UFC 274 Paths to Victory: Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

This weekend, UFC 274 takes place at Footprint Center in Phoenix and features two title fights and a host of other marquee matchups. But the biggest fight of the weekend is undoubtedly the main event, where lightweight champion Charles Oliveira looks to silence his doubters when he faces off against one-time interim champion Justin Gaethje. Let’s take a look at what each man needs to do to get the win, any X-factors that might be in play, and what we ultimately think will happen.

William Lucas, Inovafoto

Paths to Victory for Oliveira at UFC 274

Charles Oliveira has had one of the most fascinating careers in UFC history. Only 32 years old, the lightweight champion has been competing in the organization since 2010, but he spent much of that time as a featherweight, where he struggled to find consistent success. Then in 2017, “Do Bronx” moved back up to the lightweight division, where he has gone on an absolute tear, amassing an 11-1 record and his current 10-fight winning streak.

During this resurgence, Oliveira has turned into an extremely well-rounded fighter, who isn’t just capable in all phases – he’s dangerous. Oliveira’s grappling game has always been lethal, but lately, he’s developed a much more offensive striker game, and a knack for blending the two together in a way that poses substantial problems to anyone he is facing. Against Gaethje, though, he’d be better served to rely more heavily on his wrestling and grappling.

Gaethje is the most violent man to ever enter MMA, capable of turning the lights out with a single shot, or turning fights into hellacious brawls that break opponents. The best way to nullify both of those traits is to plant Gaethje on his butt, where he presents no tangible threat to Oliveira and where he has been shown to have glaring holes. Once Khabib Nurmagomedov got Gaethje down, he made the one-time interim champ look like a white belt on the floor, and while Oliveira isn’t the same type of grappler, he should find plenty of success there. Engaging in the striking with Gaethje enough to force clinches and look for the trips and bodylock takedowns that Oliveira is so successful with should create the necessary opportunities for Oliveira to get the fight where he needs it to be, and from there, it’s academic.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Paths to victory for Gaethje at UFC 274

While Oliveira has spent his time refining all the facets of his game to become a lethal jack of all trades, Gaethje has instead put all his developmental points into sheer violence. We’re talking about a man who has won “Fight of the Year” three times in the last five years. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Gaethje made his name as the platonic ideal of an MMA brawler: he constantly came forward and threw everything, everywhere, all at once at his opponents, creating a series of increasingly destructive car crashes until one of them fell over. Gaethje was almost never the one who did. But after losing that sort of blood-and-guts battle to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, Gaethje took a step back and adjusted. He still has that brawler par excellence in his back pocket when he needs to go to it (the Michael Chandler fight, for instance), but he also has a much more devastating kickboxing style, where he uses his pressure and leg kicks to open opportunities for his power shots, and as maybe the biggest hitter in the entire lightweight division, that has proven to be a lethal combination.

If this fight were to be contested solely on the feet, Gaethje would win it in a walk. He’s the bigger puncher, has the more battle-tested chin, and his leg kicks should be highly successful against Oliveira. And the way to make sure this fight stays on the feet is for Gaethje to stick to his basic principles and pressure Oliveira without getting too wild. Takedowns are harder to shoot on the back foot, and harder still when your ribs are getting melted with body shots. Investing in the body and legs early will get Oliveira on the back foot, make his takedowns more strained as the fight progresses, and open up chances for Gaethje to land a big shot up top to put the fight away.

X-Factor

Part of what makes Oliveira’s sudden rise to a title so impressive is the dramatic change that we’ve seen from him during this run. Oliveira has long been known as one a man with predatory grappling using a variety of submissions, but not a guy with a great chin. More importantly, he’s had a reputation of quitting when things got tough. But, in his past two fights, Oliveira has battled through adversity against Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier and did so by surviving a barrage of heavy punches.

Shaking that sort of a reputation is one of the most difficult things to do in MMA, but it really does seem like Oliveira has beaten that particular demon back. That being said, as Gaethje has repeatedly noted, “once a quitter, always a quitter,” and, to some extent, there is truth there. Gaethje is the most violent man in the sport, and until we see the fight, the question of whether Oliveira has the physical and mental wherewithal to withstand him will linger.

Who will win?

This is the classic striker vs. grappler matchup and a razor close fight, but in the end, I think Gaethje can get it done. For years people supposed that Gaethje was the most difficult test for Khabib because of his wrestling ability and even though that fight didn’t go well for him, it’s instructive here. Khabib had to eat enormous shots to get Gaethje down and struggled to do so at first. Khabib is, obviously, a substantially better wrestler and a much more physically imposing grappler than Oliveira. Gaethje should be able to keep this fight mostly upright and while Oliveira isn’t a sitting duck there, eventually, he will be. Gaethje simply is too good at forcing the sorts of fights he wants, and Oliveira doesn’t have the timber to win a battle there.

Justin Gaethje by KO, Round 3.

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