UFC 274: Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje top the list in Phoenix

UFC 274: If anyone’s going to wither, it’s going to be Oliveira – Chandler

There is a sense of anticipation in Phoenix, Arizona.

UFC 274 takes place in the city known as the Valley of the Sun on Saturday (03:00 BST, Sunday) with a stacked fight card, headlined by Brazilian Charles Oliveira, who takes on Arizona’s Justin Gaethje.

There was a drama on Friday while Oliveira was stripped of his lightweight title for failing to make weight, meaning only Gaethje can win the belt.

In the co-main, Rose Namajunas takes on fellow American Carla Esparza for the strawweight title in a rematch eight years after they first met, which Esparza won to become the UFC’s first 115-pound champion.

And on the undercard, Michael Chandler takes on Tony Ferguson in a fight that many fans believe will steal the show.

“The only thing I envision is for Oliveira to fall asleep”

Gaethje seeks to become undisputed UFC lightweight champion for the first time

Justin Gaethje, 33, has a tremendous reputation in MMA.

His nickname is the “Human Highlight Reel” in reference to the number of spectacular knockouts on his resume, which includes 20 stoppages in 23 fights.

Once called a reckless fighter, Gaethje is now as ruthless as can be. His savagery is complemented by his technical mastery and discipline.

However, the American is yet to become undisputed lightweight champion, missing his previous opportunity against Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2020.

Now against Oliveira he has the chance again and told BBC Sport what it would feel like to win the title in front of his fans in Arizona.

“The only thing I’m considering, and I’ve considered it four times, is him [Oliveira] fall asleep,” Gaethje said.

“I want it [winning the title] feel as pure as possible and it’s going to be amazing.”

Although the attraction for fans in Arizona is Gaethje’s presence, Oliveria is one of the biggest names in the sport.

The 32-year-old won the belt a year ago from Chandler before successfully defending it in December by choking out Dustin Poirier.

He has 10 straight wins, with finishes in all but one, and 15 submissions throughout his UFC career — the most in promotion history.

Chandler recently fought both fighters and thinks it will be Gaethje who gets his hand up.

“If anyone’s going to wither it’s going to be Oliveira, although we’ve seen a tougher, more resilient Oliveira in the last two fights,” Chandler told BBC Sport.

“I still think Gaethje has the advantage in striking, power, punches and grapples, chin, cardio and toughness.

“So if I was a bettor I would bet on Justin Gaethje, but one thing we learned about Oliveira is that you can’t count him.”

Can Namajunas avenge Esparza’s defeat?

Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas in 2014
Esparza defeated Namajunas in his UFC debut in 2014

It’s been eight years since Esparza submitted Namajunas to become the first UFC strawweight champion.

Since that fight however, the careers of the two fighters have followed different trajectories.

Namajunas, 29, quickly rebounded and established herself as one of the best 115-pound fighters in the world, becoming a two-time strawweight champion.

Esparza, meanwhile, has had an up and down career since.

She lost her next fight to Joanna Jędrzejczyk in 2015 and then struggled to put together a winning streak until 2019. The 34-year-old now enters the rematch with Namajunas after a five-fight winning streak.

“There are so many emotions, but I’m like ‘finally the fight is here,'” Esparza said.

“I think stylistically we’re both similar to what we were back then. But when we originally fought, she [Namajunas] was much greener for sports.

“She’s more comfortable on the big stage now and that will play a big role – she was dangerous then and she is now.”

Will Chandler and Ferguson steal the show?

Michael Chandler and Tony Ferguson
Chandler and Ferguson showed a lot of respect to each other during fight week

Chandler v Ferguson has all the ingredients to be a classic, but both fighters are desperate for a win.

Chandler, 36, has proven to be an entertaining acquisition for the UFC since making his debut in January 2021, but has suffered a loss in two of his three fights.

Meanwhile, Ferguson – once considered one of the best lightweights on the planet – is coming off three lopsided losses.

Many now believe Ferguson’s best days are behind him, but Chandler disagrees.

“He’s probably going to be the most dangerous,” Chandler told BBC Sport.

“What makes Tony so scary is that he’s so unpredictable that there isn’t a man alive who can help you prepare for him.

“That’s why everyone is going to be on the edge of their seat and that’s why we’re going to steal the show.”

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