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On the heels of UFC 248—a card that mostly delivered, with one notable exception—the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will return to Brazil for a shockingly stacked show. UFC events in the South American country are hit-or-miss these days, but there are some clear stakes involved with this one. Demian Maia and Gilbert Burns collide in a possible passing-of-the-torch battle; Renato Carneiro and Johnny Walker look for fresh starts; and the underappreciated Jussier Formiga once again partakes in an excellent pairing. While the potential exists for some slow fights due to the presence of a few neutralizers, the Kevin Lee-Charles Oliveira headliner should deliver stellar action between two elite talents who are finally clicking.
Now to the UFC Fight Night 170 “Lee vs. Oliveira” preview:
Lightweights#8 LW | Kevin Lee (18-5) vs. #13 LW | Charles Oliveira (28-8)
ODDS: Lee (-130), Oliveira (+110)
Not every elite prospect makes it through the ringer that is the UFC’s matchmaking, but these two have survived and made it to the other side. Oliveira burst onto the UFC scene nearly a decade ago, scoring scintillating submission victories over Darren Elkins and Efrain Escudero. Naturally, the UFC threw him directly into beatings against two of the lightweight division’s toughest contenders at the time: Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone. That only set “Do Bronx” back seven years or so, as he became one of the more notorious frontrunners in the entire promotion. When Oliveira gets his ground game going, he remains as diverse a threat as anyone in the sport, holding a UFC-record 13 submissions across his 16 victories. However, long stretches of his career have seen him absolutely crumble under pressure. The most egregious example might be his last headlining spot, where Max Holloway turned up the pressure and got Oliveira to bow out with a phantom injury that still has not been explained to this day. There were flashes in which Oliveira would fight back from adversity—the second bout of an unlikely trilogy against Nik Lentz sticks out—but the book was out on the Brazilian for the most part: Turn on the pressure, and eventually, he would wilt and go away. However, the situation has finally changed in the last year-plus. Oliveira’s 2018 campaign saw him do Oliveira things and score three quick finishes in three appearances, but his 2019 encounter with David Teymur served as a turning point. Teymur repeatedly poked Oliveira in the eyes early, and for most of his career, that alone would have been enough to throw “Do Bronx” off his game. Instead, Oliveira bit down on his mouthpiece and actually backed up his bravado, finally breaking someone else on route to a second-round win. With his newfound confidence, Oliveira has finally realized his best life as one of the most dynamic fighters in the sport. Now that he actually fights through damage, Oliveira has shown some brutal finishing power on the feet, charging down Lentz and Jared Gordon for knockout victories in his last two fights. Oliveira is still somehow just 30 years old, and this might finally be the time for him to become a true title contender. Lee stands in his way.
Despite getting thrown to the wolves against Al Iaquinta in his UFC debut back in 2014, Lee was an obvious pet project for the promotion, spending the next year-plus getting a slow rise on the ladder. “The Motown Phenom” showed an ability to overwhelm foes with his physicality and wrestling, but once he got a step back up in competition against Leonardo Santos, he was quickly knocked out, raising some questions about whether or not he would ever truly get over the hump. From there, it was another slow rise on the ladder, but wins over Francisco Trinaldo and Michael Chiesa in 2017 established Lee as a potential future contender. Naturally, the UFC rushed him yet again, this time into an interim title fight against Tony Ferguson. After that came the suicide of head trainer Robert Follis, leaving Lee somewhat aimless. His pressure style was tailor-made to beat Edson Barboza, but Lee consistently fought a losing fight in a rematch against Iaquinta that seemed set up for him to win. Lee attempted a move to welterweight to fix his issues, but that went nowhere. He had some early success against Rafael dos Anjos, but the pace of the fight and having to wrestle with a larger opponent eventually wore down Lee. As a result, much hinged on Lee’s last fight—a return to lightweight to take on Gregor Gillespie in November. That also marked Lee’s first appearance under Firas Zahabi and the Tristar Gym, and the early returns of the pairing were excellent. Lee stayed within himself, kept Gillespie at bay and then annihilated the New Yorker with a head kick that ranks among the scariest knockouts in recent memory. One fight does not a turnaround make, but Lee is among the most talented fighters in one of the UFC’s deepest divisions, so if he can follow up on that progress here, watch out.
A lot of this depends on whether or not the improvements that Lee showed against Gillespie are real. If this were a previous version of Lee facing the current version of Oliveira, it would be a pretty easy call for the Brazilian. Lee would be more than willing to charge into the belly of the beast, and if he did not fall victim to an Oliveira submission early, he would definitely wear himself out and get finished late. What happens if Lee sticks to this more patient approach? A range striking battle could go either way and essentially boils down to who can be trusted more or less, depending on your point of view. Lee has had some issues with his chin in the past, even if Santos was the only one to knock him out, so Oliveira could cause some damage if he gets after it. By the same token, Oliveira is still not a defensive wunderkind, and while he has shown an ability to bounce back from damage during this six-fight winning streak, Lee has the power to put him completely out. If this turns into a grappling match, that should favor Oliveira handily. Even if Lee goes into wrestling exchanges wanting to take a more patient approach, Oliveira’s status as a constant threat should be enough to tire out the American and find an opening. That probably makes Oliveira the smarter bet. However, it is difficult to watch Lee’s scintillating knockout of Gillespie and not think that the Brazilian will have to be the one to avoid danger if “The Motown Phenom” forces him to close the distance and take it to the mat. Maybe Oliveira has finally exorcised his demons and found his confidence, but the doubts still linger. The pick is Lee via second-round knockout.
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