UFC 274: Charles Oliveira swallows bitter pill as weight-cutting issues resurface

Charles Oliveira has struggled throughout his career to make weight, so it was not stunning on Friday when he missed weight by a half-pound for his planned lightweight title defense with Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 274 at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

He earned the ignominious distinction of becoming the first reigning UFC champion to lose his belt at the scale. The fight will go on, as Gaethje hit 155. If Gaethje wins, he’s champion. If Oliveira wins, the belt will be vacant.

What is strange is that Oliveira didn’t make every last-ditch effort he could to make it. The first time he missed weight Friday, he did so while stripped naked and came in at 155.5. Per the rules, he was given an hour to lose the weight.

He came back, stripped and weighed 155.5 again. It’s an extraordinarily difficult task to drop more weight after you’ve stopped sweating, but Oliveira didn’t shave his head, for instance. Would his hair have weighed a half-pound? It’s debatable, and probably would not have been enough given that it was cut short, but one would think the championship of the world was worth the effort and he’d have at least tried to see.

Oliveira’s career to this point has been characterized by his phenomenal ability to finish his opponents and a shocking inability to regularly make weight. Five times in his UFC career he failed to make weight, including missing by nine pounds for a 2016 bout with Ricardo Lamas.

He’d fought 12 times since that embarrassment against Lamas and made weight in each of them, going 11-1 and winning the lightweight title in the process.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 06: Charles Oliveira of Brazil reacts after failing to make weight, vacating the UFC lightweight championship, during the UFC 274 official weigh-in at the Hyatt Regency hotel on May 06, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 06: Charles Oliveira of Brazil reacts after failing to make weight, vacating the UFC lightweight championship, during the UFC 274 official weigh-in at the Hyatt Regency hotel on May 06, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC) (Chris Unger via Getty Images)

The fact that the problem resurfaced more than five years later when he’s a reigning world champion with all of the resources that comes with that is mind-boggling.

Cutting weight is extraordinarily difficult, and it’s easy for a soft-around-the-middle sportswriter to criticize a fighter when he or she fails to make weight. It’s not like they want to miss, though, and they suffer through the sauna and the other weight-cutting techniques just like all the other fighters. Rest assured, Oliveira didn’t have bacon and eggs with rye toast for breakfast on Friday before the weigh-in.

But when a fighter signs a contract, he/she does so agreeing to be at a specific weight at a specific time the day before the event. They know that months out from fight night.

Many of Oliveira’s earlier misses were understandable. He was a kid who came from literally nothing in a favela in Brazil to become one of the best MMA fighters in the world, but he didn’t have much even after he had a modicum of success in the UFC.

As champion, though, he’s well-paid and has enough money to hire nutritionists and specialists to guide him through the weight-cutting process. We won’t know until Oliveira and members of his team speak after the fight where he went wrong, but this miss is devastating.

He can no longer be trusted and so it raises a legitimate question whether he deserves to ever get another title shot. There are a lot of deserving fighters (as well as Conor McGregor) out there who want a crack at the belt. But the UFC won’t punish him. It noted in a media release that if Oliveira wins, he’ll become the No. 1 contender and will fight again for the title at a future date. So he dodged a bullet there.

There are fighters who struggle to make weight no matter what division they’re in. Put them at 135 and they’ll weigh 136. Put them at 145 and they’ll weigh 146. And put them at 155 and they’ll weigh 156. There are some fighters in all forms of combat sports, who fall into that category.

The problem with trusting a serial misser like Oliveira is that it’s unfair to the opponent. Undoubtedly at one point in his cut, Gaethje went to the scale and was 155.5 or 155.3 and went back at it and pushed.

Oliveira was the last to weigh in and he missed, and given the benefit of a one-hour grace period to lose a half-pound, he failed again.

A half-pound wouldn’t materially affect the fight, but missing by nine pounds like he did in 2016 against Lamas certainly could. And so it’s hard to trust him with the responsibility of making weight in a title fight again.

If he doesn’t get another title fight, that’s going to cost him countless dollars. UFC fighters have their greatest earning potential A) as champions and B) as challengers in title fights.

This could have repercussions for Oliveira well beyond this night.

For the fans who paid to watch the show, it’s essentially a non-issue. It won’t have any impact on the fight it’s going to be. It’s still a great match between two of the best fighters in the world, both of whom are elite finishers.

But it ends Oliveira’s reign before a punch was ever thrown, and it may mean he never ascends these heights again.

That has to be a horribly bitter pill for Oliveira.