Charles Oliveira’s path to UFC 262 title fight rarely smooth

May 15, 2021
Charles Oliveira's path to UFC 262 title fight rarely smooth

It’s August 2010 in San Diego. Jon Jones, at 23 years old, is headlining a UFC event for the second time as a highly-touted and heavily-pushed prospect, a far cry from the decorated and controversial all-timer he’s become today.

On the undercard is another blue-chipper making his debut for the promotion: 20-year-old lightweight Charles Oliveira. Praised as a grappling savant, it’s no big surprise when the Brazilian submits Darren Elkins via armbar 41 seconds into the biggest fight of his career to that point.

“It was a dream come true,” Oliveira, who grew up impoverished and earned a $40,000 Submission of the Night bonus for the victory, recalled through a translator while speaking recently over the phone with The Post.

With a start like that from a talented young fighter, it’s no surprise that Oliveira (30-8, 27 finishes) is fighting for the 155-pound championship vacated by Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement. What is surprising, however, is how long it took him to reach this point with Michael Chandler the lone obstacle between him leaving Toyota Center in Houston with the belt on Saturday as the headlining fight for UFC 262 on ESPN+ pay-per-view.

For all the promise he showed that afternoon in Southern California, and again the following month when he tapped out recent “The Ultimate Fighter” season winner Efrain Escudero, inexperience and a rush to upper levels of 155 pounds quickly derailed Oliveira’s ascent.

There were losses to Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone just eight months apart that sent him down to 145 pounds. Once he picked up a little rhythm, Oliveira was again hurried along into fights against accomplished veterans Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar — who had reigned as lightweight champion when the young Brazilian reached the UFC — which ended in defeat by knockout and decision, respectively.

As he got older and even picked up momentum at featherweight, he battled both the scale and tough opponents. Out of 12 bouts scheduled for 145 pounds, he missed weight four times and compiled a 7-5 mark, with the other three losses coming to men who had been a champion (Anthony Pettis), were on the path to becoming a champion (Max Holloway) or had challenged for a championship (Ricardo Lamas).

The last straw at 145 pounds came in November 2016, when Oliveira hit the scale at an unacceptable 155 pounds, essentially a weight class above Lamas who won anyway via second-round submission. That dropped his overall UFC record to a pedestrian 9-7, albeit a figure which on its own lacked the context of an elevated strength of schedule.

That setback may have been a blessing in disguise as the move back to 155 pounds became necessary and things started to click. Oliveira tapped out Will Brooks — a man who is 2-0 against Chandler (22-5, 17 finishes) — then followed a loss to Paul Felder by rattling off an eight fight win streak. The first four wins of Oliveira’s impressive run came by submission, along the way surpassing the legendary Royce Gracie for the UFC’s leader for wins via sub.

The next two in 2019 were the first pair of (T)KO victories on his ledger since before arriving in the UFC nearly 10 years earlier, results he credits to an awareness that he needed to round out his impressive grappling game with a more threatening striking arsenal.

Charles Oliveira
Charles Oliveira
Zuffa LLC

“I realized I couldn’t be just a jiu-jitsu fighter. It was important to become a complete athlete,” Oliveira recalls. “So that’s why I changed my team to Chute Boxe in search of this evolution as a striking athlete.”

A submission of former interim title challenger Kevin Lee last March and a dominant decision victory in December over the man who once beat Lee for that championship, Tony Ferguson, finally propelled him into the first title fight of his career.

“I knew I needed a fight like this to show I was ready to fight for the belt,” the 31-year-old Oliveira said. “To win the way I did shows I was right.”

Against Chandler, Oliveira will stare down another man whose road to potential UFC gold was long and arduous. A former Bellator champion who once suffered a three-fight skid — two of which came against Brooks — he did not opt to test free agency and leap to the UFC until last September. A first-round knockout of Dan Hooker in his UFC debut in January, coupled with top-ranked Dustin Poirier opting for a rubber match with Conor McGregor over a title shot, paved the way for Saturday’s matchup to crown the new champ.

Oliveira knows to be wary of the explosive Chandler, 35, in the opening round, when the Missouri native achieved 13 of his 17 finishes. Chandler, who also spoke to The Post in advance of their fight, confirmed his opponent should be prepared for a whirlwind out of the gate.

“I’m just gonna get in his face early, watch out for the big shots, watch out for the grappling exchanges, be stingy in all the positions because I believe my explosiveness, my body awareness, my body mechanics, my strength and my sixth sense that I have when it comes to the grappling department is just gonna be a little bit too much for him,” said Chandler, a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler at Missouri.

Just getting to the point of fighting for the title seemed unlikely for Oliveira only a few years ago. At least, that’s how it appeared to those on the outside. To hear him tell it, he never wavered in his belief that he could one day vie for the championship.

“I never doubted myself,” Oliveira said of the rocky road to his big moment on Saturday in Houston. “I was always a boy with a dream. I always believed that this moment would come.”

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