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 world champion has a name: 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. Do Bronx was in high stress situations again and did a remarkable job, speeding through Justin Gaethje’s hellish world with an ease and swiftness that borders 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 wishes to be the person answering a trivia question or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in purse money. This is the culmination and potential pay-per view points that could make future bouts worth even more. Years from now, the next time a UFC beltholder loses their title on the scale, “Do Bronx” will be the first name evoked. 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 statistic? Oliveira was knocked out or almost finished in all of his previous fights. He’s also won each one within two rounds. This is absurd.
We’ve reached the point where this resume 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 pretty much every divisional record 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). This sounds like a fight at the end of their careers, one in the final stages of his Hall of Fame career. 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.
Conor McGregor may jump in to steal another title shot for Oliveira — McGregor tried his hardest on Saturday, but it’s my hope that the UFC will do the right thing. I believe Islam Makhachev deserves the chance. We’ll have to shift this conversation to a completely different level if Oliveira is able to dispel the aura that seems to surround Khabib Nurmagomedov as the heir apparent.
2. Carla Esparza vs. Rose Namajunas 2 was the worst title fight of the UFC’s modern era.
Although it may seem exaggerated,
It is 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. Every one of these events had at most one short burst or oddity, where damage was done or some fun weirdness.
But Esparza vs. Namajunas 2?
You know the answer if you’ve watched.
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, Gaethje almost matched this total in just over three minutes. There was never a feeling of urgency. There were never adjustments. Never was there a motivational speech from the corner emphasizing the gravity of the moment. Nothing. The same non-initiating, circling, feinting behavior. This is simultaneously the best UFC champion fight and UFC champion corner performance I have ever witnessed. 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. She was for long periods the only person in that cage that seemed to be aware of a fight. She cleared the cage if that was where she set 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” will be able to walk down the aisle with her shiny new UFC belt. She’s also not going to get bruised for any of 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 ever wants to be the UFC champion again, this is her best chance. 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. The view was so beautiful, people. 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. It’s obvious 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. Another factor is? 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. Four out of five people 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 had basically a sparring match that was low energy with long periods 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 would be great if MMA judges could figure this out. I’m not asking for much here.
5. Standing out amongst the crowded sea of MMA uniformity can be difficult. But Andre Fialho has found a place in this crowded market. 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. The man was granted his wishes. Fialho told us post-fight that he’s already booked for June 11 in Singapore against a yet-to-be-determined opponent. This will be the 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 are worse ways than to make yourself a household name in the UFC. You can do this by portraying yourself as Donald Cerrone, a modern-day Donald Cerrone who is obsessed with bloodlust and has sarcastic 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. He is a classic reminder of what Charles Oliveira taught us — that the paths in MMA are not always straight and that even if a prospect falls a few times early on in their careers, it doesn’t mean they won’t be able to become a great fighter.