THE UFC matches their lightweight champion, a man with the most finishes in the company’s relatively short but illustrious history, against a challenger nicknamed the ‘Human Highlight Reel’ on Saturday night to discover who the best 155lb’er on the planet truly is.
Also, in the co-main event at UFC 274 in Phoenix, Arizona, strawweight queens collide as a fan-favourite champion gets a shot at redemption against the resurgent former titlist, who broke her heart eight years ago.
If narratives do indeed sell fights, you’ve got to credit the UFC on generating compelling storylines.
Whilst MMA’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, busies himself aboard his Lamborghini super-yacht and former pound-for-pound king and rival Khabib Nurmagomedov enjoys retirement, the division continues to flourish with their old lightweight title belt as fiercely contested as ever.
Don’t allow current champion Charles Oliveira’s 32-8 record fool you. The 32-year-old Brazilian is a poster boy for resilience. For 12 years he’s dined at MMA’s top table; for the last two he’s been the division’s standout star.
The 32-year-old’s first 18 fights in the Octagon went 10-8. His last 10 fights however; 10-0 with nine finishes and eight performance bonuses banked.
A move up to lightweight is certainly one of the reasons Oliveira is realizing his potential. Once you get into championship class in the UFC, especially at 155lb, everyone around you has a rounded skillset. It becomes far more about athlete mentality.
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) May 3, 2022
By not only staying unbeaten for the last five years, but finishing fights conclusively, Oliveira has grown in confidence and stature. Now, the tougher the fight, the stronger the opponent, the better he performs.
He lost the opening round against Michael Chandler contesting for the 155lb belt 12 months ago, but bounced back to claim a slick TKO at the start of round two. Then, in his first defence, again as a betting underdog, he choked out Dustin Poirier fresh off the back of two TKO wins over McGregor.
Gaethje, 33, gets home advantage for his second UFC title opportunity.
He had his arm raised after a Fight of the Year against Chandler in November, but that 15-minute slobber-knocker was the type of battle where both men likely left a piece of themselves inside the Octagon.
Wars are nothing new to the Hall of fame college wrestling standout. Gaethje’s moniker was earned not given.
After losing two of his first three UFC outings, albeit against former champ Eddie Alvarez and Poirier, like Oliveira, Gaethje has rounded out his mental approach. No longer a menacing, marauding mauler, he sets traps and is a far more intelligent a striker in 2022.
He thrives in the trenches still, of course. And that list of legacy-defining battles grows with every other fight, but eventually his well will run dry.
Gaethje, 23-3, starts fast here and will likely be up on the cards before Oliviera’s patience pays off on the mats.
In the co-main, Namajunas’ striking and ground game is more than a match even for resurgent Esparza’s grappling prowess.
‘Thug’ Rose has already avenged two previous career losses in her 11-4 career, both by decision, and I’m expecting the same result versus 18-6 Esparza, despite the challenger’s current 5-0 run of form.