As a Mexican Fighter Rises, U.F.C. Hopes Others Will Follow

Brandon Moreno, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s flyweight champion, sat on a gym mat and stretched his lower body while music from the Argentine pop group La K’onga blared through speakers overhead.

While many nearby businesses were closed for Independence Day, Moreno was working during the U.S. holiday as part of the final stages of preparation for his upcoming title defense, with hints of his Mexican culture scattered throughout the small, private facility on the outskirts of the Las Vegas Strip. On the wall overlooking the training space, a large portrait of Moreno, the U.F.C.’s first Mexican-born champion, depicts Moreno smiling with the championship belt and his country’s flag draped over his shoulders.

Moreno’s rise has brought a spotlight to the U.F.C.’s ambitions to expand in the country, an effort bolstered by the emergence of two more Mexican-born champions: the women’s flyweight title-winner Alexa Grasso and the men’s interim featherweight belt-holder Yair Rodríguez.

Moreno first took the flyweight championship from Deiveson Figueiredo in June 2021 and regained the belt in January with a win by technical knockout over Figueiredo.Credit…Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC, via Getty Images

“It is part of our future and I feel very grateful with life to be an example for the Mexican people and Mexican kids who can use myself as inspiration for their own careers,” Moreno said in an interview.

On Saturday, in the co-main event of U.F.C. 290, Moreno will defend his belt against Alexandre Pantoja, a Brazilian fighter who has beaten Moreno twice previously. The top bout of that card will have Rodríguez fighting against Alexander Volkanovski, one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.

Moreno grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, a major tourism hub along California’s southern border. He was the youngest of three children and his parents owned a piñata business. Moreno said he accompanied them on trips to San Diego and Los Angeles to sell their products.

He began practicing mixed martial arts when he was 12 years old; he said he was chubby and needed something to keep him occupied after school other than video games and eating Oreos. In 2011, when Moreno was 17, he needed his parents’ signature to compete in his first professional fight, he said.

Dana White, the U.F.C. president, had long viewed Mexico, with its rich history of cultivating championship-level boxers, as an area for growth in mixed martial arts. He sent matchmakers to scour the country for talent, and when they identified Moreno, he was invited to try out for “The Ultimate Fighter,” a television reality competition in which the winner earned a U.F.C. contract. Moreno qualified for the tournament in 2016 but lost his first fight — he was submitted by Pantoja — which seemed to halt his U.F.C. dreams.

Moreno appeared on “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality television competition that rewards in the winner with a U.F.C. contract, in 2016, but his dreams seemed to be paused when he lost his first fight.Credit…Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC, via Getty Image

But Moreno appeared as a replacement when a fight fell through in October 2016 and fought five times, including a tough loss in which he was dominated by Pantoja in 2018. Moreno was released, in part because U.F.C. was wavering on whether it wanted to have a 125-pound men’s division at all, given a lag in popularity compared with higher weight classes.

“When you sign with the U.F.C., you expect to have multiple fights and to spend your whole professional career with them,” Moreno said. “There was a lot of sadness and frustration and a lot of bad feelings in the battlefield of my mind.”

Moreno wanted to fight as soon as possible to continue earning money, and to eventually re-enter the U.F.C. He signed with a new manager, Jason House of Iridium Sports Agency, who helped Moreno secure a championship bout in the flyweight division of the Legacy Fighting Alliance, a smaller mixed martial arts promotional company. Moreno won the fight, and three months later, in September 2019, he fought again in the U.F.C.

He strung together some wins and then matched up with the Brazilian fighter Deiveson Figueiredo, the flyweight champion, in December 2020. The competitive fight ended in a draw, and the two rematched in June 2021. In the third round, Moreno submitted Figueiredo via rear naked choke, taking the belt.

Moreno’s stardom instantly grew, White said. His bubbly personality and his interests — he collects Legos and Pokémon cards — made him marketable to a wide swath of people. He also occasionally calls fights for the U.F.C.’s Spanish-language broadcasts, and speaking Spanish and English allowed him to connect with more fans.

Moreno was honored at halftime of a Liga MX game in his hometown, Tijuana, Mexico.Credit…Francisco Vega/Getty Images
Moreno and the wrestler Rey Mysterio posed for fans before a baseball game between the Padres and the Giants in Mexico City this year.Credit…Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

“He’s everything you want in a champion,” White said in an interview. “We’ve been looking for a real Mexican from Mexico who has all the things that this kid has and it’s such a huge win for us and him.”

The U.F.C. has had champions of Mexican heritage, such as Cain Velasquez, Dominick Cruz and Henry Cejudo, but not one that had been born in the country until Moreno. Rodríguez won his interim belt in February and Grasso became a champion in March after a surprise win by submission over Valentina Shevchenko.

The three Mexican champions are among 150 fighters on the active U.F.C. roster from Latin American countries — nearly a quarter of the company’s athletes — including 27 from Mexico. Rodríguez told reporters this week that Moreno was an “inspiration.”

“After I entered the U.F.C., I saw that things were possible, that things were real, but he opened my eyes even more and said, ‘Look, bro, here’s the U.F.C. belt, now everything beyond this depends on the individual,’” Rodríguez said. “ I’m proud to be sharing a card together, and that we’re representing Mexico.”

Moreno lost the belt to Figueiredo via unanimous decision in 2022, but regained it in January via a technical knockout, when a punch to Figueiredo’s right eye caused it to swell and a doctor stopped the bout in the third round.

Moreno’s jubilation for reclaiming the title was muted by controversy leading into the bout. He had been forced to switch coaches as he was preparing because his former coach, James Krause, was under investigation by gambling authorities.

“He’s everything you want in a champion,” Dana White, the U.F.C. president, said of Moreno.Credit…Bruna Prado/Associated Press

Ahead of a fight in November, U.S. Integrity, a betting monitoring company, became alerted of significant changes in odds involving a fighter Krause had worked with. The fighter, Darrick Minner, had lost via technical knockout and was later discovered to have had an undisclosed injury entering the fight. The U.F.C. reviewed the situation and eventually threatened to bar fighters from events if they continued to train with Krause. Multiple agencies, including U.S. Integrity and the Nevada State Athletic Commission, are still investigating. Krause did not respond to a message seeking comment.

After Krause’s dismissal, Moreno began training with Sayif Saud after the manager House arranged a practice for them in Las Vegas. Saud and Moreno bonded immediately, the fighter said, amid the stress of the situation. Moreno retained Saud after his win over Figueiredo and trained with him in Dallas ahead of U.F.C. 290. Should Moreno win, White said he expects his fandom to increase, which will further benefit the U.F.C.’s outreach to Mexico.

In September around Mexican Independence Day, Grasso will have a rematch with Shevchenko as the headlining fight on a card in Las Vegas filled with Hispanic fighters. In October, the U.F.C. plans to open a performance institute in Mexico City, similar to facilities it has in Las Vegas and China, to become a central location for potential fighters in Latin America. A win Saturday, Moreno said, would show that the company should continue investing in the region.

“It’s a statement to the U.F.C. like, ‘Hey, I’m winning my fights and I can put on for my country,’” Moreno said. “Let’s put a pay-per-view there and put the confidence in me and the fans that we can go there and put on a show for everybody.”

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