‘Illuminated by God’, Charles Oliveira aims to rise again at UFC 300

Exclusive interview: The collapse of the former champion’s rematch with Islam Makhachev has set up a new challenge, against Arman Tsarukyan

Alex Pattle
Combat Sports Correspondent
Wednesday 10 April 2024 10:23 BST
Former UFC champion Charles Oliveira celebrates his knockout of Beneil Dariush in 2023
Former UFC champion Charles Oliveira celebrates his knockout of Beneil Dariush in 2023 (Getty Images)

It has almost become a slogan for Charles Oliveira at this point: “I am illuminated by God.” The Brazilian uttered the words more than once during our conversation, and he has uttered them countless times over the past two years.

In fact, it was his only explanation when asked by The Independent how a fighter with such a loose grasp of English could strike such a resonant chord with so many fans worldwide. “I don’t know,” the 34-year-old shrugged, his mouth curling into a smile. Then, with his lips forming a flatter terrain across his face: “I am a guy who is illuminated by God.”

A secular answer would be that Oliveira has a claim to the status of the most exhilarating fighter in UFC history, with more finishes and submissions than any other athlete who has graced the Octagon. Oliveira’s style captivates and combines with some indescribable essence around him to inspire devotion among fans – a devotion bordering on worship.

Oliveira’s own slogan, his mantra perhaps, almost paints the former lightweight champion as the second coming of Christ. The Brazilian’s faith is such that he would hastily dismiss that blasphemous notion, but his current goal is to rise again in the 155lbs division. He craves his old crown. He might even covet it, if that were not a sinful proposition.

It is a crown that Oliveira wore from May 2021 until May 2022, when a controversial weigh-in episode cost him his UFC title. Twenty-four hours later, “Do Bronx” submitted Justin Gaethje, but the lightweight belt remained vacant due to Oliveira’s barely errant weigh-in. Twenty-four weeks later, the fan favourite was submitted by Islam Makhachev, as the gold found a new owner.

“I was sad, I was upset. I just really wanted to go home, be with my family, and take a breather,” Oliveira said. “I think it’s all phases. Once you realise it’s all part of God's plan, it’s easier to accept things. It took me a long time to understand that, but you just have to be able to learn how to digest that. God wouldn’t give me something that I can’t carry.”

Makhachev dropped and submitted Oliveira in their 2022 title fight (AFP via Getty Images)
Oliveira shows the cut that derailed his planned rematch with Makhachev (DamonMartin / X)

In fact, this particular conversation between Oliveira and The Independent took place in October 2023, a matter of weeks before the one-year anniversary of his defeat by Makhachev. Oliveira planned to mark the anniversary by reversing the result in a rematch – in the same Abu Dhabi arena no less – only for a severe cut over his eye to derail his preparations for the fight. And with that, Oliveira’s words on God’s plan took on even greater relevance.

The rematch was provisionally rearranged for January, but plans changed and have set Oliveira up for an altogether different challenge against streaking contender Arman Tsarukyan, who tested Makhachev impressively at just 22 years old and has gone 8-1 in the five years since. No 1-ranked Oliveira did not expect to be facing No 4 in the rankings, but he must do so at UFC 300, as a history-making fighter makes his presence felt at a historic event.

Given the collapse of his rematch with Makhachev, Oliveira’s bout with Tsarukyan will be the Brazilian’s first since June, when he bounced back convincingly against Beneil Dariush. Oliveira survived an early grappling onslaught from the American, before disorientating Dariush with a head kick and finishing him with punches and hammer fists – all within the first round.

After the fight, Oliveira – with his first public use of English – belted out the words: “Hello, Vancouver!” Cue raptures in the arena. “Hello, Canada! Hi, I’m very sorry, my English is little. I thank you so much. Big support, big fans, Charles Oliveira: a big champion. The champion has a name: Charles Oliveira.”

Oliveira finished Dariush in June, bouncing back from his loss to Makhachev (Getty Images)

Recalling the moment, Oliveira told The Independent: “I really don’t want to learn English just to become more popular; I’m trying to learn English so I can communicate with my fans and people who [already] like me.”

It feels a pure motivation for his linguistic progress, and progress motivates his pursuit of the lightweight title; for Oliveira, the belt does not just signify status – it signifies growth as a martial artist. “I want to be the champion again, so I have to be focused, I have to be motivated, I have to be happy,” he said, that final adjective standing out against the others.

To find himself in another title fight, however, Oliveira must overcome Tsarukyan. In the Brazilian’s favour is his perfect record in rematches. Again, Do Bronx brings the conversation back to growth: “First and foremost, I think the most important thing is to always be evolving and improving.

“If you win or lose, you can’t stop in time. I always come back home, I always continue training, I always continue evolving – regardless if I’ve won or lost.”

UFC 300 will test Oliveira’s evolution. Ask the believers, and they’ll tell you it will bring the next phase of his resurrection.

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