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UFC Brasilia: Kevin Lee vs. Charles Oliveira Toe-to-Toe Preview - A complete breakdown

Phil and David break down everything you need to know about Kevin Lee vs. Charles Oliveira for UFC Brasilia, and everything you don’t about what the fantastic things peasants ate during medieval times.

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Sarah Stier-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Lee vs. Charlies Oliveira headlines UFC Brasilia on Saturday, March 14th, 2020 at the Ginásio Nilson Nelson in Brasília, Brazil

One sentence summary

David: Failed Potential takes on Stalled Potential in a battle to prove which type of potential is better

Phil: Motown funk and Bronx beatings

Stats

Record: Kevin Lee 19-5 | Charles Oliveira 28-8-1 NC

Odds: Kevin Lee -142 | Charles Oliveira +132

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: He’s the toughest Bernie Bro you know, but unlike the rest of the population susceptible to the online disinhibition effect, he might fight for a world title someday. Although technically, he already has. Lee’s journey is what Melvin Guillard’s journey would have looked like if Melvin had the actual potential people claimed he does. And no, that is not a “low blow.” I talked about this many years ago (eight?!?). Guillard’s problem wasn’t that he had a ton of potential, but that he wasn’t actually that talented. Fast twitch muscle fibers are not a skill on and of itself. Just because a fighter punches fast doesn’t mean they just need a self-help book to teach them to kick fast, grapple fast, or think fast. Potential doesn’t follow some magical time machine of linear progression. To the extent that this rambling brings me to Lee, I think a similar effect is going on, with his athleticism and wins camouflaging the (very) decisive losses. So what does that mean for this fight? I don’t know. It’s a fight that might seem tailor-made for him, but that’s all the more reason it isn’t.

Phil: I’ve pretty much always had a spot for Kevin Lee, in part because he wears his heart on his sleeve. Is he perhaps too confident for his own good? Sure, but he’s candid and honest. He does his best to build out his game (something which notably hasn’t quite worked out yet) by going to what he considers the best places to train, and he’s ballsy enough to take the matches that no-one else will. Gregor Gillespie was not a forgiving bounce-back after Rafael dos Anjos, but Lee took him on, and now fights Oliveira as essentially do Bronx’s first ranked fight in the lightweight division since Felder. He finishes fights, he takes on anyone, what’s not to like.

David: This is the spot where I usually rant about UFC matchmaking, and how lame AF it is, but a much more carefully-worded essay has been written about Da Bronx, in which case — go read that instead. Oliveira’s on a fantastic run. It’s been a literal decade since the UFC treated him like chum. However, like with Lee, profiling Oliveira at this point in his career experiences its own illusion; a fading effect — as we forget the negative emotions of his learning curve (I don’t necessarily think early losses stunted his growth, but I do believe the early losses stunted his matchmaking) quicker than we can construct the narrative of his Out of the Ashes odyssey. However, that doesn’t make either narrative mutually exclusive. To be sure, we’re looking at a much more confident fighter.

Phil: Do Bronx has an oddly similar narrative to Lee, albeit one which has played out through the UFC’s competitive and promotional structures in ways which reflect their backgrounds. Like Lee, Oliveira was a visibly talented prospect who was tossed into the shark tank of the UFC’s lightweight division at a very young age. Like Lee, he acquired a bit of a reputation for folding under pressure, in part because he simply didn’t have the experience to be beating people like Frankie Edgar or Jim Miller. I still think that, like Lee, there remains something of the glass cannon in Oliveira. The offense has gotten more potent, but I suspect that the man who folded against Felder is still in there somewhere.

What’s at stake?

David: I honestly don’t know. Betting on the mere act of Nurmagomedov finally fighting Ferguson is like predicting what YouTube rabbit hole you’ll find yourself falling down next: for the record, mine was the shockingly delicious recreation what peasants ate during medieval times. So I’d like to say there there are title shot implications in some vague “whatever lightweight scores a violent knockout next” sense, but who knows.

Phil: This is, in part, why fights like this happen. When fights at the top of lightweight are both infrequent and lucrative, it makes sense to camp out as high up the rankings as possible. Could the winner of this get, say, the Poirier-Hooker winner? The loser of Nurmagomedov-Ferguson, assuming it ever happens? The eternal default option of Donald Cerrone? Any of them are possible, but seeing a longer route to the top of the division seems near-impossible.

Where do they want it?

David: All that stuff I was babbling about earlier on potential, and the illusion of inevitability? I think Lee exists in a similar shell, even if he isn’t hermetically sealed in it the way guys like Melvin Guillard were. Yes, he’s fast, and explosive. He’s also fragile (in fighter terms), and emotional. He’s got a mind for offense, but less for defense. No disrespect to Gregor Gillespie, but that bout should have been a layup. Instead Gillespie’s jab had Lee bleeding just a minute in. It was a moderately violent fight before the KO. If there’s a lesson to be learned from that fight, it’s that Lee will have to figure out how to calibrate his stance-switching, stream of consciousness style (which saw him put Tony Ferguson in mount), with the Stuck in Fundamentals style that we saw against Rafael dos Anjos and Gregor Gillespie. It’s tough. Lee is just not a durable fighter. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has Mark Hunt’s chin, or Robert Whittaker’s stamina. It’s only natural that fighters will end up on the other side of the spectrum. Lee has a lot of strong straits. He’s a powerful kicker. He has a stiff jab. A good grappler. And he mixes it all at his sharpest. At this point the question is: what parts of his game need to be adjusted in order for him to raise his ceiling versus the floor? The more plodding work in recent fights is him raising his floor. Maybe that ends up being the best decision for him. I tend to go in the opposite direction. I think Lee would be better served with polishing up his previous strengths. The thing about being better defensively, or fundamentally is that decreasing the margin for error simply changes the margins depending on the type of fighter you are. Lee becoming more flat footed just puts him in a position where his flaws are laid bare. There are a lot of things I’d like to say about Lee, and his style, but I think his newfound movement (or lackthereof) will actually help him here.

Phil: Lee has a ton of gifts: he’s freakishly strong, he has a great frame for the divisions he fights in (with long arms but without the risk of being a tall man), and he’s thoughtful enough to make broad strategic changes and work on his weaknesses. The problem is that there’s a level of discomfort which is present at almost every part of his game which isn’t top control. His wrestling is effective, with a deep shot and a nasty bodylock, but he muscles his way through positions a bit too much. He’s learned a set of fundamental striking tools, with a long jab and a powerful head and body kick. However, he can get drawn into exchanges where he doesn’t have either the depth or the sheer durability to win out. With that being said, the gifts still count. He’s still smart enough to fight aggressively when he needs to, and to take time off when he doesn’t, and he can finish with subs or strikes.

David: Not only has Oliveira’s style not experienced any sort of fundamental change, but I would argue that he hasn’t experienced many subtle changes either: yes, he’s some more variation, but I think that’s just the kind of natural variation that flows from the specific interaction against specific fighters than an explicit or implicit strategic/tactical shift. Also, other than David Teymur, his quality of competition has been lacking; especially in proportion to this weekend’s competition. However, he’s been doing all the right things. He’s still something of a dirty boxer: inching forward to take punch entries any he can, whether it’s with standing elbows, leg kicks, knees, etc. However, he’s able to throw wide angle combinations when the situation demands it, and as we all know already, he’s absolutely phenomenal on the ground — not so much as a tactician (for such a brilliant grappler, he loses a lot by submission, which speaks a lot his philosophy), but as a hammer. He’s quick to pounce on open neck areas, back control, and could be more creative than the reverse calf slicer he landed on Eric Wisely? Like Lee, Oliveira has a shadow over him; can he still generate offense at the cost of defense?

Phil: The main improvement in Chucky Olives has been his composure. Whereas Lee has broadened out a somewhat non-functional game into a more defined one, but still struggles to keep it under control, Oliveira has just built on what he already had. He used to be a flinchy striker who had to pile right into the clinch, where he’d either haul at takedowns or pick up on the double collar and throw knees. It was fairly simplistic, but it had a clear start and end. The primary issue was that Oliveira had too much of a tendency to get dialed in on offense, and would be unprepared for return fire, or submission threats. Recent fights have showed him as being no less threatening a finisher, but far more surgical in the way he parses out his offense, happy to lay down a single sharp shot, judge his work, and move back out again. Similarly, he sets up his wrestling shots better rather than just relying on being the superior grappler in every situation.

Insight from past fights

David: Here’s the thing. Younger Lee is more of an x-factor against Oliveira. Current Lee is much less of one. Oliveira has a kind of half-(ear)muff defense, but for the most part, he’s still a relatively easy target. Because of that, I can see Lee sitting down on his jab, opening up with other strikes, and catapulting Oliveira’s head into the stands as soon as Charles gets restless. Both guys lack patience, and in the absence of patience, the power will be the difference IMO.

Phil: If there’s a fight which Lee should try to replicate from his own resume, it’s Barboza. Lee had never been much of a pressure fighter up until that point, but he came after Barboza relentlessly, kicking him out of his circling to set him up for clinch offense and takedowns. I genuinely think takedowns may be key here for Lee, as much of Barboza’s past fights indicate that, like many voracious topside and submission threats (Jacare, Palhares etc) Oliveira’s confidence and ability drains away under a concerted ground and pound assault. He has also, as mentioned, tended to get too focused on retaking the wrestling advantage and has re-shot (several times) from his knees right into guillotines.

X-Factors

David: This. Whole. Goddamn. Sport.

Phil: These two have combined for something like 8 weight misses over their careers. This time it’s Lee, and unfortunately missing weight has tended to be something which favours the fatter party of late (see: Figueredo, D vs Benavidez, J). The other X-factor I’m interested in is Lee moving to Tristar. We didn’t get to see a whole lot in that Gillespie fight.

Prognostication

David: This fight will be a game of chicken. And just like in a game of chicken, I’m gonna bet on the bigger car surviving the collision. These guys are too similar in philosophy to throw away their instincts. One thing both men will do is Go For It. There’s gonna be a hail mary guillotine, spinning roundhouse kick, or something. It’s just a question of who blinks first. I expect Da Bronx to blink first. Kevin Lee by KO, round 2.

Phil: I think there’s a route to victory for Lee: pressure without fear, hit takedowns, work Oliveira from top position, and potentially even hit opportunistic submissions. I’m just not sure he can do it. Oliveira has become a venomous, accurate striker, and much of the Tristar philosophy focuses on stylistic risk mitigation: on striking grapplers and grappling strikers. There is no real safe way to fight Oliveira, but I think the best path is through a three-dimensional game. I’d be impressed if Lee can pull it off, but I fear that he won’t. Charles Oliveira by submission, round 3.