Monday, March 20, 2023

UFC 274 fight card: Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza, Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson among fights to watch

UFC 274 guarantees violence with multiple Fight of the Night contenders on the main card. Prolific finishers Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje will throw everything at each other in pursuit of the UFC lightweight championship. The remainder of the main card is full of tantalizing matchups. 

UFC women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas and former titleholder Carla Esparza enter the next chapters of a rivalry spanning eight years — a saga that dates back to the inception of the strawweight division. Twelve other fights are scheduled for UFC 274, featuring everything from a future Hall of Famer to all-action veterans and some serious heavy hitters.

Let’s take a look at three must-see fights on the UFC 274 card, plus a few honorable mentions.

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Rose Namajunas (c) vs. Carla Esparza

Namajunas vs. Esparza is one of the better organic championship storylines in recent memory. Their UFC journeys have been intertwined since their promotional debuts in 2014. Esparza and Namajunas were the finalists of “The Ultimate Fighter 20,” where Esparza finished Namajunas to become win the tournament and be crowned the inaugural UFC women’s strawweight champion. Esparza was clobbered by Joanna Jędrzejczyk in her first title defense and spent the next seven years clawing and scratching her way back to a title shot. Namajunas, meanwhile, catapulted to stardom as arguably the most popular strawweight champion in history, defeating Jędrzejczyk and Zhang Weili twice. The story of Namajunas vs. Esparza is one of reversed fortunes. Esparza dangled glory in front of a young Namajunas and tossed it off the mountainside. Namajunas now awaits Esparza at the summit of the challenger’s eight-year journey.

Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson

Chandler vs. Ferguson would have been a mouthwatering Bellator vs. UFC dream match in 2020. Two years later, the tone of the fight has changed quite a bit. Ferguson has experienced a tremendous fall from grace, losing three consecutive fights and generally appearing a few steps behind his prime. Chandler has delivered heart-thumping action for the entirety of his brief UFC run. It is true that he was immediately tossed into the deep end, but the reality is that he is 1-2 in the UFC. Perhaps not the most soundproof set-up for “fight to watch,” but here are the silver linings. Chandler vs. Ferguson will be violent. Bloodthirsty UFC fans can look forward to watching two gladiators who refuse to take a backward step. This is also a much-needed PR scrub for the winner. Chandler had Charles Oliveira in serious danger during their UFC lightweight title fight in 2021. He gave almost as good as he caught against the supremely dangerous Justin Gaethje. Chandler is still a believable threat to UFC champions, he just needs momentum. Ferguson is a significant underdog heading into this clash and a victory over a violent, inadvisably tough Chandler would do wonders for his confidence.

“You back someone up into a corner, that’s when they really come out fighting,” Chandler told Brian Campbell on “Morning Kombat” last week. “I think Tony Ferguson is primed for a resurgence. I think Tony still feels in his mind that he’s still one of the top guys. You always have to remember that [we’re] fighting the toughest guys on the planet at 155 pounds. So you lose a couple of fights, it’s not necessarily because you’ve lost a step. It’s not indicative of losing a step. It’s indicative of the strength of schedule and how tough these fights are at the top of the division.”

Donald Cerrone vs. Joe Lauzon

The UFC rarely books legend vs. legend fights. When the promotion does, it is a cause for celebration. UFC’s matchmaking often pits aging veterans against dangerous young fighters. This passing of the torch can be valuable in select circumstances (see Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva). Generally, however, the young fighter fails to capitalize against tougher opposition and the beloved veteran absorbs unnecessary damage to the benefit of absolutely nobody. Cerrone and Lauzon are well past their prime. If they are inclined to keep fighting, a matchup like this is perfect. “Cowboy” and Lauzon have shed enough blood to earn every fan and fighter’s respect. The UFC tenures of Cerrone and Lauzon date back 11 and 16 years, respectively. Cerrone boasts 27 career finishes and Lauzon falls just short with 26 finishes, albeit with 11 less professional fights. Bonus hunters through and through, the two combatants lay claim to 20 performance bonuses and 13 Fight of the Nights. Cerrone proudly claims the record for most knockdowns (20) in UFC history, while Lauzon has earned the most Submission of the Night awards (6). Cerrone and Lauzon will likely give Chandler and Ferguson a run for their money in the Fight of the Night race and fans will surely be behind both veterans.

Honorable mentions: Randy Brown vs. Khaos Williams, Brandon Royval vs. Matt Schnell

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