Charles Oliveira mounts epic comeback to claim lightweight title

·Combat columnist
·6-min read

The Patriots once trailed 28-3 in the third quarter of the Super Bowl and came back to win. The Clippers were down 31 points to the Warriors in the third quarter of a 2019 NBA playoff game and came back to win by four.

It’s been done before.

But rarely in sports history has there been a 180-degree turnaround with the suddenness and dramatic ending that surrounded Charles Oliveira’s lightweight title-winning effort over Michael Chandler on Saturday in the main event of UFC 262 at the Toyota Center in Houston.

The card had been wild throughout. Andre Muniz broke Jacare Souza’s arm. Edson Barboza knocked out Shane Burgos to end a wild brawl, but Burgos took the final punch, stood his ground for about four or five seconds, and then stumbled backward, down and out. And then, of course, Tony Ferguson once against refused to tap to a submission that had the potential to seriously injure him. After failing to tap to an armbar by Oliveira in December, this time, Ferguson failed to tap to a heel hook by Beneil Dariush during the second round of the co-main event.

Fighters almost always tap within seconds when they’re caught in a heel hook, because the likelihood of leg damage is high. And Dariush said he heard a loud pop in Ferguson’s knee.

“All the fights were great tonight,” UFC president Dana White said.

But there was nothing like that main event.

The first round began and, as Chandler had promised, he raced across to Oliveira and put the pressure on.

Chandler caught Oliveira in a guillotine that looked for a split second like it would end the fight. Seconds later, Oliveira, the UFC’s all-time leader in wins by submission, got Chandler’s back. He had a body triangle on him and his arm cinched under Chandler’s neck.

Oliveira’s such a good finisher, you couldn’t have blamed White if he started up the steps on his way into the cage to award the belt a little early. But then, next thing you know, Chandler spun and was suddenly out of the choke.

Not only was he out of the choke, he was charging at the Brazilian and ripping him with hard left hooks, much to the delight of the sell-out crowd that backed him with vocal chants of “U-S-A!”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MAY 15: (L-R) Michael Chandler punches Charles Oliveira of Brazil in their UFC lightweight championship bout at Toyota Center on May 15, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Michael Chandler punches Charles Oliveira of Brazil in their UFC lightweight championship bout at Toyota Center on May 15, 2021, in Houston. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

With about two minutes left, Chandler dumped Oliveira and seemed poised for the finish. As he was punching away, a thought hit him.

“I remember thinking, ‘Holy cow, it’s about to happen,’” Chandler said of finishing Oliveira and winning the title. “Dumb thought. Should have just made it happen.”

Oliveira survived the round and staggered to his corner on wobbly legs. If this were football, he was down 28-3 in the third quarter of the Super Bowl. If it were the NBA, he was down 31 points in the third quarter.

But it’s MMA, and though Oliveira lost the first round by a score of 10-8 on two of the three official cards, none of it meant anything, as he was soon to find out.

Oliveira came out of his corner a renewed man. He landed a left hook seemingly out of nowhere that sent Chandler reeling around the cage. Oliveira was going for the finish, and Chandler was backpedaling as quickly as he was moving forward only a few seconds earlier.

Then, Oliveira landed the one he was looking for, a second left hook that dropped Chandler. Oliveira followed him to the ground, and in a flash, it was over.

At 19 seconds of the second round.

With one second left in the first round, no one would have argued too much if referee Dan Miragliotta would have stopped it and given Chandler the belt. Oliveira looked in bad shape. Snap your fingers and all of a sudden, it finished the opposite way.

“I told you I was going to knock him out and I knocked him out,” Oliveira said. “I proved to everybody I’m the lion of lions.”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MAY 15: (R-L) Charles Oliveira of Brazil punches Michael Chandler in their UFC lightweight championship bout at Toyota Center on May 15, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Charles Oliveira of Brazil punches Michael Chandler in their UFC lightweight championship bout at Toyota Center on May 15, 2021, in Houston. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Chandler spent most of his career in Bellator, only to sign with the UFC in 2020 as a 34-year-old free agent. For years, he’d watched silently from home as guys like Ferguson, Oliveira, Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov and others shined on the UFC stage.

Finally, he got his opportunity and was maybe one more good elbow away from being the winner, but he had to praise Oliveira for finding a way out of the fire.

“He showed he had the gall to get through that,” Chandler said solemnly at the post-fight news conference. “He got dropped. He got hurt. I was on top of him. He’s really long and he did a really good job of tying me up so I couldn’t really rain down too hard of punches or elbows. But he definitely got through some adversity tonight.”

Oliveira kept rubbing his belt and looking at it like he needed to remember what it looked like in case someone took it from him and he had to go to the police to identify it.

He’s a guy that had the hard way in the UFC. He joined the promotion in 2010 and it was quickly obvious that he had serious talent. But it was also obvious that there was something missing.

After five fights in the UFC, he was 2-2 with a no contest. After 14 fights, he was only marginally better, at 8-5 with a no-contest. And five fights after that he was 10-8 with a no contest. He’d missed weight four times in that span and would lose bouts he seemed certain to win.

He was more of a spare part than a centerpiece. But a loss to Paul Felder nagged at him and the birth of his daughter in 2017 motivated him. For whatever reason, he hasn’t lost since.

He’s won nine in a row, eight of them by finish, and captured the championship.

Oliveira laughs off McGregor tweet

Poirier and McGregor will meet in July in a rubber match, and he got a kick out of thinking that the winner would be forced to beg him for a title shot. For years, he was hoping to fight the big names in the UFC’s marquee division, but more often than not, they had other things to do. McGregor tweeted congratulations to the new champion, but questioned who will be next to hold the belt.

“I called him out a bunch of times and he never wanted me,” Oliveira said of McGregor. “Now he has to come to me.”

He grinned. Everyone has to go to him for now.

Something clicked and even at his darkest moment Saturday, he didn’t give up. As Tom Brady proved at Super Bowl LI in 2017, keep throwing and something good may wind up happening.

That’s what Oliveira did Saturday and he wound up with a title belt on his waist.

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