UFC 262 Editorial: More Than Becoming Champion, Charles Oliveira Made The Hero’s Journey
The result may have been final, but it was hardly without suspense. After being injured by Michael Chandler in the first round with the same left hook (multiple times) as fatalistic Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira made a comeback for the ages – scoring a TKO victory seconds after the second round at UFC 262 to win the vacant UFC Lightweight Championship.
Last night was really something special: something rare in this sport. Fighters who become UFC champions tend to follow a certain path, somewhat predictable if not by heart. The first type of champion is the “ gifted prospect, unstoppable killing machine ” type: Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya, Francis Ngannou, etc.
Then there are the techies who hone their craft until they boil it down to a science: Kamaru Usman, GSP and pretty much every welterweight champion ever, basically. There are champions who profit more by chance than talent, like Frank Mir, Forrest Griffin and Matt Serra. And there are the champions who are the benefactors of the phenomenon of big fish, small ponds.
Oliveira does not fall into any of these categories.
As a prospect, he never seemed to be prepared for long term success. The UFC, not feeling the need to treat young talent the same way a proper sport seems to maximize the development of its most supreme talents, had him fight Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone in his first five. fights. After winning two fights after his loss to Cerrone, the matchmakers gave him Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar. A seemingly absurd cycle that spanned years, with Oliveira racking up a 10-8 (1 NC) record during her first seven years in the UFC.
He never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. For years, he’s tried to pretend he’s a featherweight (of course Oliveira is nervous, but he’s not skinny either). Struggle for consistency in two divisions best described as large ponds housing only big fish. “Do Bronx” has always been a prospect in the sportiest sense of the word: a young athlete with talent for success in the future. But he was someone who seemed to need some help and some time in the present to get there.
All of this is also a fitting reflection of where the Sao Paulo man started in his non-sporting life. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and a heart murmur at the age of 7, Oliveira was told he would be in a wheelchair. Growing up, he would have to face his own biology by fighting it in the favelas of Vicente de Carvalho, Brazil. Throughout his career as a fighter, he remained anchored by the difficulty of his education, which is why we the reference in his post-fight speech.
Maybe this weekend was Oliveira’s “aha” moment. We have seen him lose his temper before. We have seen him submit and be knocked out. We’ve even seen him (given his inability to gain weight) lose his professionalism. Maybe it finally clicked; wait a sec – how difficult is it in facing a man in the face of poverty and the dismal 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 is finally starting to hit a real beat. Enough of experience, and a skill set begins to resemble an identity that can survive against the violent exposure that comes with managing the high-level dynamics of being in a price fight. 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. This is how he owns the UFC record for submissions, wins and wins by stoppage. But it’s rare for fighters to grow so deep below. The politics of confrontation are informed by different laws from the politics of contemplation. Fighters rarely solve this puzzle. But Oliveira entered that second round with the poise of a Hollywood hitman, stood in the pocket with the man who nearly dusted him off, Fresh, and came out the other side with gold around his waist. In many ways, Oliveira’s victory is like the kind of victory we relish in our own lives when we’ve beaten the odds.
At every stage of her life in and out of the cage, Oliveira has encountered persistent obstacles. Not just obstacles to overcome at the time, but difficulties that actively pushed him back. Points where talent and athletic prowess could not push him to victory at the time. But, throughout, he continued to improve, hone his skills and stay true to his goals. And the end result was something quite special.