Charles Oliveira’s early days in jiu-jitsu weren’t so positive. He was a promising soccer prospect who, at 12 years old, had to change sports because of health issues.
He took up jiu-jitsu, though it’s not like he was an overnight success.
“It took me a while, and a lot of determination and a lot of hard work,” said Oliveira, who hopes all that effort will prove fruitful on Saturday when he meets Michael Chandler at UFC 262 in Houston for the lightweight title vacated by the retired Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The young boy who was submitted repeatedly by a smaller girl in his first weeks in the gym now has become one of the most feared submission artists in the game. If he is to succeed the legendary Nurmagomedov as UFC champion, it’s likely he’ll do it the way Nurmagomedov did: by submission.
Oliveira, a -140 favorite at BetMGM, enters the bout with a 30-8 record and one no-contest, but has remarkably finished 27 of his 30 victories.
“The guy’s a killer, man,” UFC president Dana White said.
What makes Oliveira particularly dangerous is the variety of submissions he has in his arsenal. In his career, he’s won six by rear naked choke; four each by guillotine choke and anaconda choke; and one each by arm bar, knee bar, triangle choke, reverse calf slicer and an inverted triangle with an arm bar.
It’s not like Oliveira has a particular go-to move that one has to prepare for rigorously. Ronda Rousey was known for the arm bar. Joe Frazier was known for the left hook. Nurmagomedov had 11 submissions in his 29 wins, but five were by triangle.
With Oliveira, he could hit an opponent with any number of different submissions on just about any part of the body.
“You just have to be ready for anything,” Chandler said of the difficulty in facing someone with such a diverse submission game. “ … Most of the time, when you’re fighting a guy with great knockout power, you have to watch out for his right hand or his great left hook or you have to watch for a really great guillotine on the ground or a knee bar.
“But Charles Oliveira knows how to finish you in any aspect of the grappling department. For me, I’ve worked a lot on it. I’m notorious for being able to have a sixth sense inside those grappling exchanges, mainly because of my wrestling background and now in the sport of mixed martial arts, keeping my limbs short and keeping my neck tucked and staying explosive and athletic in those positions.”
The plan against Oliveira always has to be similar because he’s so dangerous as a grappler. It was only sheer toughness that prevented him from getting a 20th submission, as he caught Tony Ferguson in a deep arm bar near the end of the first round of his most recent fight, on Dec. 12 at UFC 256 in Las Vegas.
Virtually every other opponent would have tapped to that arm bar, but Ferguson gritted his teeth and survived until the bell saved him and forced Oliveira to release.
“Tony Ferguson is an incredibly tough guy, but that didn’t surprise me because I knew that before,” Oliveira said.
The unanimous decision win over Ferguson was his eighth win in a row, but snapped a seven-fight streak of finishes. The streak began on June 9, 2018, at UFC 225, when he submitted Clay Guida with a guillotine. He scored rear naked choke wins over Christos Giagos and Jim Miller to finish 2018, then got an anaconda on David Teymur and back-to-back KOs over Nik Lentz and Jared Gordon in 2019. He opened 2020 with a guillotine of Kevin Lee and finished it with the win over Ferguson.
Less than two months earlier, Nurmagomedov had announced his retirement, though White didn’t immediately accept it. The UFC president tried to persuade Nurmagomedov to continue fighting.
But Oliveira said he was confident that, one way or another, he’d be fighting for the belt. Whether it was against Nurmagomedov or someone else, he wasn’t sure, but he felt he’d proven himself during his run.
“To me, it just seemed like that would be the next challenge, and that’s why I was so vocal,” he said. “I felt I had answered any of the questions.”
His consistency is really what lifted him to the title shot. He’s not only won eight in a row, but nine of his last 10. Before, he’d win some and lose some and was maddeningly inconsistent.
In a 15-month period from 2015-16, he dropped three of four, getting submitted twice and knocked out once.
Since a disappointing TKO loss to Paul Felder at UFC 2018, Oliveira has been perfect, and the reasoning to him is simple.
“I always took my career very seriously and I always trained hard, but after my daughter [Tayla] was born, my motivation level and my focus have been much greater,” he said. “I had something more to fight for. Trying to give her a better life than I had has really pushed me to be the best version of myself I could be.”
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