Monday, May 23, 2022

UFC 274 — Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje: Three biggest storylines to follow in Phoenix

UFC 274 goes down this Saturday, and as with nearly every UFC pay-per-view event, the promotion has loaded the card with big names and familiar faces. Sitting atop the card are a pair of championship contests as Charles Oliveira defends the UFC lightweight championship against Justin Gaethje and fan-favorite strawweight champion Rose Namajunas puts her belt on the line against Carla Esparza.

Also on the card are some of the most electrifying fighters in UFC history, with former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua taking on Ovince Saint Preux, former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson battling former title challenger Michael Chandler and the UFC legends Donald Cerrone and Joe Lauzon finally fighting it out.

It’s the kind of fight card that’s easy to get excited for, but there’s always more than just the matchups to be considered when looking at a fight card. There are deep and compelling stories running through the card, with legacies and fighting futures all on the line. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three biggest storylines heading into the stacked UFC 274 card.

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1. Charles Oliveira’s endless quest to prove himself

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Charles Oliveira is ready to step into the Octagon against an opponent who has lobbed accusations that the lightweight champion “quits” when the going gets tough. Oliveira, who has now won 10 consecutive fights, including championship bouts against Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier, can’t shake that particular criticism, no matter how ridiculous it looks fight after fight.

Gaethje has been a particularly loud voice in those claims. This despite Oliveira being hurt and dropped by both Chandler and Poirier and showing grit and heart in coming back to finish both men. Oliveira has been in the Octagon 29 times, he has submitted a record 15 opponents and knocked out three others. Yes, he has been finished several times in his career, but Oliveira is one of the greatest lightweights to ever put on a pair of fingerless gloves and has fought a who’s who of the greatest lightweights of his era while finishing far more than have finished him.

Should Oliveira beat Gaethje, who no doubt will follow through on his promise to put the champion through hell, Oliveira will hold three consecutive wins over the kind of gritty, hard-charging fighters who specialize in making guys wilt under pressure. You’d like to think that would be enough to drop the narrative that Oliveira quits in the fire, but it’s hard to shake a narrative once it’s stuck to your name.

2. Rose Namajunas’ quest to build her legacy

Namajunas has faced her own past issues with being called mentally weak. Ahead of her UFC 217 fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jedrzejczyk called Namajunas “mentally unstable” and “broken already.” Namajunas took less than one round to beat Jedrzejczyk to win her first strawweight championship before dominating her in the rematch.

While her brutal slam knockout loss to Jessica Andrade nearly sent Namajunas into retirement, she once again proved her mental toughness by coming back to beat Andrade in the rematch before reclaiming the strawweight title with a highlight-reel headkick knockout of Weili Zhang before retaining the belt in a sensational rematch.

Now, Namajunas has another chance to reshape her career narrative when she faces off with Carla Esparza, the woman who defeated Namajunas in her first shot at gold in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter Season 20. As she did against Andrade, Namajunas has a chance to avenge a loss to someone who beat her in a championship clash. These are the chances to erase those nagging footnotes that exist on a fighter’s legacy when they decide to hang up the gloves and Namajunas no doubt wants her revenge.

3. Desperate times for legendary fighters

It seems ridiculous that, in 2022, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is in a less desperate spot than Tony Ferguson and Donald Cerrone heading into a card featuring all three men, but that’s the reality. Cerrone has stepped in the Octagon six consecutive times without having his hand raised. Ferguson, meanwhile, has been completely dominated in three straight fights, looking like a shell of the fighter who won 15 of his first 16 UFC fights.

For Cerrone and Ferguson, there’s almost no slack left if they want to remain relevant in meaningful fights. Ferguson faces a monumental task in trying to rebound against Michael Chandler, a fighter who is very similar to Gaethje, the man who started Ferguson’s downward spiral with a lengthy beating at UFC 249. Cerrone doesn’t face a test of the same level, battling Joe Lauzon, who is 4-6 since 2015 and hasn’t fought since October 2019. A loss to Lauzon, however, would be disastrous for Cerrone and could signal that he is no longer able to compete at the UFC level after putting the stress of more than a decade of wars on his body.

Every fighter eventually reaches the end of the road. It’s time for Ferguson and Cerrone to show if there’s still enough gas in the tank to keep rolling a little further down the line.

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