CHICAGO — Growing up, Marlon Moraes became a fan of mixed martial arts in large part because of his countryman, Wanderlei Silva.
Silva became one of the most popular fighters in the world because of a fearless, almost reckless style. He’d almost dare his opponent to hit him on the chin and his fights were often like barroom brawls with haymakers coming from every direction rather than a precise, technical professional fight.
More than five years into his own MMA career, Moraes was nowhere near duplicating the feats of Silva. He began his career 2-0, but lost four and drew one of his next eight bouts. He was 5-4-1 and looking not like a future star but just another guy hanging on.
He was a powerful puncher, and getting kicked by him felt sort of like getting whacked on the shin with a crowbar.
“I had a lot I needed to learn,” Moraes conceds.
He’s been a different fighter since those humble beginnings. He won 17 of his next 18 bouts and is a slight favorite over flyweight champion Henry Cejudo Saturday to make it 18 of his last 19 when they meet for the vacant bantamweight title in the main event of UFC 238 at the United Center.
The Moraes metamorphosis began when he moved from Brazil to the U.S. at the invitation of long-time friend Edson Barboza. He learned to think the game at the highest level and how best to use his many physical gifts.
“It’s easy for guys who are talented to just go out there and get going a million miles an hour and kind of lose sight of what it is they’re trying to do,” said former UFC champion Frankie Edgar, Moraes’ teammate and friend.
Moraes perhaps wasn’t desperate, but he wanted to make an impact upon the sport and knew things had to change. And as he learned the game, his physical tools suddenly began appearing and carrying him to victory.
He won the World Series of Fighting bantamweight title and earned a reputation as arguably the best fighter outside of the UFC. He won 13 in a row, including eight by finish, after that lackluster 5-4-1 start. That made him 18-4-1 and earned him a contract with the UFC.
The lengthy winning streak ended in his UFC debut when he dropped a split decision to Raphael Assuncao at UFC 212 on June 3, 2017, in Rio de Janeiro. Rather than being seen as a negative, that fight convinced Edgar what he had long since come to believe:
Moraes had everything it took to be a special fighter.
“I think first of all you have to look at who he fought and realize that Assuncao is one of the best guys in the world,” Edgar said. “Marlon wanted that fight so badly. He was finally in the UFC and he was fighting back home [in Brazil] for the first time in a long time. He’d wanted to be in the UFC for a long time and here he is, finally in the UFC and going home with all this hype and all these wins in a row and he wanted to put on a show. He laid an egg, but if you say he laid an egg, you still have to be honest and say he could have won that fight. It was really close, and Assuncao is a stud.
“You knew after that, Marlon was going to cause problems. I mean, after that, you knew he’d be relaxed and understand that he belonged and that he’d be a totally different fighter.”
If there was any doubt, he proved that on Feb. 2 in Fortaleza, Brazil, when he choked out Assuncao in the first round of their rematch, giving him three consecutive first-round finishes and four consecutive wins overall.
There has been a lot of trash talk and back-and-forth between Cejudo and Moraes, particularly when Cejudo wore a costume to Thursday’s photo opportunity in the atrium of the United Center. Wearing a crown and a cape, Cejudo pulled a mouse out of his black hat, which he said represented former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, whom he beat for the belt last year.
Then he pulled a snake out, which he said represented ex-bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, whom Cejudo knocked out in the first in January. Then he yanked a rabbit out, which he said represented Moraes.
But for all the hijinks, Cejudo conceded that Moraes is an elite talent.
“I wanted to fight the best to win this title and he’s the best,” Cejudo said.
Moraes is fueled to win by a past he doesn’t want to speak about much yet. When he was asked about Cejudo’s struggles to make it, which included being on public assistance and never having a bed of his own, Moraes scoffed.
“My story would make you cry,” he said. “It made me so hungry and so determined to do this. Everything in my life has led me to this point. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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