Editor’s note: This story was originally published ahead of Charles Oliveira’s title shot at UFC 262. He defeated Michael Chandler to win the UFC lightweight title. This story has been updated to reflect the new matchup against Dustin Poirier at UFC 269.
UFC 269 headliner Charles Oliveira has come a long way from being told by a doctor he would never walk again, and that he would require the use of a wheelchair because of illnesses he contracted at the age of 7.
On Saturday night in Las Vegas, Oliveira will walk into the Octagon to face Dustin Poirier in his first title defense of the UFC lightweight championship.
It will mark the continuation of a journey that began in the favelas of Vicente de Carvalho in Guaruja, Brazil, where Oliveira randomly was introduced to jiu-jitsu by a family friend who wouldn’t live long enough to see the impact the sport made on his life.
Oliveira is one of the least-known champions in recent memory, atop one of the most high-profile divisions. It’s not that the veteran is new to the game, it’s just that his humble nature isn’t conducive to the type of renown afforded some of his louder peers.
But his story deserves to be recognized as one of extreme perseverance, skill and self-awareness. ESPN Brazil caught up with Oliveira and his mother, Ozana Oliveira, and here’s what you need to know about the man nicknamed “do Bronx.”
‘The doctors said that I couldn’t play sports’
Oliveira was diagnosed with bone rheumatism that attacked his ankles and a heart murmur at the age of 7, and Ozana said her son struggled with pain throughout his body and had difficulty moving.
“The doctor said that he would not walk, that he would stay in a wheelchair,” Ozana told ESPN Brazil, translated from her native Portuguese. “And we said that we would not accept that.”
Oliveira never needed a wheelchair, and with the help of treatment — including an injection of a medication every 15 days for several years — it wasn’t long before he returned to his sporting passion: soccer.
“The doctors said that I couldn’t play sports, but as I told my father and mother, I would rather die than stop doing the things I liked,” Oliveira said, translated from Portuguese. “I believed in the sport, I had faith in God, and he blessed me, as he has been blessing me until today.”
A random introduction to jiu-jitsu, and a tragedy
Oliveira and his younger brother Hermison, who’s also an MMA fighter, befriended a couple of kids whose family rented a house down the street, and their friendship would change the Oliveiras’ lives.
“After a long time, Paulo, who was their father, whom we consider almost like an uncle, asked to take us to jiu-jitsu,” Oliveira said.
Ozana, who was a cleaner and sold food on the street, wasn’t familiar with the sport.
“I said, ‘If they want to go, that’s fine with me,'” she said. “They liked it, but I said I couldn’t [afford] it because it was [expensive].
“I went to talk to the teacher to get a scholarship, even if it was just for one of them. They trained, the teacher liked it and gave them a scholarship.”
But Paulo wasn’t able to see the full impact he made on Oliveira’s life. Two years after Paulo introduced the Oliveiras to jiu-jitsu, he was shot to death.
“He had become part of our family, for his heart, for the respect with my parents, for the affection he had for me and my brother,” Oliveira said. “I’m sure that from up there he sees the story of everything that has happened in my life. I wish he was here, because he was the one who took us to jiu-jitsu. I’m sure he is proud to see this happen, as he always cheered and cheered.
“He said that one day we would be champions and that we would give joy to my parents and to him.”
Oliveira turned pro as an 18-year-old, and his first fight was a portent of things to come as he won by submission in the first round. He currently holds the UFC record for submission wins with 14.
Oliveira was 12-0 when he joined the UFC in 2010. He had an uneven start in the promotion, going 2-2 with one no contest. It became apparent that featherweight — with a 145-pound weight limit — was not the right division for the 5-foot-10 Oliveira, who missed weight four times. So he moved up to lightweight in 2017, and his record since the move is 9-1, including wins in his last eight fights.
Why ‘do Bronx’?
“Do Bronx” is Brazilian slang used to refer to someone who is “of the favela,” according to ESPN Brazil. A favela is a lower-income neighborhood in a city, and Oliveira considers his background a source of pride.
“I still live in Vicente de Carvalho,” Oliveira said. “I live in a different place, a little better house. I always try to seek improvements for us, but I live within the community.
“I think we have to be where we feel good. You have to be with who you feel good with, no matter who you are, how much [money] you are going to have, who you are going to be. I know where I came from and I know where I want to go, but it is not because I want to go far that I have to get away from my origins.”
Oliveira said it’s important to him to maintain a positive presence in his hometown.
“I don’t see myself as a celebrity, I see myself as a normal person who thinks of helping others as I have also been helped,” he said. “I usually say that the favela does for the favela. There is no guy from the outside who will arrive and will want to do it, so the favela has to do for the favela. It’s helping one another.
“I try to help in any way that I can. I have friends, influential people who don’t want to show up anymore, they want to donate basic food baskets, so we go there and get it. I take my money and buy a basic food basket and we donate to the favela. I do something different because I deliver it to everyone’s door, because unfortunately the community is needy and hungry, and if not this way, sometimes three or four people from the same house go and pick up the basic baskets. So I prefer to deliver from door to door, from house to house. Always trying to help children to make them happy.”
What the championship would mean
As Oliveira pictures what might be in his future after Saturday, he can’t help but look back at how far he’s come.
“Imagine a boy who came from a poor community, the doctors said that I couldn’t play sports, and look where I am now,” Oliveira said. “Look at everything that has happened in my life.
“Imagine a boy who came from a poor community, the doctors said that I couldn’t play sports, and look where I am now.”
“May 15th I can be UFC champion. How can I not say that the favela won?”
ESPN’s Gustavo Faldon contributed to this report.