NITEROI, Brazil — Gabriel Oliveira scored one of the best knockouts of 2017, and expects that to affect the mind of his next opponent at the Rizin bantamweight grand prix.
The undefeated prospect made his Rizin debut in October, taking on 49-fight veteran Tatsuya Kawajiri at the Saitama Super Arena. A member of the Parana Vale Tudo team in Niteroi, Brazil, Oliveira stopped Kawajiri with a brutal knee to the head when the Japanese fighter shot for a takedown.
“It’s a dream come true,” Oliveira told MMA Fighting of his recent debut in Japan. “I’ve always dreamed about fighting in big promotions for years. I decided to become a professional MMA fighter 10 years ago, and fighting in Japan, where Vale Tudo was born for me, where history was made, was a fantastic experience. I’ve watched Kawajiri fight for years, and facing someone you’ve watched on TV for so many times, fighting one of your ‘idols,’ is something I always wanted. It’s surreal.”
It was a perfect night in Saitama, but Oliveira felt that everyone in Japan was hoping that he would lose to the much more experienced Kawajiri.
“I always put way too much pressure over myself throughout my career, that I couldn’t afford to lose, but I see things way different now,” Oliveira said. “There’s still a lot of pressure. Before this fight, the matchmaker came talk to me about it. When I was minutes away from walking out, he came to my lockerroom with an interpreter and said ‘man, you will fight a legend from Japan.’ He was saying all these things about the guy, trying to get in my head [laughs]. But I was confident I would win.
“When I signed the contract to fight him, I thought ‘I already won this fight.’ It’s kind of cocky, I don’t know, but I already felt that way. I knew where I would get, I was sure of my potential. I just enjoy the moment now. I used to fight thinking of what my opponents would do, and I’m happier now. I know I’m a tough fight for anyone.”
Oliveira knew he would win, but how about that vicious knee?
Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Gabriel Oliveira (Japanese edition) pic.twitter.com/VWijDahfnC
— Streetfight Bancho (@streetfitebanch) October 15, 2017
“I saw an opening for this knee way before the fight,” he said. “It’s not something I do in the gym very often because that hurts people. I’ve knocked a training partner once with this knee, and I was cut in the forehead once as well, so you can’t do that in training. I do that when my coach is holding pads, but that’s it. I knew he would try to take me down, so I timed his takedowns and it was automatic. I saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.”
The 63kg-catchweight Kawajiri-Oliveira was labeled as an eliminator for one of the spots in the bantamweight tournament, but after Oliveira won, the company went radio silent. Oliveira, who had signed a one-fight deal with Rizin, returned to Brazil with team with no idea if he would really enter the grand prix.
A few weeks later, it was officially announced that Oliveira would enter the bracket, taking on UFC veteran Kyoji Horiguchi in the quarterfinal on Dec. 29.
“They were upset that I beat Kawajiri and put me to fight Horiguchi,” Oliveira says with a laugh. “It’s a completely different fighter. Kawajiri is more methodical, while Horiguchi mixes it up better. He was there, he watched the fight from front row. He’s a short guy. He’s a flyweight and I’m a featherweight who can fight at bantamweight. He’s an excellent athlete, a top contender in both weight classes, and I believe it will be as tough as Kawajiri.”
The young Brazilian sees both Japanese talents as different challenges but equally tough. Yet, having stopped Kawajiri in such a brutal way might give him an advantage on Dec. 29, he says.
“He’s fast, he has that karate stance, using more counters, but I will impose my game,” Oliveira said. “I don’t know, there’s something different about me that I’m capable to getting the timing and distance pretty quickly. He can be fast, but he heard the noise of the blows I landed on Kawajiri. He knows he can’t come trying to test my punches. He will pay for it. He won’t try to, so I have this advantage [laughs].
“I can’t underestimate him because he likes to counter and he hits hard, but I control the distance well and I will use my longer limbs. I will hit him little by little. I won’t rush things. I will find the distance and see what he has for me, and I will finish it when the right moment comes. I can go there and beat them all on the same night.”
If victorious on Dec. 29, Oliveira will face the winner of Ian McCall vs. Manel Kape in the semifinal two days later.
“I don’t think of what’s next, I just enjoy the moment,” he said. “Kawajiri is in the past. I always think I’m 0-0.”
The Brazilian is 10-0, though, and has competed as a featherweight most of his MMA career. Making 135 pounds is no easy task, but this time he will only have to weigh in once, on Dec. 28.
Oliveira expects to be around 159 pounds on fight night. After the grand prix, there’s a good chance he will go back to featherweight.
“After this event I’m seriously thinking about going back to 145 because the last week of weight cut is terrible,” he said. “I’m happier fighting at 145 since I don’t have to think about the weight cut every day. I’d rather fight stronger guys at 145 than quicker ones at 135, too.”
Oliveira might end 2017 with a 13-0 record in mixed martial arts, but fighting three times in two nights is more mental than physical.
“You can’t prepare for three fights in two days, it’s inhuman, so we prepare a lot mentally and spiritually,” he said. “I know it will be a battle and that I will get hurt a lot in there. I used to fight not to lose, but I’ve changed that. I know that I will get hurt, I’ve accepted that. It will be three tough battles, and I will win them all. That’s what I’m here for.
“I won’t be able to eat pizza or drink a beer after the first fight [laughs], but that’s part of the game. I will be changing not only my life, but those lives around me. There’s nothing more important than that. I will be making history in Japan, where Brazilian legends were created. I will have the opportunity to join them, and nothing motivates me more than that. Weight cutting, not being able to eat everything after the first fight, that’s nothing. There are things way bigger than this.”