I had this article all ready to go. UFC 274 featured one of the most anticipated contests of the year, the title fight between Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje. Then Oliveira had to go and miss weight, leaving himself without the title and ineligible to regain it if he were to win. Not that it isn’t still anticipate, but it changes the entire dynamic. There wasn’t nearly as much buzz for the co-main event, but it does produce a far more intriguing storyline. Inaugural UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza has clawed her way back into the title picture, looking to reclaim the gold from the very person she originally beat to be crowned champion, Rose Namajunas. Of course, that fight happened all the way back in 2014 and Namajunas is a completely different fighter now, perhaps the greatest strawweight in history. The fight between Oliveira and Gaethje is still intriguing and I’m still looking forward to it, but it has lost a bit of the luster.
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Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje, Lightweight
To alter the famous Dennis Green quote, “He’s not who we thought he was.” Well, that was the thought before the weight miss, but we’ll get to that in a bit. No one ever doubted the talent of Oliveira. From the moment he touched down in the UFC at the tender age of 20 in 2010, it was readily apparent to anyone with the slightest knowledge of MMA that Oliveira had the physical tools and skills to be an all-time great. It was the mental side of things. After unusual stoppage losses to the likes of Cub Swanson and Max Holloway, Oliveira was dubbed a quitter who would never climb to the top. That idea was only reinforced once again when he flamed out against Paul Felder after a white-hot start.
Following that loss, something flipped. Oliveira hasn’t lost again. Perhaps you’d think with his slick submission skills that have placed him atop the UFC with the most submission wins in the history of the organization that he’s been catching opponents early and often. While Oliveira has secured plenty of submissions in the course of his current 10-fight win streak – six to be exact – they haven’t always come quickly. In fact, Oliveira has been given plenty of opportunities to quit. Michael Chandler rocked and hurt him. Dustin Poirier did the same. And yet, in both cases, Oliveira kept his head about him and found a way to overcome adversity, eventually finding a finish in both cases. Oliveira doesn’t appear to be the quitter everyone labeled him as.
If the quitter is still in Oliveira, Gaethje is the man to find it. With an insane disposition that has resulted in the former WSOF champion going through some of the most hellacious fights MMA fans have had the pleasure of taking in, no one has ever called Gaethje a quitter. His fight IQ can be questioned all day, but never his will to win. To be fair to Gaethje, he has shown growth as a fighter, showing more attention to his striking technique and when to unload like a madman. However, his most recent contest, an all-timer with Michael Chandler, showed he can be lured into a firefight, even if it isn’t the best course of action for him.
More damning for Gaethje’s fight IQ is his refusal to mix in his wrestling. Despite an impressive resume from his college days, Gaethje still has yet to officially complete a takedown in his nine UFC fights. Some will argue several of those fights ended in the first round, but he’s also had a couple go into the championship rounds. Offering the threat of a takedown is one of the best ways to open up striking opportunities. Perhaps it doesn’t matter against Oliveira – there are few whom I would think would voluntarily want to go to the floor with the champ – but the issue does leave open the questions of Gaethje’s fight IQ.
However, while everyone loves to talk about how Oliveira is no longer a quitter, what is frequently overlooked is his abilities on the feet. Perfectly content to be taken down, Oliveira fires off his kicks and punches with an abandon that few can. It isn’t just from the outside the lanky Muay Thai practitioner fires them off at either. He’s proven adept in the clinch, striking with elbows and knees. It isn’t so much that Oliveira is overpowering from there. It’s that he’s proven to be the master of the standing back take and opponents have to pick their poison once their in close quarters: either allow Oliveira to fire away or risk having their back taken as they look to break away. Neither choice is good.
What could prove to be the equalizer for Gaethje is his low kicks. Given his reputation as a wild brawler, it’s easy to forget how devastating his low kicks can be. Then again, Oliveira doesn’t fight with a wide base, meaning Gaethje is likely to open himself up to Oliveira’s striking if he makes those kicks a priority. In other words, I don’t anticipate Gaethje’s kicks being a major player.
Make no mistake, Gaethje can win this. My first instinct was to pick Gaethje. The man’s desire to win is insane and he’s willing to do anything to do that. Plus, if there’s anyone who could bring the quitter out of Oliveira, it’s Gaethje. However, I also said the same thing about Poirier. Poirier gave Oliveira every chance to quit. Oliveira didn’t quit. But does the weight miss indicate Oliveira is in a bad place mentally? He doesn’t have nearly as much to gain with a win as Gaethje does. I marked differently on the staff picks, stating Oliveira was going to win. However, in light of the weight miss, I believe that will throw the former champion off mentally. Gaethje should capitalize on the likely fragile state of mind of Oliveira. Gaethje via TKO of RD2
Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza, Strawweight
The first fight between these two took place so long ago, it’s difficult to put much stock in that contest in terms of their abilities. However, what can be taken from that fight is the path to victory Esparza will have to take.
At the time of their first contest, Namajunas was only 22 in just her fourth professional contest. She was able to get to the title fight on the strength of her raw talent and instincts. Esparza was the grizzled veteran at the time, fully prepared for the flashy attacks Namajunas threw without discretion at the time. Esparza picked her spots, secured her takedowns at will, and eventually found the submission. Doing that a second time is going to be difficult, but it isn’t going to be impossible.
Namajunas is a polished product at this point. She’s still happy to throw flashy attacks, but they’re no longer the foundation of her attack. A jab is now the center of her attack. Sometimes it’s just the jab, other times she follows it up with longer punching combinations. Regardless, her understanding of distance and angles combined with her dynamism one of, if not the, most dangerous striker in the division. She isn’t quite on the level of Joanna in terms of her technique, but that’s where the flash comes in.
However, there’s still something that’s a big question mark for Namajunas: her takedown defense. That isn’t to say Namajunas hasn’t improved in that department; she has. The improved use of angles and distance alone would make it harder to take her down. But Esparza has also improved in that time and may be the most technical wrestler in the division. In other words, even as Namajunas is now potentially the greatest strawweight in the history of the UFC, Esparza still represents a bad matchup for her.
Where Esparza has made the most improvements is in her standup. I’m not predicting she’s going to outstrike Namajunas in a standup affair. That’s a ludicrous idea. But her boxing should allow her to keep rounds close enough before she can find a takedown. And all Esparza needs is three rounds, not all five. Keeping Namajunas down isn’t going to be easy, but Esparza can do it.
Despite Esparza being a bad matchup for Namajunas, the reigning champion is still the favorite. Just because it isn’t hard to see Esparza nailing three takedowns, can she do it early enough in rounds to secure the rounds? Can see keep Namajunas down long enough as well? Can she do enough damage once the fight hits the ground to definitively take the round? Plus, Namajunas now has more big fight experience than Esparza. Namajunas is now the one used to the brighter spotlight. Plus, Namajunas has all the motivation in the world given Esparza beat her the first time. Esparza doesn’t get enough credit for her durability and toughness – remember the armbar Alexa Grasso had her in? – but that will only keep her in the fight. Namajunas should retain her title and gain a measure of revenge. Namajunas via decision
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