PHOENIX — Charles Oliveira lost his belt in Phoenix this weekend. He didn’t lose his fight.
A day after being stripped of the lightweight title for missing weight, Oliveira submitted Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 274 at Footprint Center to solidify his spot as top contender.
He was ineligible to win the belt, which will remain vacant.
“I’m the champion,” he said. “I’m a problem for the rest of the division. It’s my title. It should be (around my waist).”
Gaethje knocked Oliveira down twice and cut him open in the first 90 seconds only to fall into a bad position and get trapped in an armbar.
He was able to escape, but Oliveira locked in a choke as Gaethje tried to scramble away and it was all over.
The fight lasted just 3:22, but featured far more action than the 25-minute grind of a co-main event, which was filled with lots of posturing and feinting with little actual engagement.
In the end, the judges awarded challenger Carla Esparza a split decision as she dethroned women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.
“You never want to be a part of a fight like that,” Namajunas said after loud boos from the soldout crowd.
Namajunas appeared to be waiting for Esparza, a wrestler with a strong takedown game, to come forward. It rarely happened.
Instead, the judges were left to make a decision at the end of each of the first three rounds based on little activity. There was more action in the fourth and fifth, but only compared to the first three.
It’s the second time Esparza has beaten Namajunas for the belt. She became the first-ever UFC women’s strawweight champion by winning “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show in 2014, defeating Namajunas in the finals.
The crowd on Saturday was far more enthused about the finish in a lightweight contender bout.
Former champion Michael Chandler made the case for another shot at the belt by turning in an early favorite for knockout of the year.
After a back-and-forth opening round, Chandler landed a front kick right down the middle to knock Tony Ferguson out cold in the opening moments of the second.
“When you have a round like I did in the first round that wasn’t that decisive, you have to pull something out,” Chandler said before calling for either a title shot or a bout against Conor McGregor. “He’s so tall, but he does keep his hands off to the side. I didn’t even train that kick very much, but it was there.”
Ovince Saint-Preux, the brother of former UNLV wide receiver Renan Saint-Preux, largely went through the motions in scoring a split-decision win over former champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a slog of a bout that was booed throughout.
It followed a much faster-paced battle as welterweight Randy Brown won his third straight fight and fifth out of his last six with a split decision over Khaos Williams.
It was the first fight on the pay-per-view card after being scheduled for the prelims. The bout got a promotion because Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone had to withdraw from his scheduled fight against Joe Lauzon just hours before the event.
Cerrone was sick and unable to compete. UFC officials confirmed the illness was not COVID-related.
Commentator Joe Rogan explained during the broadcast the issue was believed to be food poisoning.
It was potentially the final fight for Cerrone, who was emotional about his lengthy career throughout the week and excited to fight live in front of his oldest son.
The bout is expected to be rescheduled.
Seven of the nine preliminary card bouts went the distance.
Flyweight Brandon Royval had the only submission of that group when he choked out Matt Schnell in the first round. Welterweight Andre Fialho had the only knockout, a first-round stoppage of Cameron VanCamp.
Fialho improved to 2-1 since the start of 2022 and said after the win he has already agreed to a fight on the UFC 275 card in Singapore on June 11.
“I want to feel as comfortable in there as I am on the couch drinking water,” he said. “I’m a professional. I don’t eat sugar, I don’t drink soda. I sweat a lot. It’s easy to make weight.”
Also, rising women’s flyweight star Tracy Cortez won her 10th straight fight and improved to 4-0 in the UFC with a unanimous-decision win over Melissa Gatto.