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How Charles Oliveira beat the odds to fight for UFC title: ‘He may never walk again’

Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Francisco Antonio da Silva and Ozana Pereira de Oliveira da Silva refused to give up when one doctor said there was a chance their son would never walk again. They had faith that Charles Oliveira, a young child that loved playing soccer in the streets of Guaruja, Brazil, would not only walk again as any other normal kid, but also grow to be a happy man in the future.

They had no clue, however, that Oliveira, raised in an area that saw some of the soccer greats first became stars, like Pelé and Neymar, would one day compete to become the UFC’s best lightweight two decades later.

Oliveira—the No. 3-ranked lightweight going into his title fight with Michael Chandler at UFC 262 in Houston this Saturday—was diagnosed with abnormal heart murmurs and had rheumatoid arthritis attacking his ankles at an early age, conditions that could prevent him from doing basic things in life. Things as simple as standing still.

“I was hospitalized for two years and doctors told my mom I couldn’t do sports anymore,” Oliveira says. “I loved soccer at the time, I had no idea what combat sports were, but stayed two years in the hospital. It sucked because I couldn’t leave. My parents had to work so I basically stayed there by myself all morning. It was hard to get used to it.”

Francisco worked in a slaughterhouse and sold eggs at the local farmer’s market, while Ozana was a cleaning lady at the school and at the principal’s house. Paying the costs of such treatment would be too much for them if not for the support from Ozana’s boss, a much-needed financial aid during the battle for a cure.

“When [the doctor] said my son had a condition and he may never walk again, I said I believed that God wouldn’t let that happen,” Ozana says. “But that was a serious condition in his ankle, he couldn’t move it. But thank God my boss helped me a lot, taking us to Sao Paulo for further exams.”

Ozana gets emotional and cries every time she recalls those nights she had to stay in the hospital with an ill son.

“I slept on the hospital floor by his bed,” she says. “I woke up at five in the morning to work and then went back to the hospital. Sometimes I went one month without going home, just going from the hospital to work and back.”

“He’s a fighter and a winner since he’s a kid,” Francisco says. “The doctor said he couldn’t kick a ball, and look at him now. You can’t be beaten. But it was very difficult.”

Oliveira was 11 when he was cleared from the hospital. He wasn’t 100 percent cured yet. Doctors advised against any heavy physical activity, including his beloved soccer. Oliveira also had to take biweekly injections of benzathine benzylpenicillin and monthly injections of anti-inflammatory drugs. Oliveira was already back to playing sports two months later, though. Soccer was too brutal for a kid with bad ankles, but jiu-jitsu, known as the “gentle art” in Brazil, could be a good backup plan.

“He started training jiu-jitsu two months after he left the hospital and he won a local championship two months later,” Francisco says. “When we went back to the doctor’s office and the doctor said we couldn’t do it, Charles had two gold medals already.”

Oliveira continued taking those injections until he was 18 years of age, when he decided he had enough.

“I would rather die than continue like this and not do the things I love,” Oliveira told his parents at the time.

Ozana, who proudly mentions God in every sentence about her son’s recovery, responded saying, “if you believe in Jesus that you’re cured, then you’re cured.”

Divine intervention or not, Oliveira’s health issues went away for good.

Charles Oliveira dropped soccer for jiu-jitsu when he was 12. Ericson Cardoso, the leader of local jiu-jitsu gym Bronx’s Gold Team, gave Charles and his brother Hermison Oliveira free classes as requested by a close friend.

Cardoso realized Charles was unique after seeing how he handled getting beat up in his first day in the gym.

Oliveira, like any other kid in their first day of martial arts training, was making a long list of technical mistakes on the mat. He thought strength and power would be enough to get things done against smaller opposition, but that’s not how things work in jiu-jitsu.

Joyce Matias and Charles Oliveira at Guaruja's Bronx's Gold Team.
Photo via Joyce Matias

“He was hungry to learn and win right away, and he ended up hurting other girls that were there, my friends,” says Joyce Matias, who was a year younger than Oliveira but had more experience on the mat. “I was so mad at him. ‘He thinks he can come here and hurt everybody only because he’s a boy and he’s bigger than us?’

“I didn’t give him a chance. Ericson always asked me to go easy on new students and explain them the basics, but I didn’t do that with him. I beat him up so he wouldn’t hurt anyone anymore [laughs].”

Matias had been practicing jiu-jitsu for a year by the time Oliveira walked to the doors at Bronx’s Gold Team, and Cardoso thought “this kid won’t come back tomorrow after getting smashed like this.”

“Not only did he come back,” Cardoso said. “He worked harder and harder just to surpass her.”

“He came back and said he would train hard to catch me,” Matias laughs. “He didn’t like me because people were making fun of him for losing to me. He kept training but still lost to me over and over again.”

From playful rivals in the gym to close friends in tournaments to boyfriend and girlfriend, Oliveira and Matias kept competing against each other on the mats for years to come, and even faced off in intergender matches in local tournaments down the road.

By the time Matias left the gym at age 18, Oliveira, already a professional MMA fighter, “was kicking my butt [laughs].”

“Charles always said he would make a career out of this and we always knew he had a future because he worked so hard,” Matias says. “He always said he wanted to become a champion, but we had no idea it would be in MMA.”

Neither did Oliveira.

“My focus was jiu-jitsu, that’s what I loved the most,” Oliveira says. “There was a time when people kept telling me to go to MMA, but I never liked MMA. I went for it as an extra, to improve my cardio.”

Oliveira was 16 when Cardoso received an invitation from MMA pioneer Jorge “Macaco” Patino to travel to Curitiba and train with MMA superstars over at Chute Boxe for a few days. Some of the world’s best were training there at the time, and Cardoso wouldn’t turn down such opportunity. Oliveira joined them on that trip to Curitiba, but couldn’t watch them train with coach Rafael Cordeiro.

Instead, the 16-year-old had to train away from the “elite” of the team, which included the likes of Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio Rua. Oliveira “complained a lot,” Cardoso recalled. “But earned everyone’s attention. You could tell he was different.”

When Oliveira was finally convinced to give mixed martial arts a try, he won his amateur MMA debut via submission. Everyone was trilled with his success, except for his mother.

“His father knew about it and had it authorized, but I only found out about it when he went back home with his father and his coach saying he won,” Ozana says with a laugh. “I didn’t speak with any of them for days. What if he got hurt? You have no idea how mad I was.”

Ozana hated combat sports and indeed, at first it was a battle. Oliveira was clearly talented and determined enough to convince his mom it was a good idea. She followed her son to the Bronx’s Gold Team for days to see what it was like to trade punches and kicks and twist each other’s arms in the gym, and eventually threw in the towel on fighting that career path.

Oliveira was offered an opportunity to make his professional MMA debut at 18, when teammate Flavio Alvaro withdrew from a one-night, eight-man welterweight grand prix due to an injury. Oliveira barely weighed 155 pounds, but had no problem finishing three opponents at Predador FC 9, including future UFC fighter Viscardi Andrade.

Charles “do Bronx” Oliveira was born that night, carrying the name of his team as his nickname until these days.

“Our game plan was to circle around, keep his hands up, don’t get hit, take them down and tap them,” Cardoso says. “In the end, he knocked out two opponents and submitted one.”

Oliveira returned to action nine months down the road, stopping future UFC fighter Mehdi Baghdad with punches inside one round. Do Bronx would go on to win another one-night grand prix just two weeks later, finishing two opponents in a local event a few miles away from home.

“I was considered the king of grand prix in Brazil,” Oliveira says. “That’s when I really started liking MMA. I noticed I could help my family and my community. One of the first lessons I learned was to never put money over anything. You have to do what you love, and I started to really enjoy doing it, becoming famous and getting noticed.”

Do Bronx won six more, including another one-night tournament, to earn a shot in the UFC and forever change the life of the young Brazilian prospect.

Oliveira enters the biggest fight of his career on May 15, facing off against former Bellator titleholder “Iron” Michael Chandler for the vacant UFC lightweight championship in Houston. He returns to Texas 11 years after tapping Efrain Escudero in Austin, one of the 14 submissions he’s scored since joining the UFC over a decade ago.

You’ll notice nothing much has changed, looking back to that soft-spoken talent from 2010, when you sit down and chat with Oliveira in 2021. “I’m a humble guy, the simplest man you can find,” he will tell you. But Oliveira is “a dreamer,” and being a successful UFC fighter has allowed him to fulfill many dreams over the past few years.

Watching his parents struggle for so long to provide for their family the best they could motivated Oliveira to help them retire from both of their jobs and get them a farm in Vale do Ribeira, a four-hour drive from state capital Sao Paulo, as soon as it was financially achievable. Oliveira laughs when people think he’s a millionaire for fighting in the UFC, but he has been able to give his parents and daughter a better life.

One unique goal he was able to fulfill was being surrounded by animals. His parents’ farm currently has ostriches, llamas, cattle, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, gooses, ducks, drakes, horses and ponies. With the addition of the emu he recently bought, it’s now “like a mini-zoo.”

Horses hold a special place in his heart, and that’s where his longtime cornerman Gia Santos enter the story.

Santos has cornered Oliveira multiple times over the course of his eight-eight unbeaten streak in the UFC despite having no high-level training in any martial art and zero coaching experience. Sure, Santos occasionally trains jiu-jitsu, but he’s there for a reason.

Santos is one of Olivera’s closest friends and advisor, his luck charm and emotional support, and the man that introduced the UFC fighter to trotting races.

Charles Oliveira races his horse.
Photo via Gia Santos

“I really love it,” Oliveira says. “I go to Piracaia (Sao Paulo) to watch and race every time I can. Gia took me there once and I fell in love with it.”

Santos noticed some people were taking advantage of Oliveira, already a UFC fighter at the time, by selling him “overpriced nags” as if they were high-level racing horses.

Oliveira currently owns a horse named Nelson, Santos said, who has competed in five “cup” finals over the past five years. Nelson is approaching his retirement as Oliveira nears UFC gold, and could be joined by other horses in the near future.

The 16 post-fight bonuses Oliviera has won in the UFC have provided the kind of cash one might need if you plan on buying elite racing horses in Brazil. According to Santos, one top-of-the-line horse can cost as much as $40,000.

Oliveira invests a lot of money when he buys horses, and spends a good amount feeding and taking care of them. “It’s expensive,” he admits, “but they are elite horses” and Oliveira absolutely wants it. “If it wasn’t for the UFC, I would never have such expensive hobby,” he laughs.

When he doesn’t have a fight booked, Oliveira would hop on the horse and race. He’s too heavy for a jockey, especially after bulking up to compete full-time as a lightweight, but talented enough to win local races — and have fun, too.

“He’s good,” Santos says. “I taught him how to race and one of these days he beat me in a race. But he cheated and jumped the gun! That’s why he won [laughs].”

Photo via Gia Santos

Oliveira was relaxing at his parents’ farm when his managers called informing him that he would be facing Michael Chandler for the 155-pound throne in May. Backed by eight straight victories, including one-sided wins over Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson in 2020, do Bronx would finally get his long-awaited shot at the gold.

Oliveira’s father recalls sitting in front of a television and watching Bruce Buffer announce a fighter over a decade ago, telling his son that “one day he will be saying your name.” Buffer has said Oliveira’s name over and over against since 2010, and could call him “new undisputed UFC lightweight champion” at UFC 262.

“I’m not taking anything away from his opponent,” Francisco says of Chandler, “but my son has fought tougher men before. Charles hasn’t had an easy life in the UFC, so I think it’s a tough opponent like any other before. But [Chandler] doesn’t stand a chance against him [laughs].”

In fact, Oliveira’s father may deserve credit for his performances inside the octagon. Francisco handed a stone to each of his sons years ago representing the stone that David used to defeat Goliath in the biblical book of Samuel. Oliveira carries it every time he travels for a fight.

Oliveira never told his teammates and coaches about his stone, treating it as his own personal fight week tradition until head coach and manager Diego Lima found about its existence just moments before his second victory over Nik Lentz in May 2019.

Lima was carrying another stone he was gifted a week before by Chute Boxe protege Laureano Staropoli, who called it a powerful lucky charm following a win over Thiago Alves. Before walking out to the octagon at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y., Oliveira handed his stone to Lima and asked him to keep it during the fight.

Charles Oliveira holds the stone following his win over Tony Ferguson in Las Vegas.
Photo via Diego Lima

“It was weird, but I took it with me,” Lima says. “When the fight was over we took pictures with it. It was odd because I also had my stone in my pocket with me. I asked him what his stone was all about, and he told me this story about David and Goliath. It brings so much positive energy to him.”

Powered by David’s stone, Oliveira approaches his long-awaited UFC title shot to accomplish another dream of his bucket list. Many goals have been set already, like having a nice farm, his own gym and expensive horses. Holding a gold UFC belt, however, won’t change the man he truly is.

“I work hard every single day to have things I want,” Oliveira says. “I was too young when I got there and there was so much pressure over me. I’ve had my highs and lows. I’ve fought injured. I’ve missed weight. I’ve taken fights when I clearly shouldn’t. But I’ve learned from it. When I stop and think about all that, I think my family can be proud of everything I’ve done. I’m proud of myself. I came from nothing and look where I am now.

“I tell my mom I’ll become UFC champion one day and I’ll have a lot of money, but I won’t lose my essence or forget where I come from and everything I went through. Every night when I go to bed I think about all that and where I want to go, who I am. I remember walking back home for hours after jiu-jitsu tournaments because we had no money to take the bus. I remember sharing a sandwich at lunch so we could take the bus back home. If your life is easy, you’re soft. If your life is hard, it pays off in the end.

“I want to show everyone that you can have things if you work hard or it, no matter if you were born in a favela. You don’t have to steal, you don’t have to traffic [drugs] or do anything wrong. I know thieves, I know drug dealers, I know a lot of people. They are my friends, but I’ve never used drugs and never felt I had to. I want to show kids they can win in life, they can get where they want.

“Being the title contender today, having this opportunity… Imagine going back to Brazil and taking this belt to the favela and all the kids being able to touch it? Man, that’s priceless.”


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