The history of Brazilian MMA athletes who come from difficult beginnings in the sport due to the lack of proper training conditions is well known. Struggling all the time, eventually there comes a moment where they decide if it’s time to change things up and get a full-time job or stay the course in the hopes of achieving their fighting dreams.
Sao Paulo native Charles Oliveira, who faces Darren 'The Damage' Elkins on Sunday, is basically no different than any of these fighters. But the lone newcomer on the San Diego card does have a unique angle to his formative years in the sport, as he didn't jump from sport jiu-jitsu competitions to professional MMA; his first contact with the sport was via amateur bouts that nowadays many fighters don’t want to take. But this kind of transition does show its value over time.
"I impressed people with my aggressiveness and explosiveness in Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitions," said Oliveira, who earned regional, national and world titles in the gentle art. "I never had it in my mind to be a mixed martial artist, but when the National Circuit of Amateur MMA appeared, my coach (Ericson Cardoso) had a conversation with me and we decided to go. I learned a lot after that competition; the experience was outstanding and I believe all new fighters should compete as an amateur first before turning pro.”
The funny thing about Oliveira fighting as amateur is that he looked like a professional, a shark in a fish tank as he subbed his opponent with mastery and opened the eyes of everyone in the arena during his showcase of talent. His squad, Bronxs Gold Team, travelled from Guaruja, Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro with five kids, eating junk food in stopped buses during the journey and only reaching the arena during the weigh-ins (amateur shows do their weigh-ins on the same day of the fights), with only Oliveira and one more teammate successful in their bouts that night.
"It was a tough task," he says. "The key for my victory was the hard training we're under here. When a competition is scheduled, everybody gives their maximum effort to support the specific fighter(s). I think that when we're well trained, things are less hard, because a MMA fight isn't easy."
That kid that started in BJJ at 12 years old and motivated his father and mother to train with Cardoso too, instantly collected good outcomes in amateur competition. Next, UFC veteran Jorge 'Macaco' Patino had been contacted by an MMA promoter with a spot to fill. Immediately, Oliveira's name was mentioned to fill the opening to make an 'easy' pro debut: an eight man tournament, under 170 pounds, while Oliveira weighed less than 155.
"We hid the fact from his mother," says coach and motivator Cardoso on his fighter’s pro debut. "His father knew about the grand prix, but later, when we said that he had a future in MMA, his mother accepted."
It was hard to believe that the skinny man without pro experience would be victorious that night. The seven other guys had plenty of experience and one of them, the favorite who would eventually battle Oliveira in the final, was a powerful Thai fighter that sharpened his submission game in a Gracie academy.
"Master Cardoso told me that a professor that had a fighter competing in that GP approached him and said, 'I have a fighter that would like to face Oliveira; let's book this fight. Oliveira has zero chance tonight; the tournament is full of better guys than him.' Cardoso said that after the show they'd chat again; I won and the guy disappeared. (Laughs)"
No question about it, Oliveira was the dark horse that night, but with three finishes he proved inside the cage that he belonged with the professionals. Plus, the kid showed virtues only seen in sports veterans, as he helped to compile his unbeaten record of 12 fights with three events where he was needed to fight more than once.
"I came from BJJ and we're used to fighting three, four, five times per competition. I live to compete and I love it. I got motivated by fighting more than once and when Cardoso says we need to do something, I'm confident in what he says from the corner, I capitalize on it, and it works."
And while Oliveira was very happy with his tournament performances, he had a piece of disappointment because after each win, promises of international fights in the WEC and South Korea came, but never materialized.
"I stepped up in those tournaments to be champion, and then grab better opportunities. We trusted in people that lied to us and this made me unhappy, but I've got guys like Patino who never promised me anything, but his hard work put in me in UFC."
Oliveira, who is now going to fight for the first time in the UFC, thinks that the experience he went through one year ago in Atlantic City, NJ prepared him for what he's going to see inside the Octagon against Elkins.
"That first time, people were booing me all the time, so I’ve been in a different environment. Plus, Dom Stanco wasn't similar to any of the 11 fighters I beat up, I realize what I'll have in front of me on August 1st."
The fight in the USA also showed Oliveira the necessity to work on his weight. The lightweight was used to walking around at 155 pounds and the lack of fat mass didn't let him lose any weight. Now he’s been forced to work with new guidelines.
"I learned how to cut weight," he says. "We do a great job of putting on the extra pounds, making weight and then recovering it to be stronger."
As for his UFC debut, he vows that the tournaments prepared him for the big time, but at the same time, the idea of facing only one man this weekend is welcomed.
"Our preparation was 100% focused in one man, Elkins, and we know that his 12-1 record isn't a joke. He's tough, experienced and since it's in the UFC, the fight is going to be a war. I hope God blesses us and I'll emulate what I've been doing before, no changes, so my explosiveness, aggressiveness and strategy will seen on August 1st."