The first time I really spoke to Charles Oliveira was in Pittsburgh right in the middle of a furry convention. The fighter hotel was crawling with all manner of human-stuffed animals, many of whom would stop to gawk at the fighters like that weird bear towards the end of The Shining. Fittingly, Oliveira was there to fight “The Carny,” Nik Lentz, which made him — somewhat literally — the only non-circus act in the room.

He didn’t speak English, so we had a translator there. He had on his glasses, and his smile was so big I was certain he had extra teeth. It was the day before the weigh-ins, so he was a little grumpy. People around him were eating without guilt, and, for a 21-year old kid forcing himself to be disciplined, I think it insulted him. I talked to him about his upbringing in Brazil, having lived in the favelas as a kid. It was harrowing stuff that he wasn’t exactly in the mood to revisit.

The fight was pretty memorable, even though it happened on the same card as a couple of other crazy things: Cheick Kongo’s main event with Pat Barry (one of the greatest heavyweight fights ever) and the most absurd domino effect in UFC history. 

Remember that? It went like this: Matt Riddle was supposed to fight T.J. Grant but Riddle got hurt and was replaced by Charlie Brenneman, yet Grant fell mysteriously ill leaving Brenneman without a dance partner, meanwhile Anthony Johnson was booked to fight Nate Marquardt but was scratched with an injury and replaced by a surging Rick Story, yet Marquardt didn’t receive medical clearance the day before the fight so, to keep Story on, Brenneman was re-booked to replace Marquardt. Anyway, Brenneman, a woodwork figure of the most anonymous sort, of course took advantage of a most fortuitous set of circumstances. He upset Story.

And Oliveira was having a nice night himself until he plunged a knee into Lentz’s face while Lentz was still very conspicuously grounded. The referee, a fellow named Chip Snyder, didn’t know what the hell to do so he let the fight go on. Oliveira got a rear-naked choke moments later and a freshly bloodied Lentz tapped out, which had Pittsburgh ready to riot with the injustice. I just remember Oliveira doing a crude kind of dance with his hips, perhaps not fully understanding (or misreading) the torrent of boos raining down as he celebrated. Oliveira got his hand raised much to his delight, but the fight was later overturned to a “no contest.” 

That was my first real up-close glimpse of Charlie Olives, as the jet set calls him. It’s been a turbulent ride through the UFC record books, to the point that if the fight game wasn’t coughing up so many redemption stories of late Oliveira’s current reign would make for a nice little holiday tale. He had lost his previous fight to Jim Miller, and lost his subsequent fight against Donald Cerrone. It felt like a little too much too soon for the man who carried a New York borough for a nickname.

The losses prompted a move to featherweight, kicking off a stretch of fights that, if viewed as a whole, would resemble a cardiograph. Oliveira began winning some fights, but he also began missing weight. He missed weight against Cub Swanson and lost the fight. He missed weight against Jeremy Stephens, yet won. He missed weight against Myles Jury and people were referring to him as the consummate unprofessional. Because of these glaring misses, the wins were getting buried far beneath the criticisms. And when he missed weight against Ricardo Lamas by a full 10 pounds in 2016, pitchforks were reflecting in his eyeglasses. People were coming for him. The UFC was at wit’s end. It was move back to lightweight or else.

And then it happened.

Oliveira, Mr. Red Flag whose percentages were more talked about in the purse-docking sense, quietly got it together. In fact, he began ever so stealthily kicking ass. And he did it without asterisks. Perhaps because we’d seen him lose so many times —  and that his name was constantly being dragged for one reason or another — not too many people took him seriously as went on a headhunting mission unlike any other over the last few years. 

It started with Clay Guida, whom he submitted. Then Christos Giagos, the great Azusa Spartan, whom he tapped out. He avenged an earlier loss against Jim Miller by submitting him. Then David Teymur tapped. Because of what happened in Pittsburgh all those years earlier, Oliveira had to deal with Nik Lentz more than is humane. Three times in total. And he beat Lentz in the trilogy via TKO to keep his run going. 

Did people see him coming at that point? Maybe a few. Spencer Kyte probably saw. But that’s it. It was still very much a quiet coming. 

Then it was Jared Gordon, KO. Kevin Lee, guillotine. Lee missed weight, which was like cosmic residue from all those Oliveira misses. This time it was Oliveira, though, taking a percentage as he handled his business. 

Maybe the first time people really started to take Oliveira seriously as a lightweight contender came in his fight against Tony Ferguson. Destroying a relentless banshee who for years haunted the division opened some eyes. Oliveira outclassed Ferguson everywhere. To the point that when he won the vacant lightweight title against Michael Chandler half a year later, it didn’t feel like the upset it was by odds-makers lines. 

It just felt like Oliveira had arrived. He had broken the record for the most finishes in UFC history with 17, so the unsung was finally hearing the music of his own greatness. 

Now he’s fighting Dustin Poirier in what can only be described as a genuinely right lightweight title fight. Nobody leapfrogged anybody else to get here. The two very best lightweights in the world are counting down to a collision,* and the fun thing is it’s difficult to imagine either principal losing. Oliveira is the underdog (+135), which reflects the earlier struggle. Poirier has come roaring back from his initial loss to Conor McGregor, which for a while there made him a persona non grata in the ranks. He very publicly avenged himself against McGregor not once but twice, and for doing so has become a star in his own right. He has one hell of a redemption story. 

Maybe he deserves to be the betting favorite.

But he didn’t come from the kind of place Oliveira did. All those years ago in Pittsburgh, Oliveira talked about his impoverished youth with reluctance, just as he talks about those days of missing weight with reluctance now. There are just some crazy things in Oliveira’s rearview mirror. But what’s in front of his is even more wild. His first title defense. 

More submissions? More finishes? More records?

And he’s only 32.

*Assuming this column doesn’t put the kibosh on it.

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