Charles Oliveira is a little better technique-wise today than he was when he made his UFC debut in 2010, but not by a significant margin. He’s in better shape now than 12 years ago, but certainly not by a dramatic margin.
The 2010 version of Oliveira had everything needed to win a UFC title, but not only didn’t he do it, he didn’t come close.
The 2022 version of Oliveira holds the title and has overcome so many obstacles to get to the top someone may write a self-help book about it one day.
There is one key difference that has meant the difference between winning and losing, between being good and great, and between being a contender and being a champion.
“Confidence,” Oliveira says, proudly. “I believe in myself and what I can do.”
He’ll get another chance to show it on Saturday in the main event of UFC 274 in Phoenix when he faces No. 1 contender Justin Gaethje. Oliveira is a solid -170 favorite at BetMGM to defeat the ever-popular Gaethje, known among MMA fans as “The Highlight.”
Oliveira was 12-0 outside the UFC and won his first two bouts inside the promotion before trouble hit. He went 8-8 with a no-contest from Dec. 11, 2010, when he was submitted by Jim Miller in less than two minutes at UFC 124 to Dec. 2, 2017, when he was TKO’d by Paul Felder at UFC 217.
Now, he wasn’t losing to bums. In addition to Miller and Felder, he was beaten by former champions Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis, as well as Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson and Donald Cerrone.
No shame in losing to any of them, but there was nothing to suggest this was a guy who would not only run off a 10-fight winning streak but become a dominant champion. That’s what he is, though, coming off wins over Tony Ferguson, Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier.
He was nearly finished by Chandler in their bout for the vacant title. He came back to win it early in the second round. He was rocked and dropped by Poirier in his first title defense, but rallied and stopped Poirier in the third to end any debate about his worthiness as a champion.
“I’ve shown how much I’ve evolved,” Oliveira said. “I’ve been able to show my growth and how much I’ve evolved in this last few fights.”
That’s obvious. But why? He chuckles when pressed for an answer. The secret was always within, even if he didn’t know it.
The birth of his daughter caused him to double down on his focus in preparations, and that in turn enabled him to see what he was capable of doing on a regular basis.
He began to realize that the gym work could translate to the fight if he brought the same confidence.
“This is the new Charles,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I’m good on the ground but I can take the fight wherever it needs to go. I realized I’m good in all positions by work over time. If I was consistent in my preparation and was always the hardest [worker in the gym], it would [show up] in the fights.
“I guess I realized what it takes at this level. It’s a total commitment. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am and I believe. I believe I am the best and that no one can beat me.”
If Oliveira defeats Gaethje on Saturday, it will be his 11th victory in a row, which would tie featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and the legendary Royce Gracie for the 10th-longest streak in UFC history.
It’s quite a leap for a guy who went 8-8 in his previous fights. But the Poirier fight shows what he calls the evolution.
Oliveira likes to fight aggressively and move forward, and against Poirier, that sent him right into the Louisianan’s power. Poirier dropped Oliveira hard with a left hook and seemed on the verge of a dramatic, history-changing win.
Oliveira, though, spoiled that story by maintaining his cool. There was no panic.
“You have to understand things are going to happen in a fight,” he said. “You need to stay calm and relax and put into practice what you worked on. I’ve been in these situations before, and over time I’ve learned what to do and what not to do and that’s made a difference.”
Saying it’s made a difference is an understatement akin to saying Tiger Woods is a good golfer. Oliveira has gone from being just another guy on the roster to the UFC’s all-time leader in finishes (18) and one of its most successful champions.
The end of the good times appears to be nowhere in sight.
“I’m confident in everything I’m doing and both mentally and physically, I’m prepared to beat the best fighters in the world,” he said. “That kind of confidence is inspiring and I have it now.”