Ranking the fights at UFC 274 and beyond ... and cautioning about a couple of them

Gaethje, Chandler put on fight of the year candidate (0:33)

Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler kick off the UFC 268 main card with an incredible three-round battle. (0:33)

Editor's note: Charles Oliveira missed weight on Friday. Only Justin Gaethje can win the title at UFC 274.

Ranking the fights on a big UFC card can seem like an obvious exercise. The sport curates its fight nights to build and build throughout the evening, culminating in the main event that has been hyped on promo posters to draw fans into the arena or to watch on television.

And yet a lot of fight cards invite spirited debate. Is the main event really the most appealing contest of the night? Is there a glittery co-main event that's attracting a lot of eyeballs? Or a preliminary bout that quietly has the potential to make the biggest noise? Sometimes it's a close call for the true No. 1.

Well, unless Justin Gaethje is on the bill. Then the competition is for No. 2.

This is the case for UFC 274 (6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN+ PPV). The main event in Phoenix offers the exhilarating Gaethje mayhem we're all used to -- and never get tired of -- but also something tangible for his legacy: He is challenging Charles Oliveira for the lightweight championship.

Gaethje made an unsuccessful title bid against Khabib Nurmagomedov barely 18 months ago. Why is he getting a second shot at gold so soon? He earned his way here by winning a decision over Michael Chandler in November. Realistically, he earned it throughout a career full of exclamation-point performances. What's more, it's an evolving career. He used to be 100% wildman, but under the guidance of coach Trevor Wittman, Gaethje now measures out his savagery as just one ingredient in a gumbo of technical mastery and discipline. He remains breathtaking to watch. The UFC couldn't deny its fans this intoxicating title matchup.

Aside from its must-see fights, UFC 274 also has possibly eye-opening bouts that are flying under the radar and a couple that could prove hard to watch. And beyond all of that, there are two other significant MMA events this week, so why not give them the ranking treatment as well?

The two fights not to be missed, obviously

1. Lightweight championship: Charles Oliveira vs. Justin Gaethje

What more can we say about this fight than, "C'mon, Saturday, hurry up and get here"?

While the appeal for many is the presence of Gaethje, Oliveira has also made himself a must-see attraction. He won the belt a year ago with a knockout of Chandler and defended it in December with a choke-out of Dustin Poirier. That gives him 10 wins in a row, with finishes in all but one. Eight of those victories earned him Performance of the Night bonuses. Oliveira has 15 submissions in his UFC career, by far the most in promotion history. He's building quite a legacy at 155 pounds. Can Gaethje put a violent halt to it?

2. Strawweight championship: Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza

It's not exactly going out on a limb to rank the co-main event here, but let's reframe this as an affirmation for UFC matchmakers who have leaned into meritocracy over marketing hype. There's no shooting star here, just an intriguing revisit of a long-ago matchup that put this weight class on the map.

Eight years ago, Namajunas and Esparza survived a season on The Ultimate Fighter to set up a finale to crown an inaugural 115-pound UFC champ. Esparza overwhelmed Namajunas that night, getting five takedowns on her way to a third-round submission win. But Esparza's reign was short-lived, and Namajunas has won nine of 11 since the 2014 title bout loss and is currently in possession of the strawweight belt for a second time. The champ seems to have come farther than her challenger, but we'll see on Saturday.

Two fights to watch with one squinting eye, ready to be quickly averted

3. Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson

It feels like the wheels suddenly fell off for Ferguson, with two years ago in a five-round fight versus Gaethje as the starting point. When "El Cucuy" fought Oliveira seven months after that beatdown, he was a step behind all night. Five months after that, Beneil Dariush dealt Ferguson a third straight loss. Unless there's a second wind in Ferguson (like there used to be), this one could get ugly. Chandler is a powerful man with a revving high-test engine. Ferguson could have kept up with him, no problem, in his prime, but that prime is long gone. Isn't it? Be ready to either be surprised or cover your eyes.

4. Donald Cerrone vs. Joe Lauzon

Cerrone is winless in his last six fights and has been finished four times during a skid extending back to 2019. This matchup isn't as concerning as Chandler-Ferguson, though. Lauzon does not pose the same level of danger as Chandler, and "J-Lau" is more or less in the same ballpark, career-wise, as "Cowboy." He hasn't had Cerrone's high-profile recent defeats, but Lauzon quietly suffered through a three-fight losing streak against competition that mostly doesn't measure up to what Cerrone has faced. Lauzon is not an unreasonable matchup. And yet it's undeniable that it has become increasingly difficult to watch "Cowboy."

Two fights that you'll find under the radar

5. Macy Chiasson vs. Norma Dumont

The women's featherweight division is hanging on by a thread, so a matchup that could establish the winner as a title challenger is significant. Since suffering her only career loss in her Octagon debut, Dumont has won three in a row, the last two at 145 pounds. Chiasson lost her last fight to Raquel Pennington in December, and she badly missed weight, so she has something to prove. Chiasson won a featherweight season of The Ultimate Fighter back in 2018 and has the physicality to swim with the 145-pounders (what few there are).

6. Tracy Cortez vs. Melissa Gatto

Gatto is undefeated (8-0-2) and scored TKOs in her two UFC appearances, and Cortez has lost only once -- in her pro debut almost five years ago. Neither of these flyweights is close to being a title contender, but this fight offers them something to build upon. Which woman will continue her perfect or nearly perfect ascent?

Two more fights to look for ... outside the Octagon

7. Ryan Bader vs. Cheick Kongo (Bellator 280 on Friday)

The light heavyweight version of Bader has lost two of his last three fights and slipped a bit from the form that earned him the Bellator 205-pound championship five years ago. But this fight features the heavyweight version of Bader, also known as the undefeated version. He's 4-0 with a no contest at the big-boy weight. And in the lone non-win against Kongo in 2019, Bader was well on his way to victory before an accidental eye poke ended the fight prematurely and unsatisfyingly. Can Bader resume where he left off?

8. Ray Cooper III vs. Magomed Umalatov (PFL 3 on Friday -- Watch on ESPN+)

This evening's headliner is Kayla Harrison, the promotion's biggest star, but she's facing a combat sambo champion lacking in MMA bonafides. While in the co-main event, her fellow two-season PFL champion, Cooper, takes on an undefeated fighter. Maybe Harrison's opponent, Marina Mokhnatkina, will surprise, but Cooper has a better chance of being challenged and is sure to entertain. Also on the card are Anthony Pettis and Rory MacDonald, who both desperately need a win after coming up short last season.