On Dec. 2, 2017, Charles Oliveira lost to Paul Felder via second-round TKO as the featured preliminary bout leading into the UFC 218 pay-per-view main card.
It was the eighth loss — all coming in the UFC — of the Brazilian’s once-promising career. It wasn’t any more or less remarkable than the first seven defeats; Felder, at the time, was rising through the lightweight ranks himself. All of his defeats had come to highly respected competition, including past and former champions Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis.
But a funny thing happened after that night in Detroit: Oliveira (31-8, 28 finishes) stopped losing and rode the wave all the way to the top. And this Saturday, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, he’s one half of the December pay-per-view headliner, putting his lightweight championship on the line for the first time against Dustin Poirier at UFC 269.
“Four years ago is also when my daughter was born,” Oliveira told The Post through an interpreter via Zoom, four years to the day after the most recent blemish on his record. “So my life changed completely after that. I feel like everything changed completely, and you can see my evolution inside and outside the cage after that.
“Four years ago, I was a completely different fighter than I am today.”
Oliveira had always been a grappling wunderkind, dating back to his 41-second submission victory in his UFC debut 11 years ago. He’d already won nine times via tapout by the end of 2017. He’s now the UFC record-holder with 14 wins by submission.
Before he got the UFC call at age 20, however, his method of victory had been more diverse, with six coming by (T)KO. But his hands as a finishing tool went all but dormant until a May 2019 TKO of Nik Lentz — an opponent he’d previously fought twice without a loss — hinted at what was to come. A knockout of Jared Gordon six months later ran his winning streak to six and put the 155-pound division on notice that the grappler had added some fearsome striking now.
Grappling dominance over Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson — who once competed against each other for the interim lightweight crown — last year ensured Oliveira was, at last, a threat to win the championship that would soon be vacated by Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement.
That threat became reality in May as Oliveira survived a hellish first frame against Michael Chandler to stop his opponent via strikes 19 seconds into the second round and claim the championship at 155 pounds.
“Not even in my wildest dreams [had] I thought I would get the belt the way I did,” Oliveira said. “I am just really grateful for it and grateful for everyone around me; grateful for God, for making my dreams come true.”
Star power often creates fast tracks to the championship picture, so Olivera becoming the champion in his 28th UFC contest is a refreshing development for fans of MMA meritocracy.
One could reasonably say the same for upcoming challenger Poirier (28-6, 21 finishes), who earned his first UFC win a few weeks before his 22nd birthday — a late-replacement stunner over Josh Grispi, who was to be the first-ever challenger to the UFC featherweight belt before champion Jose Aldo was forced out by injury. Over the course of 25 UFC bouts, Poirier has assembled one of the finest active careers by a fighter yet to win the undisputed crown. Yes, he became interim champ in 2019 with a decision over Holloway, but he was submitted by Nurmagomedov in their unification bout later in the year.
Poirier, by virtue of winning the last two legs of his trilogy with superstar former two-division champion Conor McGregor earlier this year, is a star himself. And many in and around the sport consider him to be the true No. 1 lightweight, belt or no belt.
Oliveira isn’t concerned, dismissing the sentiment with “not even God can please everyone, so why would I?”
“I’m here to prove that I am the champion, and the champion is Charles Oliveira,” he said, “and I will show that on Saturday. I’ll show that I’m the better man.”