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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 170’s Charles Oliveira

Dangerous finisher, Charles Oliveira, will throw down opposite top-talent, Kevin Lee, this Saturday (March 14, 2020) at UFC Fight Night 170 inside Ginasio Nilson Nelson in Brasilia, Brazil.

Oliveira is on the best run of his 10-year UFC career, but that success comes with a bit of baggage.

“Do Bronx” has always been an impressive fighter. Hell, in his debut, he became the first — and still only! — man to submit Darren Elkins, and he did so in about a minute. The talent has always been there, but Oliveira has repeatedly struggled against the upper echelons of his division. Oliveira has lost eight times in his UFC career, and pretty much every bout was an opportunity to step up and attempt to be a contender.

Will the ninth attempt be different? There’s reason to hope. Oliveira seems more dangerous than ever and better prepared to overcome adversity.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Oliveira has been a pretty dangerous Muay Thai fighter for a long time, capable of cracking opponents with hard punches and a ripping low kick since like 2012. However, Oliveira has grown tremendously on his feet recently, becoming a much more serious finishing threat on his feet and growing more creative.

The improvement in confidence is plenty noticeable.

As mentioned, Oliveira’s style of kickboxing is clearly Muay Thai. He 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 preemptively 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.

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. Oliveira’s right hand is crisp and powerful, often a solid set up for his kicks.

As a result of Oliveira’s improved kickboxing, he’s finished his last two fights 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.

Prior to that bout, Oliveira tuned up Nik Lentz (again). Lentz is an under-appreciated striker, but it was clear who was doing the real damage. When Lentz looked to score a lead leg kick to the body (something he does quite well), Oliveira’s length advantage made it easier for him to let the kick slide by, putting Oliveira in perfect position to land a cracking right (GIF).

Going back one more fight, Oliveira’s most impressive performance in his current win streak was likely 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 (GIF).

In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze Oliveira’s use of 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.

Wrestling

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 his opponent up (GIF).

If they resist, expect Oliveira to duck off toward the back.

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.

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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A long-time black belt, Oliveira holds the most submission victories in UFC history — and he’s only 30 years old! Oliveira is both incredible aggression and dangerous, which helps explain his 13 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.

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 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.

Conclusion

I don’t want to say this is Oliveira’s final chance at becoming a true contender, because he’s still young enough to rebuild from a loss. However, it does seem like a very important moment for his career, his first main event slot in five years. Oliveira seems prepared and ready: he just has to finally prove it in a big fight.


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.