After UFC 274 Drama, Charles Oliveira Is Not the Champ, but He's Still the Best

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMay 8, 2022

Charles Oliveira
Charles OliveiraJeff Bottari/Getty Images

Charles Oliveira's work was done in 202 seconds.

After he choked out Justin Gaethje—in front of the poor guy's hometown fans, no less—Oliveira swaggered up to Joe Rogan and the post-fight microphone and for one instant peered into the camera as if someone might be hiding inside it.

And through an interpreter, he made one simple, accurate observation:

"There's something missing here."

As shocked and irked as they were, the Phoenix faithful gathered for the main event of Saturday's UFC 274 knew exactly what he meant.

"The champion has a name," the interpreter continued, as if anyone needed the enlightenment. "And it's Charles Oliveira. … This is a message to the entire division."

After handing Gaethje (23-4) just the second submission loss of his career, Oliveira (33-8-1) further established himself as the best fighter in the UFC's best division and beyond. It was a drama-filled week for Oliveira and his fans, a week that saw him become the first fighter ever to lose a belt to the weigh-in scale. Winning, and winning in this fashion, put that drama and the division he still owns into new contexts.

In case you missed it, Oliveira was the lightweight champion until he missed weight Friday, clocking in at 155.5 pounds, or half a pound above the limit for title fights.

SportsCenter @SportsCenter

Charles Oliveira has missed weight by .5 pounds ahead of #UFC274 and the UFC lightweight title has been vacated. This is the first time a UFC champion has lost their belt after stepping on the scale and missing the weight limit. https://t.co/eyQW54y5Wz

Oliveira took one hour and tried again, but again he weighed 155.5 pounds. As a result, he was essentially stripped of the title, with the belt formally considered vacant as of the start of the fight. He also forfeited part of his fight purse to Gaethje. Although Gaethje could become champ with a win, Oliveira would not be eligible to take back the title even in victory.

We can argue over the severity of those sanctions or the importance of half a pound until we're blue in the face, but at the end of the day, all the fighters know the rules (or should). A toe on the line is a toe on the line. The boundaries are there, literal and otherwise. That's sports.

With the MMA world in shock, the UFC threw Oliveira a lifeline, issuing a statement reading in part that "if Oliveira wins, he will be the No. 1 contender for the vacant lightweight championship and will fight the next challenger for the undisputed title belt at a time and place to be determined."

Oliveira didn't seem to need any more motivation once the door closed and the bout began. He certainly didn't appear to show any ill effects from the weight cut.

Oliveira (right) hits Gaethje
Oliveira (right) hits GaethjeChris Unger/Getty Images

As one might expect, this was an action fight from the jump and all the way through its short shelf life. With the crowd behind him, Gaethje came out with his left hook loaded and ready. They both connected early—Oliveira with a stiff right hand and Gaethje with leg kicks. Gaethje found a home for the hook, and Oliveira briefly went down. Then it happened again, but Oliveira got up and responded with volume. It was quickly clear that the fight might hinge on sheer, unadulterated durability.

Shots were traded, chins were tested, but it was Oliveira pushing the pace. His output was higher; while both men hit on an identical 63 percent of their significant strikes, per UFC stats, Oliveira landed 30 to Gaethje's 21.

At about the 2:15 mark, an Oliveira right hand dumped Gaethje on the mat. That's not something you see every day. Oliveira pounced and went for the choke but couldn't quite wrap his arm under the neck. With Oliveira constricting, Gaethje somehow spun out, but in the ensuing moments he quickly and unwittingly gave up his back. Oliveira didn't miss a second time.

The choke was deep but still took a while, as Gaethje is as tough as they come. But with his consciousness waning, the tap came. The official result was a rear-naked choke submission at 3:22 of Round 1.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 07: (R-L) Charles Oliveira of Brazil secures a rear choke submission against Justin Gaethje in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 274 event at Footprint Center on May 07, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris
Chris Unger/Getty Images

Want to know how good Oliveira is? Gaethje, a college wrestler with 73 percent takedown defense, had not a prayer on the ground. He was in deep water the moment Oliveira descended; you could see it written on his face.

The standup phase seemed like the right wheelhouse for Gaethje in this one. It wasn't, at least not enough, with Oliveira weathering his bombs and responding with stinging accuracy. For Charlie Olives, as the internet loves to call him, this was surely about redemption, but so too was it just another sunny day in the sandbox. A guy lucky enough to be a natural at what he loves to do.

But forget all that claptrap. Do you really want to know how good he is? He's now won 11 straight, dating back to January 2018 and Clay Guida. Have a gander at the UFC record books, where he leads all UFC fighters—not active fighters, all fighters—with 19 total finishes and 16 submission wins. No one else has displayed dominance over a UFC career span as long as Oliveira's, which dates back to 2010. (He's tied for ninth with 29 total UFC fights.)

So what's next? It's a good thing for all of us fans, if not Oliveira himself, that he's fighting in what is truly the cream of the crop right now in the UFC. There's something for everyone at 155 pounds.

There is, of course, the lure of the Irishman. Conor McGregor is purportedly eyeing a summer comeback, and a title shot would surely be tempting to him, just as a massive McGregor payday would be to Oliveira. That must be why McGregor was the only fighter Oliveira mentioned by name after the fight.

"I don't care, just put anybody in front of me," he told Rogan through the translator. "I'm not gonna choose. But hey, Conor McGregor, are you coming up, or are you gonna run away?"

It looks like McGregor has found another potential dance partner in Michael Chandler, who re-arranged Tony Ferguson's skull for him earlier in the night with a front kick from Hades. But even if McGregor-Oliveira doesn't happen, there are other choices—better ones, even. If I was Oliveira, I wouldn't have said Islam Makhachev's name either. The Dagestani Russian is the UFC's No. 3 ranked lightweight (and soon to be higher after Gaethje falls down the list) and tearing a hole through the heart of the division.

Oliveira has indicated previously that Makhachev doesn't deserve a shot. Others, i.e., just about everyone else, beg to differ given Makhachev's otherworldly dominance to date. Time will tell. After the fight, Makhachev renewed his push.

Makhachev Islam @MAKHACHEVMMA

Congrats Charles and see you in AbuDhabi for vacant 🏆 #UFC274

While we wait for that to iron itself out, there's one question we don't need to answer, even if said answer is not one you can see or touch. Belt or no belt, Charles Oliveira is indeed the champion, and for one of the best to ever do it in the UFC, there is absolutely nothing missing.