Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
Which is the harder thing to believe about Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira? That he has the most submission wins in UFC history, or that he’s never fought for a UFC title?
Both facts are true, but one looks likely to change very soon after Oliveira (30-8-1) absolutely manhandled the previously unassailable Tony Ferguson (25-5) en route to a unanimous-decision win (30-26, 30-26, 30-26) in the co-main event of Saturday’s UFC 256.
Here in 2020, the 155-pound lightweight division is where the stars come out to play. This is the sandbox of Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, making it home to the sport’s most famous and (until the latter’s recent retirement) best fighters.
That lightweight constellation got a little brighter Saturday when Oliveira hit all three of his takedown attempts and repeatedly lit Ferguson up on the ground, even visibly hyperextending Ferguson’s left arm at the end of the first round.
“You tell me: Who else has dominated him like that?” Oliveira asked broadcaster Joe Rogan through a translator in the post-fight interview. “The boss already said whoever won this would be in a great position to fight for the belt, and when Conor and [Dustin] Poirier fight in January, I’ll be watching to see who’s gonna fight me.”
That’s a reference to both UFC President Dana White‘s indication that Saturday’s winner would get the title shot, and to McGregor and Poirier’s scheduled collision next month at UFC 257, which would presumably supply the other half of the equation.
(It should be noted, however, that with Nurmagomedov retired but reportedly reluctant to formally relinquish his title, it’s not certain that he’s out of the picture.)
Either way, Oliveira is in excellent position to be in the building the next time the lightweight gold makes a public appearance. He spent his three rounds methodically making that case, taking the favored Ferguson apart so he could put together the masterwork of his career to date.
It was apparent early in the opening stanza, when Oliveira landed crisp kicks on Ferguson, who looked jerky and wild by comparison. Not long after, Do Bronx scored his first takedown, and on a slam, no less.
What was truly remarkable here was how quickly Oliveira found himself in side control, then over to mount. Toward the end, he got ahold of Ferguson’s arm and fully torqued the armbar, even tucking the arm under his own for added leverage. Did the arm pop the wrong way? Oh, yes, it did. Any tap from Ferguson? Nope. (Shocking, I know.) But it was a clear exclamation point on a round that went to the underdog.
That left arm of Ferguson’s was pretty dang useless in the second, which saw Oliveira take Ferguson to the ground again and keep him there. One knock on Oliveira over the years was that he played up or down to the level of competition, or that he was too by-the-book. Both of those tendencies worked for Oliveira on Saturday, as he always seemed to be a move ahead of a respected veteran five years his senior. The favorite spent much of the round stacked up by the underdog, with the underdog outpositioning him and staying heavy at every turn.
The third saw that familiar “coasting” trait sneak into the picture for Oliveira. That said, you can’t blame him for not wanting to tangle with Ferguson, especially while presuming his opponent would be hunting for a finish.
Oliveira ultimately won all three rounds, and it was quite a moment for the 31-year-old Brazilian, whose career, which began when he was a teenager, has been a study in contradictions and inconsistency.
After an early career in the MMA minor leagues, he entered the UFC as something of a jiu-jitsu phenom in 2010 at the tender age of 20. Over the intervening decade, he racked up a reputation as deliberate and conservative—even as he amassed a tremendous 16 submission wins. As he padded his resume with victories, none seemed to come against the right name at the right time, earning him a “can’t win the big one” moniker with setbacks against elites like Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson and Anthony Pettis. Mental lapses, including several missed weight attempts, were yoked around his name just as much as his physical talents.
He put much of that behind him when he left the drastic weight cut behind and returned to his natural 155 pounds. That was 2017. Since then, he’s 10-1.
To do it against a competitor like Ferguson is a tremendous feather in his cap, but the loss will naturally raise questions about Ferguson, who is entirely too tough for his own good. Watching him grit through that armbar was reminiscent of the brutal and repeated head shots Ferguson took from Justin Gaethje earlier this year in his first loss since 2012. He’s starting to resemble Monty Python’s Black Knight.
His words were vitriolic and, at times, a bit paranoid. There’s no reason to think Ferguson is through as a fighter, but when you’re a brutal competitor the way Tony Ferguson is, the damage is going to pile up. It’s probably not time to sound any alarms, but the flags are tough to ignore.
It will be interesting to see what the UFC does with both fighters next. For Ferguson, a slip down the rankings is likely inevitable.
For Oliveira, it does look like a title shot will be up next. It only took him his entire adulthood to figure it out, but here he is now, with the game everyone thought he had. And the lightweight division—and the UFC—is a little brighter for it.