even larger sum for future bouts. All over a half-pound in an unprecedented situation still rife with questions. Years from now, the next time a UFC beltholder loses their title on the scale, “Do Bronx” will be the first name invoked. That’s a lot to try to process with a fist fight against a demon like Gaethje looming in one’s mind.

In the end though, Michael Chandler said it best: “Shame on all of us for ever, ever doubting Charles Oliveira.”

One more stat? Oliveira has been knocked down or nearly finished in each of his past three fights, and he’s won all three of them inside two rounds. That doesn’t even make sense.

We’ve reached the point where this résumé is beginning to look absurd. The array of records are one thing — the most finishes in UFC history (19), most submissions in UFC history (16), most post-fight bonuses in UFC history (18), along with nearly half of the divisional records in existence for the lightweight division. But then add in the names and it starts to amount to something more. He’s taken out an all-star lineup of the best of the new guard (Gaethje, Poirier, Chandler, and Ferguson) and plenty of pillars of the old guard as well (Miller, Guida, Stephens, Elkins, and the list goes on). It sounds as if we’re speaking about a fighter at the tail-end of their career, one enjoying the twilight of a Hall of Fame run. Not a 32-year-old who’s just hitting his prime and seemingly still has plenty of mileage left in the tank. It almost defies belief. Oliveira told me on Saturday night that he is confident he’s starting to cross into all-time great territory. It’s getting harder to argue with the man.

I know there’s a timeline out there where Conor McGregor swoops in and steals another undeserved title shot as Oliveira’s next bout — McGregor certainly tried his best on Saturday to make sure we all remembered he exists — but I hope the UFC does the right thing and gives Islam Makhachev the opportunity he deserves. Because if Oliveira can shatter the seemingly unshatterable aura of the heir apparent to Khabib Nurmagomedov, we’re going to have to start shifting this conversation into a wholly different level.

2. Carla Esparza vs. Rose Namajunas 2 was the worst title fight of the UFC’s modern era.

That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not.

There have been plenty of stinkers over the years — Adesanya vs. Romero, Sylvia vs. Arlovski 3, and both of Demian Maia’s title bouts stand out in particular — but they all tremble at the feet of the sport’s new standard-bearer for awfulness. Each of the others I just named at least featured one brief burst of action or weirdness, one moment where damage of some kind was inflicted or at least some sort of fun strangeness occurred.

But Esparza vs. Namajunas 2?

If you watched, you know the answer.

It’s funny, because the stats don’t actually seem real. Esparza and Namajunas officially landed a combined 68 strikes in 25 minutes on Saturday night. Oliveira and Gaethje nearly matched that total in a little over three minutes. Never was there a sense of urgency. Never were there any adjustments. Never was there a motivational speech from the corner emphasizing the gravity of the moment. Nothing. Just the same circling and feinting and non-initiating. It’s simultaneously one of the most baffling performances from a UFC champion and a UFC champion’s corner I’ve ever seen. I hold Namajunas’ coach Trevor Wittman in immensely high regard. He possesses more MMA knowledge in the very tip of his pinky than I’ll ever gather in my lifetime. But this was just profound levels of terrible.

That’s not particularly Esparza’s fault, either. For long stretches, she was the only one inside that cage who seemed aware that a fight was ostensibly taking place. If that’s where the bar was set, she cleared it. Because of that, she’s now the owner of a fairly astounding record: Her 2,703 days between title reigns is, by far, the longest stretch in UFC history for a multi-time champion. The rest of the top five of that list: Frank Mir (1,652 days), Dominick Cruz (1,569 days), Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn (1,449 days each). In other words, not even close.

“The Cookie Monster” is getting a chance a walk down the aisle next week for her wedding with a shiny new UFC belt in hand, and she’s not even going to be bruised up for all her wedding photos. For that to be the case after a 25-minute fight had to be unimaginable heading into Saturday, yet here we are.

If Joanna Jedrzejczyk is ever going to secure that second reign as UFC champion, the best window she’ll ever get has suddenly flung open. Yes, Marina Rodriguez is waiting in the wings as a contender, but Esparza just beat Rodriguez less than two years ago and no one is clamoring to see that fight again. Let’s instead see how things play out between Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili on June 11 before we make any rash decisions, eh UFC?

3. It was looking so good, folks. It really was.

Up until it wasn’t.

Look, I’ll be honest. This is a tough one to write. As the original driver of the Tony Ferguson bandwagon — and the final person left standing after everyone bailed like I was Will Smith in The Fresh Prince — it’s hard to call UFC 274 anything but what it was: A death knell for one of the most entertaining, successful careers the lightweight division has ever seen.

Ferguson’s time as a factor at 155 pounds is over. That’s indisputable now. The damage had already long begun to accrue, but a knockout as gruesome as Saturday’s was more than enough to finally push it over the edge. In truth, there were two factors that made this finish particular bad: 1) The way Ferguson landed, with his head slamming forehead first onto the canvas with immeasurable force, followed by him staying down for several scary minutes. I was sitting 10 feet away and believe me when I tell you it felt like an eternity. The other factor? 2) The fact that this absolutely horrific photo now exists, which I’m definitely not going to embed here, but by all means, feel free to click on it if you’re a masochist who thought the Frankie Edgar photo from the Marlon Vera fight was a bit too tame.

It’s a shame because Ferguson actually looked like his old self for the first five minutes at UFC 274, a tornado of slicing and dicing elbows, oddball attacks from the bottom position, and an endless march of forward pressure that carried him to the first round he’s won since he downed Justin Gaethje in the before times at UFC 249. Alas, I’d be stunned if “El Cucuy” calls it quits after this — my instincts tell me he’s simply too competitive too concede that it’s over just yet — but for his sake, I hope that conversation isn’t far away. Things only get worse for a 38-year-old prizefighter after a knockout like Saturday’s, not better.

As for Chander — boy, he kicked up one heck of a hornet’s nest discussion guaranteed to rage on for the next seven months, didn’t he? Take your pick for 2022 Knockout of the Year: Chandler’s terrifying front kick or Molly McCann’s mind-bending spinning back elbow?

Right now I think I lean toward the former, if only because of Chandler’s strength of schedule. (Quick, without looking it up, tell me who McCann knocked out. Aaaaaand four out of five of you definitely got it wrong). Either way, though, “Iron Mike” is already able to claim ownership for the most exciting four-fight run to start a UFC career since Gaethje’s. For a fighter who limped into Saturday on a losing streak with several real, legitimate concerns swirling around him, the fact that Chandler emerged with options galore and McGregor even mentioning him as a future opponent is about as impressive as it gets.

As long as the UFC does the right thing and gives Makhachev what he deserves, give me Chandler vs. Beneil Dariush next.

4. If you ever need a strong case for the necessity of 10-10 rounds in MMA, look no further than the evidence so dutifully provided to us on Saturday night. Two fights — Esparza vs. Namajunas 2 and Ovince Saint Preux vs. Mauricio Rua — were essentially screaming for officials to recognize that there’s such a thing as stalemate rounds. We already addressed UFC 274’s co-main event at length, so let’s quickly hit Saint Preux vs. Rua instead.

If you’re going to tell me that any sort of 30-27 scorecard told the story of that fight — such as the perplexing 30-27 for Saint Preux turned in by judge Rick Winter — I’d say you’re certifiably insane. Saint Preux and Rua basically had a low-energy sparring match with long swathes of inactivity. (Which, I must say as an old-school mark for Pride FC, is totally fine, because anytime a 40-year-old icon like “Shogun” can escape any fight against a live body relatively unscathed at this point in his career, I’m calling it a win.)

Still though, there’s no possible way you can convince me that a round where nothing happened and fighters landed an identical number of soft, ineffectual strikes deserves to be scored the exact same way as the first round of Chandler vs. Ferguson. There are more numbers available in the 10-point must system than just 10–9s and the occasional 10-8.

It’d be nice if MMA judges ever decided to figure that out. I’m not asking for much here.

5. Standing out in today’s crowded sea of MMA uniformity isn’t easy, but Andre Fialho is finding himself quite a niche. The 28-year-old welterweight from Portugal unleashed the grisliest display of violence of Saturday’s undercard with his first-round massacre of Cameron VanCamp. It was Fialho’s second win in three weeks and third UFC bout of the year.

So what did he do?

If you answered “run straight to Dana White and Sean Shelby’s green room and demand to fight again at UFC 275 next month,” well, you’d be correct. And the man got his wish. Fialho told us post-fight that he’s already booked for June 11 in Singapore against a yet-to-be-determined opponent. It’ll be fight No. 4 for 2022, and Fialho made it clear that he’s on the hunt to break the record for most bouts in a year (5) currently held in a four-way tie by Donald Cerrone, Neil Magny, Uriah Hall, and Daron Cruickshank. Considering he’ll be 80 percent of the way to that record by early June, he’ll have a heck of a good chance.

There’s worse ways to endear yourself to the UFC fan base than by fashioning your career as a new-era Donald Cerrone with insatiable bloodlust and stone-cold one-liners.

Fialho isn’t your usual UFC up-and-comer. He shuffled through stints in Bellator and PFL from 2016-19 before taking it back to the regional scene and finding his groove during this latest run. If nothing else, he’s a textbook reminder of the lessons we should’ve learned from Charles Oliveira — that the roads in MMA don’t always have to be in straight lines, and even if a young prospect stumbles a few times in major promotions early in their career, it’s far from an indictment on the fighter they could one day become.

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