PHOENIX (AP) — Charles Oliveira went to the canvas on two hard punches and another on a takedown, all in the first round.
Each time, Justin Gaethje let him back up, hoping to inflict more damage and get the Brazilian to give up.
Giving up is no longer a part of Oliveira's makeup. Fighting back — and winning — is.
Shaking off two big punches from Gaethje, Oliveira choked him out in the first round to win by submission in the lightweight division at UFC 274 on Saturday night.
“This is a message to the entire division,” Oliveira said through an interpreter. “I am a problem for this division.”
Oliveira (33-6, 1 no-contest) had to vacate the title after missing the 155-pound limit by a half-pound at Friday’s weigh-in, leaving Gaethje (24-4) as the only fighter who could take the championship belt.
It may not have been a title fight, but it certainly had plenty of action, including two knockdowns and a takedown by Gaethje. The Arizona native allowed Oliveira up each time and it backfired when the jiu-jitsu specialist knocked him to the ground and took his back, submitting him at 3:22 of the opening round.
“It was what I expected, what we all expected,” UFC President Dana White said. “It was an incredible fight.”
Carla Esparza (20-6) took the strawweight title eight years after losing it in the co-main event, working a patient fight to beat Rose Namajunas (12-5) in a split decision.
Esparza had trouble not only taking down Namajunas, but pulling her into range. She managed to get in a few solid strikes, some low leg kicks and a couple of brief takedowns to earn the title she had been waiting so long for.
“I can't believe after all these years I have the belt back,” Esparza said. ”I went through so much to get the belt both times."
A fan favorite from eastern Arizona, Gaethje promised a few “car crashes" in a bid to make Oliveira back down.
He smashed into Oliveira early and often, dropping the Brazilian with punches twice in the first round, letting him up both times so he could keep punching. Gaethje added in a takedown and again let Oliveira get back up.
Like he did after getting wobbled by Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier the previous two fights, Oliveira rebounded and attacked.
His face bloodied, Oliveira knocked Gaethje down with a hard right and took his back. Gaethje briefly appeared as if he would escape, but Oliveira got a arm under his chin and forced him to tap out with a rear-naked choke hold.
“Look at this team, look at me, I am the champion,” Oliveira said. “This is my title. It (the belt) should be here.”
Namajunas had to wait eight years for a rematch against Esparza, who beat her in the UFC's inaugural strawweight fight in in 2014.
Esparza lost the title to Joanna Jędrzejczyk in her first defense and spent the next eight years working her way back to the top, rounding out the rest of her attack to go with her elite wrestling.
Namanjunas beat Jędrzejczyk in 2018 to take the strawweight title, lost it to Jessica Andrade, then beat her in the rematch. “Thug Rose” reclaimed the title by beating Zhang Weili and won the rematch last November.
Wary of Esparza’s wrestling skills, Namajunas spent most of the night in the desert at a distance, ducking in occasionally to throw punches before backing out. Namajunas sloughed off a takedown attempt in the second round and escaped another early in the third.
Esparza had Namajunas down briefly twice in the fourth round, but she wriggled out both times — the second on a quick flip reversal. Namajunas kept up the same tactics for the fifth round, finishing the fight with a takedown of her own in the closing seconds.
It wasn't enough. Esparza won 49-46 and 48-47 on two cards, Namajunas 48-47 on the other.
“I think maybe the judges wanted to see a slugfest like in previous fights, so they weren’t appreciative of good strategy” Namajunas said. “I'm always in exciting fights. I can't have a strategic fight?"
After two opening main card bouts that had the fans booing at times, lightweight Michael Chandler (23-7) sent roars echoing off the rafters by dropping Tony Ferguson (26-8) with a front kick to the head in the second round. Ferguson lay on the canvas for several minutes while being attended to by medical personnel before slowly rising to his stool.
Ferguson was taken to a hospital, but released after a CT scan came back negative.
Donald Cerrone had to bow out of his lightweight bout against Joe Lauzon after getting food poisoning. The fight may be rescheduled for next month in Austin, Texas.
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