With Canelo and UFC 274 This Weekend, a Cavalcade of Combat Sports Is Upon UsMay 6, 2022
If you're a combat sports fan and you have $134.98 in extra dollars to spend, you have one job this weekend. You must batten down the hatches. Batten them down, shelter in place and take in one of the best combat sports weekends in recent memory, as it involves six fighters holding a whopping seven active championship belts between them.
First, you have the greatest boxer in the world in Saul "Canelo" Alvarez. He's a -475 favorite (bet $475 to win $100) to handle Dmitry Bivol and win the WBA light heavyweight title, per DraftKings. (Canelo's four belts are not at stake.)
In the other corner, you have UFC 274, with not one but two title fights. In the co-main event, the ever-compelling Rose Namajunas puts her strawweight title on the line against Carla Esparza, the UFC's inaugural champion in that weight class. In the main event, the great Charles Oliveira faces yet another stiff test in the personage of Justin Gaethje, one of the most devastating strikers on the UFC roster, non-heavyweight division. (Editor's note: this was written before Oliveira's failed weigh-in and the subsequent stripping of his lightweight title. Visit here for all the details on the weigh-in and its implications for UFC 274 and beyond.)
From a fan's perspective, this is a clash of the titans—boxing's biggest star versus one of the best UFC pay-per-view cards the promotion can make. Millions of pay-per-view buys are on the line. (And the prices are steep, with UFC 274 going for $74.99 on ESPN+ and the Canelo main card running $59.99 on streaming service DAZN). There will be no losers among us couch-sitters.
Let us now take a look at these three monster fights and why they're important on an individual level, much less collectively.
UFC 274: The Main Event
Let's start with the UFC. All Gaethje did in his last engagement was wage a Fight of the Year candidate with Bellator's superstar transplant and fellow bomb-thrower Michael Chandler. Gaethje's uppercut is one of his flashier strikes, but 22 percent of his shots went to the legs. That's a high percentage for low kicks, which he fires off with little or no windup. He's right up there with Jose Aldo, Edson Barboza and legendary Vale Tudo wild man Pedro Rizzo among the best leg-kickers in MMA history.
He also showed an iron chin in absorbing early haymakers from Chandler that would have had a normal fighter staring up at the lights. Gaethje perfectly walks an important line, adding a measured approach to his ultra-violent aggression.
As for the champion, will this guy ever lose again? Oliveira's win in December over Dustin Poirier was his 10th in a row, a streak that dates to 2017. A rare underdog champion, many thought Oliveira would fall victim to Poirier's short-range power boxing. Poirier had the champ rocked more than once in the opening minutes, but Oliveira gave as good as he got, outlanding Poirier 73-58 in significant strikes—just the third time Poirier had been outstruck in his last 10 contests.
But the incredibly well-rounded Oliveira still has a bread-and-butter attack. He used his elite jiu-jitsu to drag Poirier to the ground in the third and then after a few attempts got the tapout from backpack position, subbing Poirier with the standing rear-naked choke. The victory padded his UFC record with a 15th submission win under the company banner.
Here's the rub: Oliveira only hits takedowns at a 41 percent clip. Meanwhile, Gaethje's 73 percent takedown defense rate would be tops in the division if his nine UFC opponents hadn't been so reluctant to try that Gaethje hasn't reached the minimum career threshold (20 attempts) for eligibility.
This is a close one, but I'm leaning toward Gaethje to keep it standing, fire the leg kick and break down Oliveira in the later rounds.
UFC 274: Co-Main Event
Namajunas and Esparza are set to wage a contest with plenty of history riding on it.
The first time these two fought in 2014, Esparza overwhelmed Namajunas with pace and pressure, hitting on five of seven takedown attempts en route to more than five minutes of control time and a third-round stoppage by rear-naked choke.
Namajunas, now 29 and a winner in six of her last seven, including two straight over ex-champ Zhang Weili, is even more evolved now. The champ is eager to even the ledger with the division's first champ, who is on an impressive five-fight win streak of her own after back-to-back losses in 2018 threatened her UFC roster spot.
"I'm carrying my loads of experience with me into the Octagon," Namajunas told Justin Barrasso of Sports Illustrated. "Knowing how that loss felt, and the mental stress it added on, it made me stronger. ... I want to punch her in the face, take her back, and choke her out. ... That last fight seems like forever ago. We've both improved a lot, and I know I am way better at what I do."
Esparza's stock in trade is her world-class wrestling. In particular, she is a terror with her takedowns; her 42 successful conversions are tops in UFC strawweight history. She could neutralize Namajunas on the mat or against the chain link, clinging to the champ even when takedown attempts are unsuccessful. If she were to grind out a win, she'd be a two-time champ and a new front-runner for the best UFC women's strawweight ever.
Still, Thug Rose is favored for a reason. She's light on her feet and a creative and deceptively powerful striker from distance, with her kickboxing potentially serving to keep Esparza on the outside. She's been known to throw four-strike combinations and isn't afraid to mix it up inside.
Namajunas also has solid jiu-jitsu and can initiate scrambles, throw up a submission from the bottom or mount striking offense that could keep mat sequences interesting. She's also displayed improved defensive wrestling, stuffing six of 11 takedown attempts in the second bout with Weili.
In the same bout, Namajunas showed improved striking accuracy. She landed 51 percent of her significant strikes. (She landed 50 percent in their first fight, but that only lasted 78 seconds so we won't count it.) In her 2020 win over Jessica Andrade, her striking accuracy was 34 percent; in her 2019 loss to Andrade, it was 44 percent. In her 2018 defeat of Joanna Jędrzejczyk, it was 34 percent. It's not possible to do a perfect apples-to-apples comparison with these kinds of stats in MMA, but this provides a decent general idea.
I said before that if Esparza wins, she'd have a claim as the strawweight GOAT. If Namajunas wins, there won't be much debate.
Canelo: Another One Bites the Dust?
And then, of course, there is Canelo, the Mexican redhead with more belts than a Men's Wearhouse.
News came this week that Canelo—now the undisputed super-middleweight champ by virtue of his WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF titles—turned down higher-profile bouts with Jermall Charlo and Errol Spence Jr., instead opting for Bivol, per Keith Idec of BoxingScene.com. All the more reason to be intrigued by this move up to 175 pounds.
On paper, it's a weight class Alvarez has no business being in—and if you don't take my word for it, take the word of super-promoter Eddie Hearn.
"Dmitry Bivol is ... a much bigger physical threat to Canelo Alvarez," Hearn told FightHype (h/t Boxing News 24). "The only way Canelo is going to get beat is to move out of his comfort zone as far as weight divisions. He's already doing that at 175. He shouldn't be fighting at light heavyweight. You know that. This is a guy that has fought at welterweight, 154, and 160 was even big for him at the time. Now 168 and 175."
Alvarez also won titles at 154 pounds and 160 pounds, so he's proven in multiple weight classes.
Meanwhile, Bivol is the undefeated WBA champ at light heavyweight. But in the same interview, Hearn said Bivol "has never been in a tough fight. He's never been damaged in a fight."
On Saturday, he'll be introduced to both.
Bivol has good defense and sharp punches, and he's a smart fighter. But so is Alvarez. Canelo also has a distinct power advantage, with 39 of his 57 wins coming by stoppage. His movement, particularly his head movement, is hard to deal with and makes him hard to hit.
If Canelo wins Saturday, the plan is to move back down to 168 pounds for a trilogy bout with the legendarily power-handed Gennady Golovkin, perhaps in September. Even with GGG looking a little washy of late, this will be a blockbuster, and Alvarez won't want to do anything to destabilize that matchup. Ergo, he'll be motivated Saturday and wanting to prove his move to 175 pounds was a good one. Watch out, Bivol.
Statistics via UFC stats unless otherwise noted.
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