The result may have been definitive, but it was hardly without suspense. After getting hurt by Michael Chandler in the first round with the same left hook (multiple times) that fatality-ed Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira made a comeback for the ages—scoring a TKO victory just seconds into the second round at UFC 262 to win the vacant UFC Lightweight Championship.
Last night really felt like something special: something arguably rare in this sport. Fighters who become UFC champions tend to follow a certain, somewhat predictable if not rote path. The first kind of champion is the ‘gifted prospect, unstoppable killing machine’ type: Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya, Francis Ngannou, etc.
Then there are the technicians who hone their craft until they’ve got it down to a science: Kamaru Usman, GSP, and pretty much every welterweight champ ever, basically. There are champions who benefit from serendipity more than talent, like Frank Mir, Forrest Griffin, and Matt Serra. And there are the champions who are benefactors of the big fish, small pond phenomenon.
Oliveira doesn’t belong to any of these categories.
As a prospect, he never appeared to be groomed for long-term success. The UFC, not feeling the need to treat young talent the same way a proper sport looks to maximize the development of its most supreme talents, had him fight Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone within his first five fights. After winning two bouts following his loss to Cerrone, matchmakers gave him Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar. A seemingly preposterous cycle that went on for years, with Oliveira racking up a record of 10-8 (1 NC) over his first seven years in the UFC.
He never seemed to find himself in the right place at the right time. For years he tried pretending he was a featherweight (sure, Oliveira is sinewy, but he’s not lean either). Struggling for consistency in two divisions best described as big ponds harboring only big fish. ‘Do Bronx’ was always a prospect in the most sporting sense of the term: a young athlete with talent to be successful in the future. But he was one who seemed he needed help and time in the present to get there.
All of which is a fitting reflection of where the man from Sao Paulo started in his non-sporting life, as well. Diagnosed with bone rheumatism and a heart murmur at age 7, Oliveira was told he’d be wheelchair-bound. Growing up he’d have to contend with his own biology fighting against him inside the favelas of Vicente de Carvalho, Brazil. Throughout his fighting career, he’s stayed grounded by the difficulty of his upbringing, which is why we referenced it in his postfight speech.
Maybe this weekend was Oliveira’s ‘aha’ moment. We’ve seen him lose his composure before. We’ve seen him get submitted and knocked out. We’ve even seen him (given his failures to make weight) lose his professionalism. Perhaps it finally clicked; wait a second - what the hell is the difficulty of facing one man against facing the poverty and grim orders of a professional fighter?
We don’t usually get these stories. Fighters tend to develop ‘on the surface.’ Enough reps, and that overhand right finally starts to do some damage. Enough practice, and that jab finally starts to hit a genuine rhythm. Enough experience, and a collection of skills starts to look like an identity that can survive against the violent exposure that comes with managing the high-wire dynamic of being in a prizefight. It doesn’t always take long, but eventually the fighter can put away the whetstone.
Not Oliveira. To be sure, Oliveira put in the surface work. That’s how he owns the UFC record for submissions wins, and wins via stoppage. But rarely do fighters develop so thoroughly underneath. The politics of confrontation are informed by different laws than the politics of contemplation. Rarely do fighters solve that riddle. But Oliveira went into that second round with the composure of a Hollywood contract killer, stood in the pocket with the man who nearly dusted him, fresh, and came out the other side with gold around his waist. In a lot of ways, Oliveira’s win feels like the kind of victory we savor in our own lives when we beat the odds.
At seemingly every stage of his life in and out of the cage, Oliveira has run into persistent obstacles. Not just hurdles to overcome in the moment, but difficulties that actively knocked him back. Points where talent and athletic prowess couldn’t push him to victory in the moment. But, all throughout, he kept improving, kept honing his skills, and stayed true to his goals. And the end result has been something entirely special.