Redemption Stories Galore: UFC 274 is Everything We Love About MMA

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Justin Gaethje, UFC 274
Justin Gaethje, UFC 274 pre-fight press conference Credit: Eddie Law/Cageside Press

That headline is probably a little too positive for today’s skeptical, cynical, downright negative sports fan — and I say sports fan, because the culture of negativity, at least in online fandoms, is far from unique to just MMA.

But at the risk of sounding overly cheerful, or worse, being accused of some sort of pro-UFC agenda or of just plain being a shill, yes, UFC 274 is everything we as fight fans love about MMA.

The hypothesis here could be as simple as two words, “Justin Gaethje,” but that would be a cheat, and wouldn’t pass muster with editors, readers, or Google’s ranking metrics. It also wouldn’t be entirely true, although the most violent man in MMA is a big part of why UFC 274 is so hotly anticipated. But two other words also come to mind, as we sit salivating in anticipation of the event in Phoenix this Saturday.

Those words? Rematch, and Redemption. Capital “R” in both cases.

Rematches easily lend themselves to story lines, and while not a necessity for a good fight — as plenty of early prelim slobberknockers have shown — a good story makes a good fight even better, and a great fight unforgettable. In the case of UFC 274, it’s the rematch between Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza the holds this potential, and the story is a compelling one. Simply put, these two women gave birth to the UFC strawweight division eight or so years ago. Joanna Jedrzejczyk might have popularized it, Claudia Gadelha and Tina Lahdemaki might have technically been the first fight, but Namajunas and Esparza birthed the division when they fought for the inaugural women’s 115 pound title at the climax of The Ultimate Fighter 20.

In the eight years that have transpired since Esparza and Namajunas first met, the landscape of the 115 pound division has shifted considerably. A very green Namajunas lost that first fight, but would go on to have the more illustrious career. Esparza was one-and-done as champ, dropping the belt to Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her first title defense. Namajunas would be the woman to dethrone the juggernaut that was Joanna Champion, soundly defeating her in two consecutive fights. And while she’d lose the belt to Jessica Andrade not long after, Namajunas became the first two-time UFC women’s champion when she reclaimed the title from Weili Zhang last year — later defending it in an immediate rematch.

This rematch has plenty of redemption to go with it. While Namajunas’ legacy is secured, Esparza’s is still very up in the air. After an unlikely late-career resurgence, Esparza in essence has a chance at a do-over, to prove her win over Namajunas wasn’t just a case of catching “Thug” Rose while she was still a developing fighter.

Redemption storylines permeate all through UFC 274. There’s Shogun Rua, running it back with Ovince St. Preux, looking to avenge a 2014 knockout at the hands of OSP. There’s Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, the old gunslinger, looking to snap the worst skid of his career in a fight against Joe Lauzon that could set him on down the dusty trail to retirement.

But there’s no bigger redemption story than that of Justin Gaethje, who for the first time in his career, went into a fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov in November of 2020 with a tactic other than pressing forward. The decision to “evade” rather than meet the then-lightweight champ head on is not a mistake he’ll make twice, Gaethje said this week.

At least, there was no greater redemption story than Gaethje’s prior to Friday, that is. Gaethje’s redemption story is about his quest for gold. Opponent Charles Oliveira, on Friday, set the stage for his own redemption story, after letting gold slip through his fingers.

It’s rare to see a championship level fighter miss weight at the highest levels of mixed martial arts. It’s even rarer to see a reigning champion do it. That, however, is exactly what happened at Friday’s UFC 274 official weigh-in. Early word was that the scale backstage was off, something that made the rounds even before the weigh-in window started. Numerous fighters would later make this complaint, but only two missed weight: Norma Dumont, and Oliveira, the UFC’s reigning, defending lightweight champion and one half of the main event.

Both were over by just half a pound. Oliveira was given an extra hour to cut that final half pound, and oh, to be a fly on the wall then. But when he returned to the scale with just minutes to spare, the result was the same. 155 pounds… and a half.

Suddenly, Oliveira’s world title amounted to a handful of sand slipping through his fingers.

The show will go on. Oliveira will fight Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 274 on Saturday. When he does so, he’ll not be the defending champion. He won’t even be eligible to win the title. But while Justin Gaethje will be fighting for redemption after going against his own instincts in his first shot at gold, Oliveira will be looking to redeem himself in the eyes of those who will judge him over that half pound. Those who will dismiss talk of the scale being off, and paint him as unprofessional. Those critics will be loud, and they’ll be many, though the loudest may end up being Oliveira himself, internally anyway.

The quest for redemption — for Esparza, who couldn’t hold on to gold, for Rose, who was steamrolled early in her career — makes us want to tune in. Justin Gaethje’s need to continue writing his story, and fight like only he can; Charles Oliveira, needing to make amends for letting it all slip away — it’s what makes the fighters themselves go the extra mile.

All this could very well lead to a classic playing out at UFC 274. And that’s why we love MMA.

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