PHOENIX (AP) — Charles Oliveira didn’t make weight on Friday and must vacate his lightweight title. Now only Justin Gaethje can claim the belt during UFC 274.
Oliveira (32-8) came in a half-pound over the 155 limit. If he wins Saturday night, he will be the No. 1 contender and get a shot at winning the title back in his next fight.
The fight against Gaethje will be the co-main event at UFC 274, along with Rose Namajunas’ strawweight title defense against former champion Carla Esparza.
Oliveira ran into trouble in his lightweight title fights against Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier, rallying to beat both with a resolve that had been questioned earlier in his career.
The Brazilian will likely need to dig deep again against Justin Gaethje, one of the most aggressive fighters in any weight class.
“Listen, he’s a truck,” Oliveira said. “He only moves forward, I only move forward, so there’s definitely going to be collisions, definitely going to be a clash.”
Title fight or not, it figures to be a violent nightcap to a main card that also includes Chandler facing former champion Tony Ferguson and Donald Cerrone squaring off against Joe Lauzon in what could potentially be the final fight in the career of “The Cowboy.”
The fight with Gaethje will be Oliveira’s second since taking the lightweight title from Chandler a year ago. Oliveira was wobbled by Chandler before knocking him out in the second round and had some similar shaky moments against Poirier in December before submitting him in the third round for his 10th straight win.
The wins seemed to allow Oliveira to shed his reputation as a frontrunner, but Gaethje (24-3) believes constant pressure can bring back the quit in him.
“All my criticism of Charles is from a kid that we were all talking about, we all watched grow,” Gaethje said. “Now we’re talking about a man with confidence. A different person, but ultimately the same Charles is still there.”
Gaethje won the interim lightweight title by pummeling Ferguson in 2020, but lost the title to Khabib Nurmagomedov in a second-round submittal later that year. Gaethje, from Safford in eastern Arizona, moved up to the No. 1 contender in the lightweight class with a unanimous decision over Chandler in November.
Now he gets another shot at the title, this time against a crafty fighter who has the most submissions in UFC history with 20.
“I create car crashes and I am the object with the most force,” Gaethje said. “If he wants to play that game, I’m more than happy. He will have to.”
Namajunas (12-4) and Esparza (19-6) will meet in a rematch eight years in the making.
Esparza finished Namajunas to win the inaugural strawweight title in 2014, but was mauled by Joanna Jędrzejczyk in her first title defense. The fighter from Los Angeles has been clawing her way back ever since, rounding out the rest of her attack to go with her elite wrestling.
Esparza last fought a year ago, taking out Yan Xiaonan with a second-round technical knockout to earn a long-awaited title shot.
“This title will mean everything to me,” Esparza said. “Just an accumulation of all these years and all the hard work. It would really make a statement. Not just as a fighter but as a person.”
Namajunas has made a few strides of her own.
The fighter from Milwaukee earned the strawweight title by beating Jędrzejczyk in 2018, but lost it to Jessica Andrade in her first title defense. Namajunas then beat Andrade in the rematch and reclaimed the title by beating Zhang Weili in April 2021. She also won the rematch with Zhang in November, earning a split decision.
Now she gets a chance against Esparza again.
“I’m a completely different person and I think it shows in my fighting,” Namajunas said. ”Obviously, over eight years you should be getting better, physically growing up, but spiritually I feel like I’m totally transformed and just really in love with every moment.”
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