After winning and defending his title with thrilling comeback stoppages, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight Champion Charles Oliveira faces perhaps his most fearsome foe to date when he takes on Justin Gaethje in the UFC 274 pay-per-view (PPV) main event this Sat. night (May 7, 2022) in Phoenix, Arizona.
The “Copper State’s” Footprint Center will also host a rematch more than seven years in the making between Strawweight Champion Rose Namajunas and top contender Carla Esparza, who became the division’s inaugural titlist by choking “Thug” out in 2014. In addition, recent Lightweight title challenger Michael Chandler takes on division “Boogeyman” Tony Ferguson, Ovince Saint Preux once again trades hands with the legendary Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and Donald Cerrone meets Joe Lauzon in a Lightweight legends match.
Our usual main card guy got sucked into an everything bagel, so this solemn duty falls to me once again. As always, we’ve got UFC 274 “Prelims” analysis here and here, plus some UFC 274 odds and betting guide breakdowns right here.
155 lbs.: UFC Lightweight Champion Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira (32-8) vs. Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (23-3)
We’re done underestimating Oliveira’s mental fortitude at this point, right?
It’s not just that he powered through adversity against Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier without wilting; it’s that he maintained his composure and stuck to his gameplan without missing a beat. He didn’t panic, didn’t avoid the striking, didn’t give any acknowledgment that he’d been hurt outside of the adjustments necessary to ensure it didn’t happen again. He’s not going to crumble in the face of pressure and power, and that’s why he’s beating Justin Gaethje this Saturday.
It’s unquestionable that Trevor Wittman has polished Gaethje to a mirror sheen, but he remains far from perfect. As we’ve seen in recent effort, his chin’s not uncrackable and his takedown defense isn’t impenetrable, deficiencies which he makes more glaring by putting everything he’s got behind his right hand. Oliveira has developed the power and boxing skills to exploit the openings Gaethje leaves behind in his honorable quest to remove “Do Bronx’s” head from his shoulders, plus the wrestling to change gears should Gaethje start to find some momentum.
That’s not to say Gaethje can’t break him, of course. Even if the one-punch finish isn’t there, he doesn’t need a lot of clean connections to the head and legs to seize control of a fight, and Oliveira does tend to get clipped early. After watching Oliveira thread the needle against similarly potent finishers, though, I like him to punish Gaethje’s overextension and drag him into his world for another stoppage win.
Prediction: Oliveira by second-round submission
115 lbs.: UFC Strawweight Champion “Thug” Rose Namajunas (11-4) vs. Carla “The Cookie Monster” Esparza (18-6)
This is the best chance Esparza will ever have of touching the title again. Though she remains one of the most potent wrestlers at 115, the division has evolved to the point where that can barely compensate for her lack of striking anymore; her three victories leading up to last May’s mauling of Yan Xiaonan came via split or majority decision. The question is whether she can get past her lack of versatility and occasional mental lapses to exploit Namajunas’ historically penetrable takedown defense.
Based on their recent form, I say no.
Namajunas is a far cry from the overeager greenhorn that flung her hips right into Esparza’s grasp in 2014. Her fights with Jessica Andrade and Zhang Weili showed off excellent range management that allowed her to unload combinations without fear of reprisal, and though Zhang managed several takedowns and “Bate Estaca” famously managed to bully her way inside and perform impromptu chiropractic surgery on “Thug,” two things make it unlikely that Esparza can do the same.
For one, Esparza isn’t half the striking threat that those two are. For two, she’s nowhere near as pathologically aggressive, at least with regards to Andrade. So long as Namajunas stays composed, she should be able to pick Esparza off at distance with impunity, and she’s sharp enough off of her back to keep Esparza from doing too much damage or working her way into dominant position. Long-range offense carries Namajunas to another successful defense.
Prediction: Namajunas by unanimous decision
155 lbs.: “Iron” Michael Chandler (22-7) vs. Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (25-6)
Even if it makes perfect sense considering the circumstances, it’s still a bit jarring to see Ferguson as the biggest underdog on the card. There was a time when he’d have been a bargain at anything better than -300; his history of breaking down pressure-heavy strikers and wrestlers, combined with Chandler’s shaky chin, make it hard to imagine Chandler surviving three rounds with “El Cucuy” at his peak.
But man, Ferguson’s shown us absolutely nothing since rattling Gaethje a couple years back. He managed a measly 34 combined significant strikes against Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush, and he looked grimly impotent off of his back compared to the hyper-kinetic scramble machine that regularly choked out black belts.
It’s the latter bit that seems most damning here. Chandler still has heaps of defensive issues that his waning athleticism can no longer compensate for, but if the Oliveira and Dariush fights are anything to go by, Ferguson can’t stop him from just dragging him to the mat and grinding him out anytime things get too hairy on the feet. And that’s the best-case scenario where Ferguson still has the durability to withstand Chandler’s punches, which demolished the comically indestructible Dan Hooker in his UFC debut.
Ferguson’s knees, elbows, and front chokes are all potent anti-Chandler weapons. If I had any faith that he could use them properly, I’d be riding the upset train. As-is, expect Chandler to lean on his takedowns and cruise to victory after an explosive start.
Prediction: Chandler by unanimous decision
205 lbs.: Ovince “OSP” Saint Preux (25-16) vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (27-12-1)
Yes, Ovince Saint Preux is a prime example of how unpolished athleticism can only take you so far. Yes, he’s 2-5 in his last seven and coming off of two consecutive stoppage losses. Yes, he’s coming back to 205 after missing weight the last time he tried.
I still don’t see Rua beating him.
Even with a shiny 5-2-1 record since the first time Saint Preux knocked him into oblivion, it’s painfully clear that no vestiges of the “Shogun” of yore still remain. All that’s left is power he’s too shopworn to deliver and a decent top game that he can’t use against anyone who isn’t equally decrepit or an incompetent wrestler. Saint Preux’s knockout of Alonzo Menifield proved that he can still level one-note strikers and his takedown defense generally holds up well against sub-elite takedown artists.
I cannot put into words just how badly I want to see a 40-year-old Rua chin-check “OSP” and ride off into the sunset. If anyone deserves a happy ending to a career of extreme punishment both delivered and received, it’s him. Even I can read the writing on the wall, though. A big left hand ends things early.
Prediction: Saint Preux by first-round TKO
155 lbs.: Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (36-16) vs. Joe Lauzon (28-15)
For 95% of these two’s Octagon tenures, the result would have been obvious. Cerrone would weather Lauzon’s early blitz and slowly take over with the inevitability of an avalanche as the combinations piled up and Lauzon’s infamously terrible gas tank gave out. That first bit seems like much less of a sure thing now, though; while Cerrone’s always been a slow starter, he’s become less and less able to recover and maintain his composure under fire.
Getting blown out by Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor is one thing. Succumbing to punches from Alex Morono, whose only other (T)KO finish of the last six years was a ground-and-pound finish of Zak Ottow, is another.
Lauzon’s got his fair share of red flags, of course, namely a 2.5-year layoff and a 67-second knockout loss to Clay Guida of all people, but his mauling of Jonathan Pearce showed that he’s still got a bit of the old kill-or-be-killed mojo left. Even if I can’t trust him to execute for more than a couple of minutes, he can ostensibly deliver the sort of berserker charge that Cerrone can no longer weather. If Morono’s windmills could find “Cowboy’s” chin, I don’t see why Lauzon’s can’t.
While Cerrone 100% wins this if it goes past the first half of the first round, I just don’t trust him to last that long anymore. If Lauzon puts the pedal to the metal like he always has, he polishes Cerrone off quick.
Prediction: Lauzon by first-round TKO
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 274 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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