Justin Gaethje’s all-out aggression has made him one of the most popular fighters in the UFC.
He believes it also can win him a title Saturday night when he challenges lightweight champion Charles Oliveira in the main event of UFC 274 at Footprint Center in Phoenix.
It’s a second shot at the belt for Gaethje, the former World Series of Fighting champion who has been a fan-favorite since bringing his wide-open offensive attack to the UFC in 2017. The main card is on pay-per-view at 7 p.m. with the first fights streaming on ESPN-Plus at 3 p.m.
The only exception, in his mind, was his 2020 loss to champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Gaethje believes he paid the price of a second-round submission loss by coming out too cautious that night.
“My tactic was going be to evade (Nurmagomedov) and that’s the first and only time I’ve had that mindset,” Gaethje said. “It won’t happen on Saturday. If he marches through me, then good for him. But I won’t be moving backward.”
Oliveira’s career has been on a very forward trajectory since moving back up to lightweight in 2017 after several years of struggling to make weight at 145 pounds. After splitting his first two fights at 155, he has reeled off 10 straight wins.
The Brazilian won the belt last May by knocking out Michael Chandler in the second round. Oliveira’s lone title defense was a third-round submission of Dustin Poirier in December. Oliveira found himself in all kinds of trouble in both those fights only to rally for victories.
Those victories have seemingly shed the front-runner label that was attached to Oliveria early in his career. He has been finished seven times and often faded once things didn’t go his way.
Gaethje isn’t buying it.
“I think that’s true, however, once a coward always a coward,” Gaethje said of whether Oliveira has shown more heart since becoming champion. “I’m not calling him a coward, but I’m saying that’s (expletive) you can’t just take away. It’s there. Khabib never showed you that, and that’s why you can’t compare those two.
“The same Charles that fought Cub Swansom. The same Charles that fought Donald Cerrone. The same Charles that fought (Anthony) Pettis. Choices were made by him in those fights and the choice was to quit. And I’m going to give him that choice on Saturday night, I guarantee that.”
Oliveira insists his resolve isn’t the only improvement he’s made. Early in his career, he would just hunt submissions and wasn’t known for his all-around game.
But he also made his UFC debut at the age of 20. He’s now 32.
“Listen, he’s a truck,” Oliveira said of Gaethje. “He only moves forward; I only move forward. So there’s definitely gonna be collisions, definitely gonna be a clash.
”I’m not a jiu-jitsu fighter anymore. I’m a complete MMA fighter. I want everyone to know. It seems like guys are not getting the picture.”
The card also features a women’s strawweight bout between champion Rose Namajunas and former champ Carla Esparza, as well as a lightweight contender bout between Chandler and Tony Ferguson.
Ferguson has lost three in a row and hasn’t fought in more than a year. He returned with several strong takes on fighter pay and how the UFC treats its athletes. It’s somewhat fitting then that he will step in against someone he once accused of having “Dana White Privilege” for getting a title bout in just his second UFC fight.
Chandler admitted he still finds that comment from 2021 humorous.
“I’m sorry Tony but that ‘Dana White privilege’ line might be the funniest thing that has ever been said on a microphone in the context of mixed martial arts,” Chandler said. “He’s right, I’m his boss’ favorite fighter, I’m Dana’s favorite fighter, Dana White privilege is not on the line here, I’ve already got it.
“But I’ve got no animosity towards him, it’s all business. All I know is he’s going to run into a buzzsaw on Saturday night and my Dana White privilege is not going to make a difference no matter what.”
Main card bouts for Saturday’s pay-per-view event at Footprint Center in Phoenix
Charles Oliveira (32-8, 1 No Contest) vs. Justin Gaethje (24-3), for Oliveira’s lightweight title
Rose Namajunas (12-4) vs. Carla Esparza (19-6), for Namajunas’ women’s strawweight title
Michael Chandler (22-7) vs. Tony Ferguson (26-7), lightweights
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (27-12-1) vs. Ovince Saint-Preux (25-16), light heavyweights
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (36-16, 2 No Contests) vs. Joe Lauzon (28-16), lightweights