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Oliveira defeats Gaethje, Esparza earns title

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 yesterday.

“This is a message to the entire division,” Oliveira said through an interpreter. “I am a problem for this division.”

Oliveira had to vacate the title after missing the 155-pound limit by a half-pound at Friday’s weigh-in, leaving Gaethje 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.

Charles Oliveira celebrates after his submission victory over Justin Gaethje. PHOTOS: AFP
Carla Esparza reacts after her victory over Rose Namajunas

“It was what I expected, what we all expected,” UFC President Dana White said. “It was an incredible fight.”

Carla Esparza took the strawweight title eight years after losing it in the co-main event, working a patient fight to beat Rose Namajunas 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 favourite 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. Oliveira rebounded and attacked. Oliveira knocked Gaethje down with a hard right and took his back.

Gaethje briefly appeared as if he would escape, but Oliveira got an arm under his chin and forced him to tap out with a rear-naked choke hold.

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 J?drzejczyk in her first defence 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 J?drzejczyk 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.