Charles Oliveira’s Wild, Kind of Majestic UFC Title Ride

Charles Oliveira's path to the UFC's vacant lightweight title makes sense but also really doesn't.

I was in the room in a fancy hotel in Mexico City when they announced Charles Oliveira’s weight ahead of a UFC Fight Night 98 meeting with Ricardo Lamas.

I remember not reacting to the number — 155 pounds — at first, instinctively thinking that this was a perfectly fine weight for a lightweight bout. I think my colleagues might have felt the same way, because we all just went quietly about our business for a minute or two.  Unfortunately for Oliveira, though, what we all soon realized was that this was not scheduled as a lightweight bout. Oliveira and Lamas were supposed to meet at featherweight, which meant not only had the Brazilian missed weight, but he’d done so by a pretty staggering nine pounds. The fight went on the next day, but so did Oliveira’s misfortunes; after tapping to a guillotine choke in Round 2, he wrapped up a two-fight skid and a winless 2016.

It was a particularly low moment in a UFC run that hadn’t exactly been perfect. While he’d never done it by such a large margin, Oliveira had slipped on the scale three times before. He was no stranger to losses, either, having been finished by four of his previous opponents — with losses, via decision and freak injury, to another two. Oliveira had, in fact, been submitted by Anthony Pettis less than three months before the Lamas bout. As he entered a meeting with Clay Guida in 2018, one win and one loss after that Lamas fight, “Do Bronx” held a numerically unimpressive 10-8 record (one no-contest) and a relationship with the scale that had become a running joke. And while he had finally moved up to lightweight, he still insisted he could — and would — prove he belonged at 145.

Cut to three years later, and I’m still trying to figure out whether to look at this Saturday’s UFC 262 headliner as an astonishing twist or a perfectly natural development.

I guess maybe a little bit of both?

In a way, the unbeaten streak that led to a title shot in one of the UFC’s most competitive divisions seems like the kind of thing that would happen to an athlete like Oliveira. More than 11 years after his UFC debut, most of which were spent shrinking his five-foot-ten frame down to 145 pounds, Oliveira is now a 31-year-old veteran who’s gotten pretty much every look you can get inside a cage.

Rather than being slapped a contender label, he’s had time to grow — physically and mentally — into the role. While his striking will probably never fully catch up to the outstanding grappling that made him the leader in UFC submissions, it’s had time to develop into a pretty respectable accessory. Yes, Oliveira has had a pretty inconsistent start (if you can call eight years that), but I would argue that was less a reflection of skill than a reflection of a hasty, somewhat reckless career build; You try having Darren Elkins, Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone among your first five UFC opponents and tell me how it turns out for you. Many talk the “anyone, anytime” talk, but Oliveira walked the walk, and like it or not he’s got a long, wild, rocky, kind of majestic resume to show for it. 

When it came to projecting Oliveira’s ceiling, specifically as to whether he would ever get a chance to hold a UFC title, my questions were never around his talent, gameness — see 16 post-fight bonuses — or ability to win fights. Rather, they were around his ability to do it consistently, against top-level competitors, when it truly mattered.

And while there always tends to be some kind of asterisk to title claims, especially in a division like lightweight, some would say that dispatching Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson decisively within an eight-month window answered them. Simply put, Oliveira always seemed able, but now he seems ready, and while this mathematical combination seems like a natural development of any athlete’s professional life, it is also not a given in MMA.


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Hence, the astonishing part of this whole deal.

If you had asked me then, in 2016, as I witnessed Oliveira go through yet another weight miss only to still lose a fight that he’d almost won, whether I saw him becoming UFC champion, I would probably — well, I’d probably give some evasive answer because I’ve seen too much to make assertive predictions in this weird-ass sport. But I would probably tell you I wasn’t counting on it.

I had been following Oliveira’s UFC run from the start — back when his nickname still included a wildly unnecessary “‘s” after “Do Bronx” — and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. There was clearly an immense amount of potential, of talent, of slickness, but perhaps most importantly of gumption; no matter who was in there with him, Oliveira always fought like someone who legitimately believed he could win. I also saw, however, the costs of that attitude. I’d seen too many momentum shifts, too many mistakes, too much denial about those mistakes, and as the years went on it became tougher to just pin the almost-ness of it all on simple immaturity.

Truth be told, it’s not often that you see people overcome 10-8 starts to build championship runs.

And that is only to speak of his UFC career. If you really want to talk about odds and improbabilities, we can go back a couple of decades, to when a nine-year-old Oliveira spent two years in a hospital battling rheumatoid arthritis and heart murmurs and was told he may never walk again.  

As we know, though, Oliveira was eventually able to get a firm grip on his momentum. Despite the early resistance to the idea of staying at lightweight, Oliveira settled into the new weight class, where he’s now riding an eight-fight winning streak — including seven finishes and six post-fight bonuses — into his very first UFC title shot. He enters this Saturday’s UFC 262 meeting with former Bellator champion Michael Chandler as a slight betting favorite to become the UFC’s next lightweight champion. It’s a twist I didn’t really see coming but also kind of did, ending a journey that makes all the sense in the world but also kind of doesn’t. The possible crowning achievement of long, wild, rocky, kind of majestic ride.


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