Like Glover Texeira before him, it was impossible not to cheer Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira as he pulled off a massive upset victory against Dustin Poirier last night at UFC 269. “No way”, I yelled to my friend, grin across my face, as Oliveira sunk in the choke early in round 3. “No way”. Dustin had punched him all over the shop in round 1, knocked him down and nearly finished him – and still he came back. Charles is a perpetually underestimated fighter. I’d been leaning about 60/40 in Poirier’s favour for the weeks leading up to the fight, but last night messaged a couple of mates to declare I’d changed my mind and had a funny feeling Oliveira would sneak it, and thereby hit a rare correct prediction (even a stopped clock is right twice a day). Oliveira is an unassuming man – relatively skinny, quiet, respectful – even when he fights he doesn’t seem that aggressive. So people sleep on him. But old Charlie Olives is making a habit of upsetting the bookie.
Round 1 looked a lot like his fight with Michael Chandler – Poirier used his high energy, brawling-boxing style to come at Oliveira like a hurricane, landing power punch after power punch. Oliveira’s head snapping back became the rhythmic percussion of the fight. One-two down the pipe, Oliveira stunned, but then inexplicably back in the pocket with his faculties about him, and then bang with another one-two. Oliveria landed some excellent knees to the body in between these combinations, but he was basically getting pucked around, and with the best will in the world it was a matter of when, not if, he would get knocked down, which he did towards the end of the round. Poirier grinned at him from the stool while they waited for the next frame. He can do this all day.
But just as with Chandler, something in Charles Oliveira keeps him in there. At the age of 7, Oliveria was diagnosed with bone rheumatism and a heart murmur, and was told he could never play sports again. Born in the poverty of the favela, the odss were stacked against him even before the diagnosis. In his UFC career as a featherweight, he missed weight, lost several fights, and tapped to strikes. But something in him kept him going. As round two began Oliveira peered at his opponent, not with the defiance some use as a psychological tactic in fights, but with calm. He’d been there before. He used his knees to the body again, and then his weaving, spider-like jiu-hitsu to bring Poirier to the mat, where he landed vicious elbows for the remainder of the round. Poirier’s energy seemed to have changed – whether it was the high pace he’d put on in round 1 or the knees to the body, his style became more conservative. In round 3 Oliveria used the same techniques he’d used all fight, but this time was able to scramble to the back, and from that position Charles is a predator with its prey. This time was no different.
His victory will be greeted with glee among the working class of his hometown. There is something special between this fighter and his community. He still lives there, and when he won the title against Chandler, his first comment was “the favela won”. There are few better representatives of a tale often told – martial arts as a route upwards and forwards for the poor.
If Oliveira pulled off an upset, Julianna Pena went even further. Joe Rogan called her defeat of Amanda Nunes the single biggest upset in the history of the sport, and it’s hard to disagree. Nunes came into the fight with her well established reputation of being completely invincible – simply bigger, tougher, more powerful and more technical than all her opponents. With exception of Shevchenko, she’s smashed everyone. But Pena put on a masterclass of getting under the champion’s skin – nipping in with the jab, threatening with a kimora, refusing to wilt. As can often happen in sport, the pressure was on the champion, not on the underdog – and a moment of vulnerability can become intolerable under that pressure. Nunes started throwing wild – heavy bombs, but no set up, no rhythm. She didn’t look like herself at all. Pena read her timing, and then proceeded to win every exchange until Amanda effectively threw in the towel, tapping with a choke only just sunk in. A huge moment, and an exciting reminder that anything can happen in mixed martial arts. Long live the underdogs, and long live the favela.