When Dana White and his partners took over the UFC in 2001, they knew they had a lot of work ahead of them. But the one thing they believed was almost a guarantee eluded them until only recently.
White and the Fertitta brothers, Frank and Lorenzo, believed they would easily be able to make Mexico into one of their best markets. Mexico has a rich history in boxing and they believed it was a given it would follow suit for mixed martial arts.
It’s only now becoming a reality, and a lot of it has to do with a guy who only a few short years ago was summarily cut while the UFC considered scrapping his entire division.
Matchmaker Mick Maynard did great work in helping to rebuild the flyweight division, and one of the keys was bringing Brandon Moreno back.
Moreno has more than repaid the UFC’s faith in him. He won the championship by submitting Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 262 in June, and will defend it in a rubber match at UFC 270 on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, against Figueiredo.
With a compelling heavyweight unification fight between champion Francis Ngannou and interim champion Ciryl Gane atop the card, it was suggested to White, the UFC president, this could be the fight that makes Moreno a star.
White, though, was having none of that.
“He already is [a star],” White told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve been saying this to everybody: Watch Saturday night when this kid walks into the arena. You don’t realize [how big he’s gotten] but we do so many of these signings and things like that with him, [and] this kid’s a huge star. You’re really going to see it and feel it on Saturday.”
Moreno is a charming, self-effacing man who doesn’t necessarily conjure up the image of a fighter when you see him grinning ear-to-ear. But as he proved when he submitted Figueiredo at UFC 262 with a rear naked choke, he’s not one to be underestimated.
Winning the title changed his life, and being the first Mexican-born champion for the UFC has thrust a spotlight on him that he couldn’t have handled any better. He’s been an incredible ambassador for the sport while remaining the same, level-headed guy he was on the day in 2018 the UFC gave him the pink slip.
He didn’t give up when he was at his low point. Now that he’s on a high, he’s remembering his roots and not getting too big for his britches. There is, though, a lot that comes with being a UFC champion.
“Yeah, [it’s been what I expected] and maybe more,” Moreno told Yahoo Sports. “Definitely the responsibility getting the belt is bigger than I expected. Obviously, the pressure of the people [from Mexico wanting to see me do well has been tough]. ...
“I'm the first Mexican-born champion in the UFC so I have a lot of pressure on me every single day. And obviously, it's hard to manage that. But at the same time, I'm enjoying my life so much. And I understand the new chapter of my life right now is harder than before. But I'm ready. I'm ready for this challenge.”
Moreno will face Figueiredo for the third time in 13 months on Saturday, though it comes as a bit of a surprise. After he lost to Moreno, Figueiredo said he’d likely move to bantamweight.
But he gave up running his business on a day-to-day basis to focus on getting back to flyweight and attempting to regain the title from Moreno. Figueiredo posted photos of himself looking incredibly shredded only eight days before the bout.
It wasn’t easy for Moreno in the rematch, though he made it look that way. In their first fight, it was a draw and Moreno didn’t know what to expect.
Going into this third one, he knows what to expect and has prepared accordingly. The first time, he prepared as if he were facing Superman because of all he’d heard about Figueiredo’s talents.
“The difference between the first one and the second one was, in the first one, I don’t know what can be expected from Figueiredo,” Moreno said. “OK, in that moment, everybody was like ‘You know, Figueiredo, he's amazing. Figueiredo's a monster. He can knock you out with just one punch and all that stuff. And he's amazing in jiu-jitsu. His wrestling is very well rounded, too.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, OK, I'm fighting for my first title.’ I'm doing my first title fight against this amazing guy, amazing athlete. So I was like very careful in the fight, just taking too much care about Figueiredo and his abilities.
"But in the second one, when I knew everything from the first one, I knew ‘Man, I can absorb the damage. And I can put pressure on him.’ And I think that was the key of the victory and my confidence in myself for that fight.”
The division is better than it’s ever been, and Figueiredo looks to be in better shape than he’s ever been. If Moreno prevails again — and he’s a -170 favorite at BetMGM — he might bring along an entirely new segment of the fan base with him.