Ultra-focused Charles Oliveira seeking 'legacy win' against Islam Makhachev in Abu Dhabi

Former lightweight champion speaks to The National ahead of October's headline rematch at UFC 294 at Etihad Arena

Charles Oliveira takes part in an open workout at Yas Mall ahead of his first fight against Islam Makhachev at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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By his own admission, Charles Oliveira estimates he was at 10 per cent of his capacity in defeat to Islam Makhachev in Abu Dhabi last October.

The Brazilian, at the time de facto UFC lightweight champion, lost comprehensively to his Dagestan opponent at Etihad Arena, his second-round submission relinquishing the vacant title he had defended spectacularly twice. It brought to a crashing halt Oliveira's impressive 11-fight win streak.

Ten months on from UFC 280, and little more than two out from the lightweight title rematch at UFC 294 back at the scene of that uncharacteristic night, Oliveira still can’t really pinpoint why it went so wrong.

“I don’t know how to explain it and don’t know why it happened,” the UFC record-holder for both submissions and victories tells The National from his Sao Paulo home. “My true fans understand who I am and what I represent.

“All my previous fights I’m always coming forward, fighting with a lot of heart. I can get knocked down, but I always get back up, go the distance. But in Abu Dhabi I wasn’t there.

“But that fight is already gone. It’s almost one year ago, so let’s focus on the future, on the now: Charles Oliveira against Islam Makhachev, October 21, for this belt. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Making peace with the defeat, a first in a remarkable second-stage UFC career that yielded those 11 wins and lightweight gold, was the first step to getting back on track.

“In truth, I learnt a lot of things,” Oliveira says. “I learnt regardless of what happens in your life, whether you win or you lose, it’s in the past, you have to move on. You’ve got to keep looking forward; it’s already gone.

“What’s passed has passed. I’ve already won fights. Now my focus is on being happy and preparing for the next fight.”

Oliveira, 33, had been campaigning for this next fight, the rematch against Makhachev on Yas Island, to take place beyond October.

He had rebounded from the UFC 280 loss in stunning fashion in June, dismantling a surging Beneil Dariush at UFC 289 in Canada.

Snapping Dariush’s eight-fight win streak, the first-round TKO not only reminded of Oliveira’s still-there pedigree, but it set up the chance of redemption against Makhachev, 31.

Yet Oliveira, 34-9 in professional MMA, publicly stated that he could not fight for the title until November at the earliest, preferably in his homeland. He reiterated as much during last month’s UFC International Fight Week.

But here he is, preparing for Makhachev 2, in Abu Dhabi.

“To be honest, I’ve been in the UFC for 13 years and I’m learning how to play the game,” he says, flashing a smile. “I knew the UFC were planning on a fight in November in Sao Paulo, so why not try for there considering the last fight wasn’t in my country? So I played the game. But it didn’t work out.”

So, Abu Dhabi it is. Makhachev, who has already competed and won three times there, calls the capital his second home. Patently, it places the odds in his favour.

“I respect this so much,” Oliveira says. “Absolutely he’s going to have the advantage because he’s there all the time. Same as me, I'd have that same advantage if we’re fighting in Sao Paulo. But if you look at all my previous fights, almost all of them have been in the house of my opponent, away from home.

“It doesn’t make a lot of difference for me. If you’re focused, mentally and physically, everything will go right. It will be a big fight, big opponent, on a great stage – I have great respect for Abu Dhabi – a great show. And I’m ready for it.”

In fact, heading into the lion’s den simply adds to the motivation. “Absolutely, without doubt,” Oliveira says. “I want to be the world champion again. That’s why I’m here.

“It doesn’t bother me at all, fighting in Abu Dhabi, in the house of Islam. But I’m very happy; I’m sure I’ll have a lot of fans supporting me there.”

Oliveira knows, irrespective of the confidence-boosting comeback against Dariush, that he enters UFC 294 as the underdog. But, for the man from a favela in Sao Paulo who has been written off many times, he is familiar with confounding expectations.

He has identified the key to success second time round. “Generate joy, happiness,” Oliveira says. “That’s the crucial point. And the more you dare, the more joy you get.”

Getting his hands on the title again, becoming a two-time champion and bringing the belt back to Brazil, would provide the ultimate joy, offer unbridled happiness.

That much comes across clearly now, when asked what victory on October 21 would mean to him.

“My God, I don’t know,” Oliveira says, puffing out his cheeks. “I’ve no idea. Truthfully, I don’t know – to feel that same feeling I felt before, some time ago … for sure, I’m going to cry a lot.

“I don’t even want to think about it. I just want to be focused and go get it again.”

He tries not to allow, he says, his mind to wander even in those quiet moments, when the training is done and he’s alone at night with his thoughts.

“I don’t want to create big expectations, big things in my head,” Oliveira says. “I know I’ll be happy if I dare, take a risk. If I train, dedicate myself, be focused, then I’ll be champion one more time.

“If you work hard and dedicate yourself to what you want, it will happen. The history of champions, it will happen - you’ll get that special moment with the belt.

“But that all comes afterwards. It doesn’t make sense to think, ‘Ah, my God, how’s it going to be?’ Because you’ve got to focus on everything that comes first to get that moment.”

Oliveira believes he will be better for his Abu Dhabi experience last time, knowing what to expect from what was his first time competing in professional MMA far beyond Brazil and the US.

Broadening his horizons is becoming more important: he is learning English in an attempt to connect more with his fans.

“English is really hard,” Oliveira concedes. “But I’m working on it.”

The endeavour is evident on social media. Take the recent back-and-forth with Conor McGregor, the former two-division champion and the UFC’s most bankable asset.

“Conor spoke a lot, speaking a few times about me,” Oliveira says. “That’s important because he knows what he’s saying, what he’s doing.

“A fight with Conor will make a lot of money. Conor sells so much; I also sell a lot. Conor spoke, I spoke in a respectful way, and Conor responded in a very crazy way.

“But it’s this. Let’s focus on the fight with Islam and then after that, who knows? Maybe we’ll have Charles Oliveira versus Conor McGregor. I’ve already said I want this and I’m waiting on him. The moment he wants it, I’ll be there.”

But, as Oliveira emphasises, it’s Makhachev first. Back to Abu Dhabi, to face a champion who increased his win streak to 12 – his pro record stands at 24-1 – following his February defence against Alexander Volkanovski.

Oliveira aims to avenge that defeat 10 months ago, to reclaim what he views as rightfully his. To cement his legend.

“A guy who’s won the belt two times, beaten his opponent in his own back yard, making history, that’ll be my legacy,” Oliveira says. “That’s why I’m here.

“Making history in MMA, being the world champion one more time? It’ll be a giant victory.”

Updated: August 15, 2023, 4:24 AM