Submission ace, Charles Oliveira, will duel opposite knockout artist, Justin Gaethje, this Saturday (May 7, 2022) at UFC 274 inside Footprint Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
Lightweight’s dark horse is no more. Oliveira put it all together somewhere around 2018 and started crushing opponents left and right, but it took some time before people accepted this was an entirely new “Do Bronx.” He’s since won 10 in a row with nine finishes, capturing and defending the 155-pound belt in the process. Notably, his last victory versus Dustin Poirier really solidified his position as the best in the world. The Brazilian has proven himself time and time again, shutting down the silly narratives of an “uncrowned champ” or “quitter’s mindset.”
Of course, those accomplishments and accolades mean little when the doors lock this weekend. Let’s take a closer look at the champion’s skill set:
Confidence and conditioning are such major weapons in mixed martial arts (MMA). Oliveira has always had some dangerous weapons on his feet, but he’s developed onto such an incredible offensive force because he fully believes in his ability to pursue the knockout with getting tired.
Representing Chute Boxe, Oliveira stands tall, steps lightly with his lead leg, and pins his elbows to his ribs with his hands to his temples. In recent bouts, Oliveira has really been pressuring his opponents from this stance, punishing them with damage that adds up quickly.
As one would expect of the rangy Brazilian, his distance work and damage begins with his kicks. More than most, Oliveira sticks his foe with lots of teeps to the midsection. As he advances, he’s pre-emptively checking with his lead leg by lifting up the knee. Rather than a simple step/check, that leg lift could be a teep from his lead leg. It could also be a step into a back leg teep.
OR … it could be a step into a round kick. Oliveira chops the thigh with a real shift in weight, powering through his hips and digging into the leg like a true Nak Muay. He’ll kick hard to the midsection and head as well, which altogether makes Oliveira a difficult opponent to deal with as he advances. He’s showing his opponent a lot of potential kicks … and all of them hurt.
Ask Kevin Lee, who took a hard snap kick right before diving into a guillotine choke.
Muay Thai fighters tend not to rely on the jab so often, and that’s become increasingly true for Oliveira. He’ll still stick out a jab, but his kicks are his true range-finder and distance establishment weapon. However, that’s not to say Oliveira’s lead hand is weak. He does well to angle off with hard check hooks, and Oliveira will mix it up by shifting his weight and firing left uppercuts as well.
Opposite Michael Chandler, the left hook proved Oliveira’s antidote to his opponent’s powerful right. When a Chandler right hand failed to find its target, Oliveira did not let him off the hook, catching Chandler pulling back at the end of a pretty perfect left hook. As we recently saw vs. Justin Gaethje, Chandler is not an easy man to put away, but Oliveira picked his shots with precision to secure the stoppage win (GIF).
Prior to his title win, Oliveira finished two of his other recent victories with big counter shots. Against the relentless pressure of Jared Gordon, Oliveira showed great composure. Gordon looked to press behind the jab and back Oliveira into the fence, but “Do Bronx” timed his right hand with a slip and overhand of his own (GIF). The punch pretty much knocked out Gordon, but it’s also important to note that Oliveira was smartly using the strike to angle himself off the fence.
Going back a bit farther, one of Oliveira’s most impressive performances in his current win streak came when he handed former professional kickboxer David Teymur his first UFC loss. Oliveira really showed off his creativity in that bout, hurting Teymur with jumping kicks and sudden elbows.
Finally, Oliveira’s clinch work is pretty nasty. He’s very accustomed to fighters diving toward his hips, which is generally something he welcomes due to his excellent submission game. However, he’ll also use an overhook and head position to create space with his hips, allowing him to land hard knees. Lately, Oliveira has been more willing to latch onto a collar-tie after landing punches, following up with more knees and elbows (GIF).
Oliveira’s defensive improvement is clear as well, a result of both experience and confidence. The second one is really key: Oliveira looks much better firing back under pressure. Previously, Oliveira would just cover up under fire, which only makes it easier for foes to tee off. He’s still a bit tall and keeps his head in one place, but he’s less vulnerable than in the past.
All of this improvement brings us to the ferocious first round of Oliveira vs. Poirier, a five-minute stand up war that saw both men land shots that would end the night for many in their division.
In that match up, Poirier was the boxer, the fighter with cleaner combinations in the pocket. Appropriately, Oliveira did his best to never allow Poirier to purely box. Whenever the two decided to stand their ground, Oliveira would fire a front kick up the middle into Poirier’s mid-section. Those shots were punishing, and they served to disrupt Poirier’s boxing rhythm and head movement.
The clinch really saved Oliveira, however. Anytime Poirier started landing hard, Oliveira would reach out and tie up with his opponent, latching onto his neck. Immediately, Oliveira would attempt to rip a painful knee into Poirier’s gut. Even if Poirier had him hurt half-a-second earlier, “The Diamond” would exit the clinch with a big inhale and accept the reset due to those body knees.
To his credit, Oliveira also did show some good looks with his hands vs. Poirier, even if overall Poirier did better work in that regard. For example, Oliveira led well with his cross, a nice adjustment opposite the Southpaw. Additionally, he countered Poirier’s cross by slipping and firing the rear uppercut on several occasions, a nice bit of boxing.
Oliveira’s wrestling is perhaps the most underrated aspect of his game, simply because he doesn’t really care about getting taken down himself. When Oliveira decides to wrestle offensively, he usually gets his man down.
There are two main positions where Oliveira hits his takedowns: in the clinch and against the fence. If Oliveira is able to read an opponent’s punch coming, he’ll duck underneath and secure a tight wrap on the body. This is another area where length helps, especially since Oliveira is physically strong too. Once locked onto the waist, Oliveira can simply pick up his opponent (GIF).
If they resist, expect Oliveira to duck off toward the back. As he’s shown on several occasions, Oliveira is more than happy to jump the back standing if he’s unable to drag his opponent down first.
Taking down opponents along the fence is really a question of set ups. Once on the hips with locked hands, the takedown itself is simple and easy. Luckily, we’ve already discussed the many dangerous weapons Oliveira presents his opponent with in the section above. Oliveira’s strikes are formidable and varied, which great increases his chances of securing good position on the hips.
Long arms help lock hands, too.
Defensively, Oliveira is quicker to wrap the neck than sprawl. He’s tough to out-maneuver in the clinch, which really forces opponents who want takedowns to change levels. Once that happens, they’re really playing with fire, and Oliveira is also commonly able to use the threat of the choke to reverse takedown attempts.
At 32 years of age, Oliveira has secured the most submissions in UFC history already. The Brazilian is both incredible aggressive and dangerous, which helps explain his 15 tapout wins.
From top position, Oliveira is chasing the back (though he’ll always jump on a front choke if given the opening). Once Oliveira moves onto the back, he immediately locks in the body triangle, a position made more secure by his length. Once the body triangle is locked in, Oliveira will immediately begin wrenching at the face to slip an arm beneath the chin. He’s scored some of his best finishes in this fashion, simply going all-out to attack the neck as soon as he’s in position.
Specifically, Oliveira has scored a couple standing rear-naked chokes (GIF). The benefit of the standing position is that the attacking fighter can focus both of his hands on chasing the neck, since the defending athlete cannot use the mat to scrape him off.
If Oliveira can’t find the rear-naked choke, he’s plenty willing to attack the arm. Using either inside wrist control or a figure four grip, Oliveira will control one arm before releasing the body triangle. From there, he’ll rotate his hips and throw one leg over the face, ideally landing in the armbar position.
Against Myles Jury, Oliveira countered a back escape from Jury masterfully. As he slid off, Oliveira hooked over Jury’s head, threatening the neck. Jury still tried to stand, but in the process Oliveira was able to connect his hands and jump guard, finishing the guillotine.
Often, Oliveira’s submissions happen when his opponents initiate the grappling. He’s extremely confident in his guillotine choke, using it both to secure submissions and top position. If his foe does manage to pop out, Oliveira is confident in his guard work as well, quickly throwing up triangles and armbars.
Perhaps Oliveira’s favorite setup is the anaconda choke from guard. It’s fairly unique to him, and he’s very aggressive in chasing this submission. He’ll look for it from the clinch while his opponent is on his feet, but Oliveira is most dangerous with the choke while working from the turtle.
As Oliveira’s opponent looks to stand up from the turtle, Oliveira will immediately thread his inside arm around the neck and shoulder. With his long arms, it’s not difficult for him to thread his arm deep enough to lock arms with a rear-naked choke grip. Once Oliveira has that grip locked, he’ll stand up and jump full guard. From this position, Oliveira is able to squeeze with his upper body and extend his opponent with his legs, which makes it an extremely tight choke (GIF).
In his recent wins over Tony Ferguson and Lee, Oliveira demonstrated just how well-rounded his grappling game is. Against “El Cucuy,” Oliveira repeatedly countered his opponent’s attempts to throw up submissions by passing his open guard. Once in a dominant position, Oliviera really punished Ferguson with elbows, and when Ferguson tried to buck his opponent off, Olivera countered with an overhook armbar that nearly broke his arm.
Top-tier top game.
On the flip side, Lee was able to score several takedowns against Oliveira, but it didn’t land him much success. From his back, Oliveira would immediately invert, attacking a leg and looking to reverse. Lee’s top game is absolutely brutal, but he never managed to land much significant due to Oliveira’s offense.
In one of the cooler submissions in UFC history, Oliveira finished Eric Wisely with a calf slicer. When Oliveira sat back for a heel hook from top position, Wisely attempted to rolled away from Oliveira. The Brazilian adjusted by attacking with a kneebar, but he was unable to lock in the submission. However, Oliveira continued to transition and attack, sliding his shin behind Wisely’s kneecap. From there, he sat up and trapped his opponent’s foot between his own and his groin.
In this position, Wisely is thoroughly stuck but not yet in pain. Oliveira quickly changed that, finishing the calf slicer by sitting up and grabbing his opponent’s waist. From there, he pulled Wisely on top of him and hipped in, using Wisely’s weight to fold his knee back, except that Oliveira’s shin prevented it from doing so. Were it not for Wisely’s frantic taps, his knee would have imploded (GIF).
It does have to be mentioned that despite his grappling success, Oliveira was submitted twice via guillotine back in 2016. Oliveira was generally having success on the mat with both Anthony Pettis and Ricardo Lamas, but both were able to catch “Do Bronx,” largely because Oliveira was forcing the exchanges. His iffy weight cut to Featherweight probably wasn’t helping, but the fault is on Oliveira for rushing more than any single technical flaw.
Oliveira is one of the finest offensive fighters in our sport, and he’s matched opposite another dynamic finisher. As has become the trend with “Do Bronx” title fights, expect violence, because Oliveira is now a man who refuses to take his foot off the gas regardless of what his opponent throws back at him.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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