The Main Event of UFC 274 saw Charles Oliveira take on Justin Gaethje in what was initially meant to be a title defence for Oliveira, but ultimately became a #1 contender fight and a boon on the legacy of the winner.
To fight Justin Gaethje one must be prepared to weather the storm. Gaethje fights with an unsurmountable pressure for the early rounds in particular, battering his opponent's legs with his low kicks whilst leading and countering the return. His clinch-work is also incredibly solid, clasping up a single collar tie whilst pummeling with strikes and leg kicks. Gaethje utilises his hooks well, using his left to particular note in catching Tony Ferguson leaning away.
It is apparent that Justin Gaethje would, on paper, be a tough matchup for Charles Oliveira on the feet. Not notorious for his leg defence and having garnered the reputation of a weak chin, the popular opinion was that Oliveira would have to take Gaethje to the ground early or he would crumble under the heavy hands and relentless pressure fighting that has kept Justin Gaethje at the top of the UFC's most competitive division.
Gaethje's most obviously exploitable weakness is his high guard which, whilst allowing him to walk through an unreal amount of damage, also opens up his body. This was exploited by Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in their fights with Gaethje. Although they were able to finish him by TKO, they also were forced to walk through hell to claim that victory. Both fighters made note that if their legs were hit much more they may have found themselves on the other end of the finish.
Oliveira went into this fight utilising his trademark long front kicks to the body to maintain distance and jab the solar plexus. The danger of giving a single leg takedown to Gaethje was minimal and as previously mentioned his body is an often open target. Keeping Gaethje at a distance prevents him from using his hook counters and low leg kicks, so holding off Gaethje's advance whilst trying to engage on his own terms was a good call from Oliveira.
Whilst Gaethje immediately got to work with his leg kicks, Oliveira clearly knew what he wanted to do and became more successful with it as the fight progressed. When entering an exchange, Oliveira would come in with his lead leg lifted and hinged slightly. This, at worst, made Gaethje catch Oliveira on the shin as a traditional check. At best, Gaethje's kick would charge through the vacant space where Oliveira's leg once was and unbalance The Highlight, opening him up to be countered. This tactic allowed Oliveira to mitigate Gaethje's primary weapon; the weapon that gave Alvarez, Poirier and even Khabib trouble in their respective bouts.
As previously touched on, one of Charles Oliveira's biggest perceived flaws is a questionable chin. This is to say that Charles Oliveira gets knocked down a lot. Part of this will be due his tendency of kicking and feinting kicks. A lot of the time Oliveira is caught by punches he'll only be on one leg. This of course provides less stability to Oliveira and causes him to fall. And part of it, of course, is that the Lightweight division is a division comprised of slick and powerful strikers.
That being said, Olivera seemed to reveal his hand somewhat in this Gaethje fight, dropping voluntarily after taking shots. Oliveira's jiu-jitsu pedigree is second to none and thus the divisions strikers are wholly unwilling to follow him to the ground. This allows Oliveira a period to recover from taking these big shots instead of risking being caught whilst dazed and put out for good. Indeed, only Michael Chandler was committed to following Oliveira to the ground after a knockdown and as a result put the Brazilian in most danger we've seen him in since the Paul Felder fight.
Whilst one could argue that this would impede Oliveira's chances of landing a decision when the scorecards are read, Oliveira has been to a decision only once at Lightweight. His style very rarely denies a finish and thus the risk-reward plays heavily into Charles' favour.
Gaethje's tendency to block takedowns by lurching his head forward was also exploited by Oliveira. By feinting the takedown, Oliveira prompted this reaction from Gaethje and when presented his head, Oliveira instead would clasp a clinch and get to work. Indeed, Oliveira fought behind a strong clinch game in this fight. By sticking almost religiously to the clinch, Charles exposed Gaethje to a multitude of very legitimate threats. The most apparent of these is his clinch striking which was sharp and constant, keeping Gaethje on the defense and making it hard to implement his slick counter game. As well as throwing to the head, Do Bronx chopped Gaethje's exposed body up with the same knees he used to great effect on Dustin Poirier.
Gaethje wasn't simply forced to deal with clinch striking but a range of grappling threats from headlocks to takedowns. When Charles pulled guard on Justin he didn't show any urgency to keep the position. Instead, it appears that the added threat of being swiftly pulled into a dangerous guard from the clinch was the reward in and of itself to Charles. The threat of the takedown within the constant clinch battle these men fought added another element to keep Gaethje occupied.
It is due to this constant pace and mixing of the martial arts by Oliveira that I believe we saw Gaethje overcommit to his striking. I would argue we saw a somewhat flustered Justin Gaethje who was unable to control the pace as he was against, for example, Tony Ferguson. Gaethje was instead made to hunt for big knockout punches. This overcommitment of course opens Gaethje up for more counters.
I have made a point of avoiding the grappling exchanges in this piece, for one because jiu-jitsu is so difficult to break down without visual imagery but also because I believe it to be more important to discuss how Oliveira was able to weather the storm and implement his own game on top. The narrative of this fight was that Gaethje was the striker and Oliveira the grappler. Everybody understands and expects Oliveira to control the ground game, but it was a surprise to many including myself to see him able to find such success on the feet.
That being said, I think it important to discuss Oliveira's chaining of submissions in this finishing sequence. Upon dropping Gaethje with a right hook on the break of the clinch, Oliveira swiftly swung around to the back but found himself too high on Gaethje to properly implement a rear naked choke. Oliveira instead isolated one of Gaethje's arms and threatened to fall back into an armbar. He was, however, unable to properly extend the arm and so readjusts his body triangle into an inverted triangle choke. Gaethje attempts to turn into it but gives up his back in the process. Oliveira slides round once again, this time finding his positioning and ultimately finishing The Highlight by rear naked choke.
This piece is not intended to disparage the fight that Justin Gaethje fought. Gaethje went to war as ever and found his own successes early on, dropping Oliveira twice and leaving his marks on the Brazilian. But Joe Lauzon proved to be prophetic in his assessment that Gaethje would "light himself on fire just to burn you a little bit". Ultimately, Charles was able to counter Gaethje's main weapons and implement his own, avoiding the flame and forcing Gaethje to burn. Both men will be back, and will almost certainly improve from this bout.
Whilst Charles Oliveira may not have earned another ruby in his belt with this win, he has proved himself a smart and formidable striker against the division's best. Whether a rematch with Michael Chandler, a grappling showcase with Islam Makhachev or the seemingly ever-relevant Conor McGregor fight, Charles Oliveira will continue to make his mark in Lightweight history.