A 14-fight card at UFC 274 produced some big wins, fantastic action, memorable knockouts and a lackluster co-main event sandwiched between two amazing bouts. Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi react to the pay-per-view and offer their biggest thoughts on the night.
Big fight nights headlined by championship bouts typically provide clarity. But what UFC 274 delivered instead was contradiction.
On Saturday night in Phoenix, Charles Oliveira stepped into the cage as UFC lightweight champion. He then choked out Justin Gaethje in the very first round -- and walked out of the Octagon as ex-champ.
The reason for that mixed-up circumstance is that Oliveira had missed weight Friday, leaving the UFC to take away his title the moment his fight with Gaethje began. What that brought about, at the conclusion of the fight, was an empty feeling that something was missing -- no "And still!" announcement by Bruce Buffer, no belt being wrapped around Oliveira's waist by Dana White.
And yet one thing is undeniable: Belt or no belt, Charles Oliveira is the best 155-pound fighter on the planet.
That became evident during the 3 minutes, 22 seconds the fight lasted. Oliveira wobbled Gaethje in the opening minute, but moments later Gaethje dropped him with a punch. Then Gaethje dropped him again. But anyone who was thinking this was the beginning of the end clearly had not been watching Oliveira lately.
The 32-year-old Brazilian was hurt badly a year ago in Round 1 of his fight with Michael Chandler for the then-vacant title, but Oliveira came out for the second round and finished Chandler 19 seconds into the round. Seven months later, Oliveira had to persevere through a rough start against Dustin Poirier before choking out his challenger in Round 3.
This time Oliveira, his face marked up by the vicious early work of Gaethje, scored a knockdown midway through the round and quickly seized back control, putting him in position to sink in a rear-naked choke for the 30th finish and 21st submission of his 33-win pro career. In UFC fights, he has 19 finishes and 16 submissions -- both Octagon records.
If only there were a strong grappler in the division who might be able to contend with Oliveira's ground game. Too bad Khabib Nurmagomedov is retired, right?
The job might just have to go to Islam Makhachev, a Nurmagomedov friend, countryman and teammate who has been referred to as Khabib 2.0. The 22-1 Makhachev has been working his way up the lightweight hierarchy, and his emergence couldn't have come at a better time. -- Wagenheim
Should Tony Ferguson really have faced Michael Chandler?
Early during fight week, when I was plotting out the UFC 274 bouts that were must-see, I also noted a couple that I suspected might be hard to watch. One that I picked out ended up not happening, after Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone took sick Saturday, sparing us from the possibility of seeing him extend his six-fight winless streak in a way that might make us cringe. The other fight I selected did go on and was indeed difficult to watch -- but not necessarily right away.
I had feared that Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson would be a painful display of what happens when someone at or near the top of his game (Chandler) faces a fighter whose career has been fading (Ferguson, who was coming off three brutal losses). It could get ugly fast, I thought.
But then Ferguson came out for the lightweight bout and hurt Chandler right away. Early on, Ferguson looked fluid and dangerous and clearly competitive. Maybe I was wrong about this booking?
Just seconds into Round 2, Chandler threw a straight right kick up the middle, and when the ball of his foot connected flush on Ferguson's chin, the fight was over. Ferguson fell limply on his face, unconscious, and lay there motionless for several moments. Even after he came to and was helped to his feet, Ferguson still looked dazed and absent.
Was this scary knockout a direct byproduct of Ferguson being a faded fighter, his reflexes too slow to protect him and his chin no longer able to withstand impact? Or was this just something that could happen to anyone, even a champ or prime-of-career fighter? No one knows for sure, but I'll just say this: It was the type of ending I was envisioning as a possibility for Ferguson and Cerrone when I expressed concern over their bookings.
"Cowboy" and "El Cucuy" are legends of MMA. Both have delivered countless thrills and glorious moments over the years. No one is asking for these end-of-career guys to be shut down entirely, but matchmakers need to recognize where the fighters are in their careers before sending two of them into the cage together.
During a UFC run highlighted by a 12-fight winning streak, Ferguson was breathtaking. But now when he fights we're left to hold our breath. -- Wagenheim
Namajunas-Esparza: A title fight unlike any other
"I'm the best! I'm the best!"
That was the mantra Rose Namajunas said aloud, quietly and resolutely and over and over, as she walked out to the cage for the co-main event.
I wonder what mantra she had for the lonely walk back to the dressing room as a former champion.
Namajunas, to be fair, has shown herself to be the best strawweight in the world these past few years, with two reigns as champ and two victories apiece over former champs Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili, as well as a win over another titleholder, Jessica Andrade. But Saturday night she was not the best -- or at least she opted to not show us her best.
In the end, Carla Esparza was booed after getting her arm raised and having the belt wrapped around her waist. She didn't deserve that fan response -- or at least not all of it. She had moved forward during much of the fight, but Namajunas kept her distance and refused to engage. Esparza accomplished little over the five rounds, it's true, but little is better than nothing, and that "nothing" is what Namajunas showed until the very end of the bout, when it was too late.
Two questions linger: First, was this the worst title fight in UFC history? It's certainly a contender. Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero in 2020 comes to mind as another candidate, and considering that both of those men are walking highlight reels, their dud was especially disappointing. This one was just dull. Esparza landed just 30 significant strikes, the fewest in a decision victory in a UFC title fight in the promotion's modern era. But hey, Esparza is primarily a wrestler. Namajunas, on the other hand, is known as a slick striker. She connected with just 37.
"It's hard to find someone who doesn't want to fight," Esparza said in the Octagon after the bout.
That leads to the second question coming out of this fight: What do we make of Namajunas? Why did a fighter who had stood her ground against several more dangerous foes dance around the Octagon for the better part of her 25 minutes in there with Esparza? I don't know the answer, but do you know who should have known that answer as the fight unfolded? The Namajunas corner. From what I could hear of her coaches, no one tried to light a fire and get Rose to fight like Rose.
Namajunas is an enigma, so much so that this dud of a performance doesn't necessarily signal a demise. The next time she's in the cage, she might look like a world-beater. Which is what she often looked like ... back when she was a champion. -- Wagenheim
Francisco Trinaldo, young at 43
If you want to know how deep the UFC lightweight division is, just take a look at the unranked veteran Francisco Trinaldo. He went all-out against Danny Roberts -- who was coming off a two win streak -- to close the prelims at UFC 274 and light up the Footprint Center.
''Massaranduba'' earned his 18th victory inside the Octagon with a complete striking performance and had Roberts in trouble more than once during the fight. He's one of the many gatekeepers the division has and he's certainly always a fun fighter to watch, constantly looking for the knockout finish. Trinaldo has defeated Bobby Green, Jim Miller and John Makdessi.
At 43 years old and with over a decade fighting for the promotion, he's standing with a 5-1 record in his last six fights. Like Andrei Arlovski, who is also stacking wins against fighters who probably were not even training when he signed with the UFC, Trinaldo isn't showing signs of slowing down and wants to make some memories for his 5-year-old son. And tonight was a good one. -- Legaspi