Sunday, January 16, 2022

UFC 269: Why Charles Oliveira should not be dismissed as a pushover ahead of title bout with Dustin Poirier

Charles Oliveira heads into the main event of UFC 269 on Saturday as the lightweight champion, riding a nine-fight winning streak and with the most submission finishes in UFC history. He’ll also be an underdog to Dustin Poirier, the fighter many believe to be the true top lightweight in the game.

Too many seem to be dismissive of Oliveira’s chances of retaining his title, treating UFC 269 as merely the moment Poirier finally decided to come grab the belt that’s been his all along. Critics believe Oliveira was just the guy who took advantage of Poirier’s decision to chase a second big-money fight with Conor McGregor, leaving the belt lying around for Oliveira to pick up.

Just look at the dismissive comments from lightweight contender Justin Gaethje when he appeared on the UFC 265 weigh-in show in August.

“I think Dustin Poirier’s better,” Gaethje said. “I think Charles Oliveira still has some quit deep down in him — not even deep. It’s pretty shallow. Michael Chandler showed it. But yeah, Dustin Poirier will make him quit, probably from being more hungry, more pressure…I mean, I want Charles Oliveira to show me that he’s not a quitter because nothing has showed me that.”

A reminder for those who need it: Oliveira was badly hurt by Chandler (who had also suggested Oliveira is a quitter) in the first round of their fight for the vacant title. Rather than “showing quit,” Oliveira came back in the second round to knock Chandler out. Finishing Chandler, for what it’s worth, was something Gaethje was unable to do while winning their clash at UFC 268.

Former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov also said he’s favoring Poirier entering the fight, giving him a “60/40” edge and suggesting the key is Poirier sticking to his plan to “take Oliveira into deep water.”

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Ahead of their clash, the infinitely likable Poirier has pushed back on the perception that Oliveira is a quitter — while also suggesting that he’s seen Oliveira fold in plenty of fights. To be fair, Oliveira has been finished a total of seven times in his UFC career.

“I’ve seen Charles in a lot of fights,” Poirier said. “He’s been in a lot of fights at a high level, so I’ve seen him kind of fold in fights before. But I’ve also seen him rise to the occasion and show up in adversity. If he was a quitter, he had a chance to quit when Chandler hurt him — but he came back and put him away. If that shows anything — like they say, your last fight is the most important and the next fight is your most important. The guy showed a championship mentality. He showed a championship effort — got hurt, pulled it together, finished the guy. There was no quit that night.”

While Poirier has somewhat walked it back, he previously claimed to be the undisputed lightweight champion, even as Oliveira held the belt. It’s just another case of Oliveira being overlooked, written off and underestimated heading into the biggest fight of his career.

UFC 269 is far from the first time Oliveira has been counted out. Oliveira went 1-3 between August 2015 and November 2016, losing to Max Holloway, Anthony Pettis and Ricardo Lamas. Oliveira also missed weight for two of those bouts, something that had been a theme as he’d missed the featherweight limit four times in a 10-fight stretch.

That bad run spurred Oliveira’s jump back to the lightweight division, where he fought Will Brooks, entering the Octagon as an underdog for the fifth straight fight. Oliveira took just 2:30 to submit Brooks, and after a brief TKO setback against Paul Felder, went on his nine-fight run of success, finally seeming comfortable on the scales and in the Octagon. The shadow of Oliveira’s featherweight struggles still looms, however, and drives much of the talk writing him off as lightweight’s “true” king.

The beautiful thing about the fight game is that there is a simple way to settle debates over who the better man is: lock the men in a cage and let them fight. At least by the numbers, there’s not a ton separating Poirier and Oliveira. Digging behind those numbers, it’s undeniable that Poirier has fought the tougher level of competition during their recent runs but the more you look into the fight, the more it seems ridiculous to treat Saturday night as though it’s a coronation for Poirier.

Record

31-8 (19-8 UFC)

28-6 (20-5 UFC)

Last 10 fights

9-1

8-2

UFC record at lightweight 12-3 12-2

UFC submission victories

14 (UFC record)

4

UFC knockout victories

3

9

Post-fight bonuses 17 12

Maybe Poirier backs up the odds — he’s a -180 favorite at Caesars Sportsbook — and wins his first world championship. He’s a tremendous fighter and one of the sports true “good guys.” No one would be upset to see it happen.

But Oliveira will be the man carrying the belt to the Octagon on Saturday night. And he didn’t get there by being a soft touch or by having a quitter’s mentality. Just as it took Poirier more than a decade in the UFC to get to this stage of his career, Oliveira has been doing it even longer and while swimming in the same deep waters as Poirier at both lightweight and featherweight.

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