If you drive out of the centre of Sao Paulo, away from the busy streets and bustling crowds of Baixo Augusta and Liberdade, you will come across a much smaller coastal city by the name of Guaruja.
‘The Pearl of the Atlantic’ is a tiny speck in the ocean in contrast to the sprawling municipality, home to some 322,750 people and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
However, even a place of such exquisite beauty sadly does not come without its detractors. Critics point towards a high crime rate and a lack of affordable housing which has made it one of the toughest places in Brazil to grow up.
But 31-year-old MMA fighter Charles Oliveira is made of tough material and despite many years of tragedy and struggle, he is on the cusp of realising his childhood dream of becoming UFC champion when he takes on Michael Chandler for the vacant lightweight title.
‘Do Bronx’ may face his biggest fight yet on Saturday night, but he produced one of the best performances of his career to date against Tony Ferguson in the co-main event of UFC 256.
UFC president Dana White believes Oliveira’s status as “one of the top three guys in the world” was evident for all to see on a card which was stacked full of riches from top to bottom including the likes of Mackenzie Dern, Deiveson Figueiredo and Cyril Gane.
Oliveira signed with the UFC in 2010 after putting together a 12-fight winning streak, a feat which saw him follow in the footsteps of Jose Aldo, Anderson Silva and Junior dos Santos.
The honeymoon, however, would soon be over following back-to-back losses to Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar.
But Oliveira himself is no stranger to adversity. In fact, his life could have been very different if he had fallen in with the wrong crowd.
Brazil’s favelas have long been blighted by violence, which would have been an unwelcome distraction for the young Oliveira as he grew up as a teenager on the streets of Guaruja.
However, Oliveira discovered that practising Brazilian jiu-jitsu at a young age gave him the discipline and confidence to keep on the straight and narrow, and he largely credits the sport for molding him into the man he is today.
“I work hard every single day to have things I want,” Oliveira said to MMA Fighting. “I was too young when I got there and there was so much pressure over me. I’ve had my highs and lows. I’ve fought injured. I’ve missed weight. I’ve taken fights when I clearly shouldn’t. But I’ve learned from it. When I stop and think about all that, I think my family can be proud of everything I’ve done. I’m proud of myself. I came from nothing and look where I am now.
“I tell my mom I’ll become UFC champion one day and I’ll have a lot of money, but I won’t lose my essence or forget where I come from and everything I went through. Every night when I go to bed I think about all that and where I want to go, who I am. I remember walking back home for hours after jiu-jitsu tournaments because we had no money to take the bus. I remember sharing a sandwich at lunch so we could take the bus back home. If your life is easy, you’re soft. If your life is hard, it pays off in the end.”
Oliveira paints a pretty grim picture of his life growing up in a favela and having to fend for himself on the mean streets of Brazil.
But the BJJ black belt admits he wants to inspire young people from his homeland as he prepares for the biggest fight of his life.
“I want to show everyone that you can have things if you work hard or it, no matter if you were born in a favela,” he added. “You don’t have to steal, you don’t have to traffic [drugs] or do anything wrong. I know thieves, I know drug dealers, I know a lot of people. They are my friends, but I’ve never used drugs and never felt I had to. I want to show kids they can win in life, they can get where they want.
“Being the title contender today, having this opportunity… Imagine going back to Brazil and taking this belt to the favela and all the kids being able to touch it? Man, that’s priceless.”