Charles Oliveira was just 20 years old when he first graced the Octagon. Tall, wiry and unbeaten, he was bursting with promise from the beginning, a projection that was validated his first few times out. Oliveira was strangling, choking and locking dudes from the jump so impressively that he was moved toward upper-level opponents at breakneck speed. Within a year of his UFC debut, he would be gracing the cage against the likes of Jim Miller, Nik Letnz and Donald Cerrone, renowned foes that were far more experienced than him.
While Oliveira’s fast rise spoke to his talent, his results against such opposition were discouraging. He lost against Miller, he lost against Cerrone, he lost against Cub Swanson and then Frankie Edgar. It seemed every time the UFC gave him opportunities to vault to the top of the pack, he stumbled.
There comes a time in every prospect’s career when he has to win the breakthrough fight, and as Oliveira went from young aspirant to grizzled veteran, it seemed he might never do it. After last night, he can cross that off his list.
Kevin Lee is young and powerful and talented, and he’s now Oliveira’s most high-profile victim, the casualty of a power guillotine, the same as many others before him.
Oliveira has always been dangerous. He walked into the cage Saturday night with 13 submission victories, the most in UFC history, but the knock on him has been inconsistency. At the beginning of his career, his striking was rudimentary and ineffective. Sometimes he’s had stamina issues. Sometimes he’s struggled to make weight. After his first nine trips to the Octagon, he was 4-4 with 1 no contest.
Things continued like that — win some, lose some, always be exciting — for a while, but a turning point seemed to occur in 2017, when Oliveira decided to leave the featherweight division behind and fight at 155 pounds. Without having to drain his body, he seemed to be fresher on fight night, and along with major improvements to his striking game, Oliveira surged.
Now, after seven straight wins — all by finish — Oliveira is a true player in the loaded lightweight division. Showing he’d rounded out his promotional game as well, he didn’t waste time in mentioning what he wants next, the winner of April’s planned UFC 249 bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson.
“I’ll be sitting there first row,” he said in his UFC Brasilia post-fight interview. “There’s no way to deny it. I’m one of the best in the world. I’m ready. The belt’s going to be mine.”
In truth, Oliveira has some work to do before challenging for the UFC lightweight championship. He walked into the cage ranked 13th in division, but after beating No. 8 Lee, he should rocket up several places. In addition, that seventh consecutive win is the third-longest active streak in the division — behind Nurmagomedov (12) and Ferguson (11).
Oliveira’s new fight style has been a key driver of his recent success. His strikes have gotten much crisper, tighter and more powerful. He’s complemented that with an aggressive approach in which he’s constantly advancing, putting his opponents in a position where they often must decide between retreating or attempting a takedown.
Those takedowns are a red-alert danger zone, as Lee discovered on Saturday. As the third round began, both men had slowed down a bit, but Oliveira continued to come forward. Lee actually landed a couple of overhand rights in an attempt to slow his advances, but Oliveira continued to march him down. Finally, Oliveira threw a left kick, and Lee caught it, attempting to use it for a takedown. If it was a trap, it was a perfect one. Instead of defending the takedown, Oliveira clasped his hands under Lee’s chin, and with his finishing instincts, it was a wrap even before Lee surrendered.
Oliveira didn’t seem to mind that his most significant win occurred in total silence, a scenario that allowed the fans watching from home into the intimacy and confusion of the moment. Lee tapped several times, and apparently went unconscious before quickly coming to when Oliveira released the hold. Lee momentarily refused to disengage Oliveira, until referee Mike Beltran had to tell him he’d “see it on the big screen.”
It was a bizarre ending to a surreal night where fighters performed without the adrenaline of a live crowd, but while Oliveira was robbed of a glorious moment in his home country, he got the victory that had always eluded him. It’s a tradeoff he’ll gladly take.
Now 30 years old, time is no longer on Oliveira’s side the way it used to be, but maybe he is maturing right on schedule. Now he has the things that matter past age. Experience. Poise. Mastery. He’s always been dangerous, but as he begins his second decade in the UFC, the boundaries to his threat have been erased.