Any fight that involves Justin Gaethje is guaranteed to produce fireworks. After staying busy sweating a few weeks of Fight Nights from the UFC Apex, bettors are spoiled this Saturday with one of the strongest pay-per-view cards of the year.
UFC 274 gives us two title fights featuring current champions Charles Oliveira and Rose Namajunas. The main card rounds out with legends of the sport in Donald Cerrone, Joe Lauzon and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. It's rare that I come across a fight that I am better off just enjoying as a fan, but Cerrone vs. Lauzon is one of them. I'd rather soak in the nostalgia and curiously watch their final chapters unfold than worry about how effective they will be in their final few fights. If there were a big enough edge, I would bet it. Luckily, the card is packed with plenty of fighters in their prime that hold more predictive value. Here's my betting analysis on the two title fights, my best bet on the preliminary card, and my UFC parlay that pays out at +121. Let's get into the action.
Charles Oliveira (-175) vs. Justin Gaethje (+145)
Oliveira has won 10 straight fights in the UFC's deepest and most competitive division. I don't think there is another fighter's journey that I have grown to appreciate more. The lightweight champion still seems underrated by the market heading into his second title defense. After finishing Dustin Poirier in December as +140 underdog, he comes in as a slight favorite against Justin Gaethje.
"The Highlight" is truly the best way to describe the challenger, a fighter who delivers 7.5 significant strikes per minute and absorbs even more. Gaethje uses his crushing leg kicks to set up his devastating left hand with the sole intention of putting his opponent to sleep. Gaethje is at his best when the fight turns into a brawl, but that type of approach will certainly open him up for Oliveira to go in for the kill. And nobody has submitted or finished more fighters in UFC history than Oliveira.
The current champion is fully aware of how quickly Gaethje's debilitating leg kicks can change the course of the fight. I expect the seasoned Oliveira, a 41-fight veteran, to be prepared with a game plan to crash the distance and take this fight into a phone booth. Once inside, the champ has a devastating arsenal of elbows and uppercuts from the clinch, where he can transition into sweeps and takedowns to get Gaethje onto the mat. The challenger brings very good defensive wrestling into the bout but has no answer for Oliveira's high-level submission grappling.
Oliveria has developed the maturity and composure to overcome adverse situations, and his last two fights give me confidence he can weather any early storm that Gaethje brings. I wouldn't be surprised if he made quick work of the challenger, but the value at -175 was enough for me to commit to the money line price.
The bet: Charles Oliveira (-175)
Rose Namajunas (-225) vs. Carla Esparza (+185)
"Thug Rose" gets the opportunity to exact revenge on one of the few women to get the best of her inside the Octagon. The current strawweight champion has won six of her last seven fights and ended Zhang Weili's consecutive attempts to dethrone her as champion with a split decision victory last November. Namajuna's evolution as a martial artist has been amazing to watch. She has fight-ending power in her hands, a very technically sound ground game, and can threaten with submissions off her back. She is the most well-rounded martial artist in the division and a rightful champion. It may not matter Saturday night.
Both fighters hold wide advantages in this matchup, and the one that can dictate where the fight takes place will get her hand raised. Labeling this a "striker vs. grappler" matchup does a huge disservice to Namajunas' overall skill set, but in MMA you are only as good as your greatest vulnerability. For Namajunas, that's her takedown defense. Rose was taken down five times in her last fight by Weili, the same number of times she was taken down in her loss to Esparza in 2014. Esparza averages 3.53 takedowns per 15 minutes, or 5.88 when extrapolated over a five-round fight. Asking Namajunas to keep this fight standing long enough to win three out of five rounds doesn't seem realistic against an opponent that will be relentless with her wrestling and top control.
The two most likely scenarios are Esparza winning by decision and Namajunas knocking her out on the feet. While "Thug Rose" absolutely has the striking to get that done, I don't think the odds accurately reflect the likelihood of that happening. Esparza may be a one-trick pony, but I can see her riding her wrestling to a decision win. The juicy underdog at +185 is definitely worth a bet for me.
The bet: Carla Esparza (+185)
Tracy Cortez (-145) vs. Melissa Gatto (+120)
It wouldn't be a UFC card without a plus-money play on the prelims. This is an intriguing stylistic matchup between two fighters who are both undefeated in their first few fights in the UFC. Cortez holds an advantage in striking, but that edge lacks relevance considering neither fighter is interested in keeping this one on the feet. As the fight progresses, Cortez will instinctually implement her wrestling, testing Gatto off her back. But that's a dangerous game to play with the 22-year-old Brazilian prospect. Before winning her first two UFC fights by TKO, all four of her previous wins came via multiple submissions. Whether she is hunting for an armbar, cranking a Kimura, or choking out her opponent, Gatto has proven she can finish fights.
I think this is the perfect matchup for her to showcase her grappling, and she is very live as an underdog against a wrestler determined to keep the fight where Gatto is most comfortable. Inside the distance at +375 is worth consideration, but to ensure we start Saturday off with a winner, let's make sure the majority of our stake is on Gatto to win at +120.
The bet: Melissa Gatto (+120)
The parlay: Andre Fiahlo, Kleydson Rodrigues, and Ovince St. Preux (+121)
*Stats provided by ufcstats.com.