Who Takes It? Charles Oliveira vs. Nik Lentz

He’s been labelled a prospect ever since he made his UFC debut five years ago, sporting a 12-0 record at age 20 with, seemingly, the world at his feet.

But Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira, who faces Nik Lentz this weekend at UFC Fight Night 67 in Goiania, Brazil, somehow always has me looking backwards — and thinking, “What if?”

What if dynamic submission artists with nasty-looking Muay Thai, like him, were the norm in MMA? Some may be surprised to learn that back in the day some of us expected MMA to take that direction. We expected to see jiu-jitsu used in ways we never expected by now.

Instead, a dominant “wrestle-box” style seems the norm.

But, as I watch Oliveira, I ask — what if that hadn’t come to prominence?

Granted, I’m not sure how it could have happened. Maybe if Real Pro Wrestling, which tried to bring freestyle wrestling to the masses in the early 2000’s, was the next big thing and didn’t fizzle out… or, maybe if MMA judges scored each “catch” (near-submission) like the old Shooto shows? Or if they were most impressed by efforts to finish the fight, as in PRIDE, where Oliveira’s master Jorge “Macaco” Patino fought?

What if MMA’s “Unified Rules” treasured fighters who finished fights above all else, rather than winning what the late great Jeff Blatnik described as “incremental battles?”

Rather than darting in and out to out-box the opponent a little to win rounds narrowly, we had fighters going for flying knees with wild abandon in every bout?

What if BJ Penn defeated Frankie Edgar, and Shinya Aoki defeated Gilbert Melendez, in their historic bouts?

What if weight management weren’t at the forefront — with fighters desperately trying to dehydrate themselves of 10-15% of their body weight to compete?

Instead of being a prototype, Charles Oliveira has struggled a bit — especially with the latter issue. Since dropping to featherweight in 2012, the Brazilian has missed weight a staggering three times. While at 25 he’s among the youngest in the UFC’s top ten, I’d wager among the UFC brass he doesn’t feel as much of a prospect as a prospective headache.

Still, he’s still a joy to watch: one of those fighters who seems to keep the “martial arts” in Mixed Martial Arts. Look for a reverent bow to the four corners before every fight, a dynamic Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu attack after the opening bell, and a bit of respect afterwards.

His opponent, the 30 year old Nik Lentz, will enter the cage against Oliveira on Saturday as an underdog (by as much as +230, according to our friends at BestFightOdds) but is actually the higher ranked of the two, albeit marginally: #8 to #9 at featherweight.

A Division 1 wrestler at University of Minnesota, Lentz has showcased a hard-punching, come-forward game since debuting in the UFC back in 2009. He’s a skilled and dedicated professional athlete, with unusual power in the division. But other than a TKO over Eji Mitsuoka in his first bout at featherweight in 2012, he’s failed to finish any of his fights in recent years.

He’s a pro, simply put. After a few losses, he relocated to Florida to train with American Top Team and has enjoyed a 4-1 record since moving to featherweight.

He feels like today’s MMA scene.

Meanwhile, the younger Oliveira, in some ways, seems a throwback.

Oliveira’s jiu-jitsu game has claimed victims like Hatsu Hioki, who had never lost by submission in a 37 fight MMA career.  In that fight, Oliveira skillfully avoided a rear naked choke before scrambling away for a rare D’Arce choke.

The two fought back in 2011 at UFC Live event in Pittsburgh, back when both contested at lightweight. That “Fight of the Night” was at a typical fast pace — featuring both men looking for guillotine chokes in transition, and both having moments in standup.

But the quicker hands and more dynamic attack of Oliveira proved key.

The Brazilian scored a knockdown with an uppercut in round one and ended the stanza in mount landing elbow strikes. Unfortunately, Oliveira landed a damaging illegal knee in round two. Lentz was at one knee as the two clinched and Oliveira, who stunned Lentz with the blow and followed with a choke, would have to settle for a no-contest.

This weekend, I don’t expect him to be any more cautious, and I don’t think either has advanced their game all that much. Look for Oliveira to attack with his typical style and push the pace — eventually opening up a submission in the second round.

As always, enjoy the fights!