UFC 274 Preview & Predictions
By Cathal Geeney
Charles ‘Do Bronx’ Oliveira v Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje
Regardless of who has their hand raised on Saturday night, if this fight goes as expected, the real winner will be the fans who get to witness this lightweight title fight. Oliveira and Gaethje are two incredible fighters who always put on a show.
Oliveira entered the UFC at the age of twenty as an undefeated prospect with excellent submissions and an exciting striking style. The UFC was a steep learning curve for the Brazilian with Do Bronx losing eight of his first twenty fights and many questioning the resilience of the of São Paulo native.
But since his last defeat against Paul Felder in 2018, Oliveira hasn’t looked back. He is now the defending lightweight champion, riding a ten-fight win streak (of which nine came by finish inside the distance) and is the reigning leader when it comes to most finishes (18) and most submission wins in UFC history (15).
Oliveira is a very accomplished grappler. He is constantly active, both off his back or in top position. The Brazilian will not accept holding guard off his back. Instead, he will throw his legs up and fight for an opportunistic submission, latching on to any limb he can. The third degree BJJ blackbelt will smoothly transition from submission attempt to submission attempt until he manages to sink one in.
In addition to his grappling skills, Do Bronx is a very exciting striker. He looks to land unorthodox shots; expect to see some spinning or flying attempts but don’t be fooled by the flamboyant nature of Oliveira’s attack, as he also has solid fundamentals.
One concern for Oliveira is his susceptibility to getting caught in exchanges. He has been dropped in both of his previous two fights and it often looks like he is on the verge of being finished. But there is method in his madness, and Oliveira is much more of a cerebral fighter than many may think. Oliveira takes calculated risks to push the pace of the fight which pays dividends as the fight progresses.
Oliveira’s propensity to get caught will be very encouraging for Gaethje who is always ready for a war, coming off the fight of 2021 in which he defeated Michael Chandler by decision. Since joining the UFC in 2017, and losing two of his first three fights, Gaethje has evolved massively. He has managed to reign in his wild flurries and strike with more precision and less reckless abandon, while retaining his knockout power. He also has some of the most powerful leg kicks in the game, which he will be sure to implement early on in this one.
The wrestling credentials of the Highlight is another interesting facet to this fight. It is almost certain that Oliveira will look to take this bout to the mat, so it will be interesting to see how Gaethje utilises his NCAA Division 1 wrestling experience to counter this. It is quite difficult to gauge how sharp his grappling actually is, as he rarely engages, instead relying on his striking. And when he did last take on a dominant grappler, in Khabib Nurmagomedov, it was not enough to pose any meaningful challenge.
I have predicted Oliveira to be successful in his last two fights and I am not going to stop now. This has the makings of an incredible fight. Gaethje offers many challenges, I would be particularly wary of how those leg kicks may start to take their toll. However, I think Oliveira will be able to overcome any adversity and find a way to win as he so often does.
(Due to Oliveira failing to make weight, he will be stripped of his UFC lightweight title. Only Gaethje can win the title.)
‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas v Carla ‘The Cookie Monster’ Esparza
The co-main event will see a repeat of the inaugural women’s strawweight title fight back in 2014, in which Esparza defeated the current champ, Thug Rose, by submission. Saturday night provides Carla with the opportunity to create history by regaining a UFC title with the greatest duration in between reigns.
Following her defeat of Rose, Esparza had a very mixed run. She lost her title only three months later, to Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and was defeated in four of her next seven UFC outings. But the thirty-four-year old has put together a very impressive five fight win streak since, with back-to-back victories over top prospects in Yan Xiaonan and Marina Rodriguez. In terms of her fighting style, there are no secrets to Esparza’s success, she is very much reliant on her wrestling ability.
The NAIA Division 1 wrestler has managed to land seventeen successful takedowns in her last five fights, while only being taken down three times. When in top position, Carla will look to rack up control time, while mixing in a dominant ground and pound game.
The striking of the challenger has also improved of late. Esparza is doing a better job of blending her takedowns into her striking and keeping her opponent guessing. But ultimately, the path to victory for Carla Esparza depends on her ability to secure takedowns on the night.
In their first meeting, Namajunas was only twenty years of age and this was her fourth professional fight. The Wisconsin native has very much developed and refined her fighting style since then. Namajunas was very aggressive in their first meeting and her over zealous approach made it easy for Esparza to land takedowns. I expect a much more patient, controlled version of the champion this weekend.
Namajunas is a long, rangy striker with precise movement and striking. She will rely on a sharp jab to control and set up combos. The wide stance of Rose allows her to manoeuvre in and out of range when landing shots. She has many weapons in her offensive arsenal, switching stances and landing counter shots and an array of kicks.
In terms of grappling, the twenty-nine year old has solid takedown defence, is very active off her back and has exceptional BJJ, so in the likely event that Esparza does manage a takedown, expect Rose to make her work for it.
Thug Rose has faced off against many fighting styles and has managed to overcome the challenges presented each time. Whether going against the insane striking output of Jedrzejczyk, the power of Jessica Andrade or the well-roundedness of Weili Zhang, Namajunas has manged to rise to all occasions and find a way to have her hand raised. In addition to this, Namajunas is a rematch specialist, having been successful in all four of her previous rematches. I just cannot look past Rose Namajunas successfully defending her belt in Phoenix.