The UFC returns this weekend with its latest numbered event, when UFC 274 boasts two title bouts and several other intriguing matchups. Set for the Footprint centre in Phoenix, Arizona, we look at some of the must-watch fights that take place early on Sunday in the UAE.
Charles Oliveira (c) v Justin Gaethje (lightweight)
The UFC delivers yet another champion versus No 1-ranked challenger, as Oliveira makes the second defence of the title he won in spectacular fashion last year.
The Brazilian, who boasts the most finishes (18) and the most submission victories (15) in the promotion’s history, rides a 10-fight win streak (he is 32-8 overall in professional MMA). Oliveira's performances against Michael Chandler – to capture the crown – and then to keep hold of it in December against Dustin Poirier each featured strong tests of character.
To his immense credit, Oliveira came through both. In Gaethje, he faces one of the UFC’s most exciting fighters, evidenced by the 2021 fight of the year he shared with Chandler only in November. The American (24-3) is a former interim champion who has fought for the undisputed belt once before – a submission defeat to then-champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in Abu Dhabi in late 2020. Billed as the submission expert against the supreme striker, something has to give.
Oliveira, though, has displayed a relatively newfound resolve to climb to the division’s summit. Gaethje will presumably need to again live up to his “The Highlight” moniker.
Rose Namajunas (c) v Carla Esparza (women's strawweight)
Another title defence, another rematch for Namajunas. The champion, coming off a dominant decision victory in November in her second encounter with Zhang Weili, will this time be out for revenge having lost the initial bout against Esparza for the inaugural strawweight crown way back when, in 2014.
Since, however, Namajunas has established herself as the pre-eminent force in the division, winning nine of 11 fights to take her record to 12-4. She has sealed the title twice, most recently when defeating Zhang in their first clash last year – it took a mere 90 seconds, secured with a beautiful head-kick.
Esparza, meanwhile, has worked her way back up to a championship shot after relinquishing the belt to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2015; having at first exchanged a series of wins and losses, she now has triumphed in her past five UFC appearances. Her most recent win, a second-round TKO of against Yan Xiaonan in May last year, ensures Esparza (18-6) goes into this contest full of confidence.
The only thing is, in Namajunas, she is up against an expert technician intent on ‘greatest of all-time’ status.
Michael Chandler v Tony Ferguson (lightweight)
Coming off an incredibly memorable 2021, in which he sparkled on debut – in Abu Dhabi last January – fought for the title and then delivered the fight of the year, Chandler isn’t resting on his laurels.
The American, a three-time lightweight champion in Bellator, proved against Gaethje that he has the mettle to go with the mighty skill set, and this weekend can begin to build back the road to another title shot.
The most recent, 12 months ago to Beneil Dariush, may have gone to the decision, but it was extremely one-sided. It is worth remembering, that before his brutal defeat to Gaethje in 2020, Ferguson had put together an incredible 12-fight win streak and was renowned as among the UFC's most dangerous combatants.
Having disappeared from view this past year, he emerged this week with an ever bigger chip on his shoulder. Chandler, 22-7, is a serious and substantial test, though. The stakes are therefore awfully high for both men.