brandon moreno
[Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images]

Brandon Moreno is UFC's latest underdog success story

When Brandon Moreno narrowly lost the UFC Flyweight Championship to Deiveson Figueiredo at their third fight at UFC 270 in January 2022, the mixed martial arts world quickly learned that the word for a series of four is technically “tetralogy,” not “quadrilogy.” Why? Well, because a tetralogy of fights between the same two fighters had never happened in the UFC before. Trilogies? Sure. Four fights between the same fighters spanning various promotions? On occasion — but generally things are sorted before facing off in regulated combat for the fourth time.

But going into UFC 283, there’s still plenty of unresolved storylines for the two elite 125-pound fighters. The narrative leading into Saturday’s co-main event sounds more like an MMA twist on a Rocky movie than a normal championship bout. 

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At the time of their first bout at UFC 256 in December 2020, the then 20-1 Figueiredo looked unstoppable after rattling off four-straight violent finishes, winning and defending the championship belt, and living up to his “God of War” nickname. After three other title fights fell through for the night (due to everything from COVID to injuries to visa issues), the UFC needed a championship main event for their final pay-per-view of the year, and Figueiredo was the one to answer the call, despite defending his title just three weeks prior at UFC 255.

Moreno, then 18-5-1, had also just knocked off a top contender at UFC 255 and felt ready to take the next step in his career. After all, it’d only been a couple of years since the Mexican challenger had been released from the UFC, and less than a year since he’d been back competing in the sport’s premier organization.

And just like the first Rocky film, the underdog with a seemingly endless amount of heart didn’t walk away the winner. But whereas Rocky lost a decision to Apollo Creed, Moreno earned a draw against Figueiredo (largely due to the champion being deducted a point for a groin strike), earning the Fight of the Night award and giving the champion more problems than anyone expected.

In the second bout, Moreno earned his Rocky II moment, submitting Figueiredo with a rear-naked choke and claiming the belt in front of a vocal and friendly crowd in Glendale, Arizona at UFC 263 in June 2021. He immediately rose to prominence as the first Mexico-born UFC champion in history, becoming an icon for both underdogs everywhere, as well as Mexican fight fans eager to build on the nation’s boxing legacy.

So when Moreno lost his third match with Figuereido in another Fight of the Night, many assumed it was only a matter of time before the two settled their 1-1-1 score. And after Moreno knocked out Kai Kara-France to earn the interim championship in July 2022, the fourth matchup will be the first in which both men enter with a belt.

Figueiredo v Moreno 2

Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 263 / Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC]

Of course, if you assumed any of that history or narrative matters to Moreno, you’d be sadly mistaken. “[The fight’s significance means] nothing to me, man,” Moreno tells AltPress via Zoom. “I know it’s a huge and important fight — and it will be part of the history of the sport — but I’m just trying to have some fun here. I’m remembering how I started and why I started the sport. I’m just going to enjoy the fight and enjoy being in the Octagon with him while we try to punch each other in the head.”

That happiness and borderline carefree attitude is part of what’s made Moreno such a fan-favorite during his UFC tenure. In a sport where everyone is a badass, the 29-year-old frequently displays a level of toughness and heart in his fights that seems to wear out even the most resilient opponents. But despite being a skilled technician and clearly possessing the spirit of a warrior who loves a good battle, Moreno’s received nearly as much attention for his hobbies outside of the cage as he does for his work within them. 

For instance, there just aren’t many diehard Lego builders in professional fighting. “I use the time after my training to be with myself, in my mind — and for me, being in my office building Legos, and listening to my music is very relaxing,” Moreno says, still sweaty from his training session just minutes prior. “I love those moments, because sometimes you need to sit somewhere and separate your mind from the training and the pressure. All day, I’m under constant pressure. A lot of people are watching what I’m doing, the belt’s on the line, there’s the media, it’s a lot of pressure. I just want to have those moments when I’m alone with myself — and building Legos helped me a lot with that.”

As for his soundtrack for Legos, Moreno finds himself primarily listening to pop and hip-hop — both in English and Spanish — but admits his taste can be pretty random and changes with his emotions. Moreno’s bilingual fluency doesn’t just provide a wider range of musical taste, but also opportunities both inside and outside of the UFC when he’s not actively fighting. Perhaps the biggest of which has been his part-time role as an analyst for the UFC’s Spanish-language broadcasts. Not only does that allow Moreno to earn some extra income while he watches and analyzes fights (which he would do anyway), but it also makes him one of the most recognizable names and faces in the sport across all of Latin America.

Considering the region’s legacy in combat sports — particularly boxing in his native country — it’s given Moreno a level of support and fame typically reserved for stars like Canelo Álvarez.

“When I won the belt in Arizona in the second fight against Deiveson, it made everything change,” Moreno says. “A lot of people from Mexico started to pay attention to the sport for the first time. Mexico has a huge history of combat sports. We have so many champions in boxing. Soccer is very popular too, but mixed martial arts is not that popular yet. I’m just trying to put these fighters on the map in my country. I have a lot of people behind me every single time I’m going into a fight, so I know that I need to keep working for all of them.”

UFC 270: Moreno v Figueiredo

[Brandon Moreno at UFC 270 / Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC]

While their last two matchups were in front of largely pro-Moreno Mexican-American crowds, UFC 283 will take place in enemy territory for the father-of-three. When he sets foot in the cage in Rio de Janeiro, Moreno knows there’s a good chance that the Brazilian fans will be cheering against him. But while so many foreign fighters brace themselves for the deafening “Uh vai morrer” (Portuguese for “you’re going to die”) chants when facing hometown favorites, it’s not Moreno’s first fight in the nation. Plus, he isn’t even sure that the Brazilian people are all that passionate for his opponent — particularly since he often enjoys playing the “asshole” bad guy to Moreno’s likable persona and recently supported a military coup against the Brazilian government.

“I’m excited for the challenge [of fighting for the title in Brazil],” Moreno says. “I understand that maybe the people will be a little bit against me, but I’m very positive about it. I feel like with the passing of the rounds, the people will start to be with me. I also don’t know if Deiveson has a really good relationship with the Brazilian people. I understand that he’s Brazilian, but I don’t know if he has as close of a relationship with the Brazilian people as some of the other Brazilian fighters. Whereas I’m just a guy who loves to fight and have fun, and people can see that. That’s why I have a lot of fights around the world. I’m prepared for the worst case scenario where everyone is against me, but I know that I’ll be fine.”

Even if Figueiredo will technically have a home field advantage on Saturday night, it’s just another opportunity for Moreno to continue his rise as one of the biggest underdog success stories in all of sports. From losing in the first round of The Ultimate Fighter before entering the UFC to getting cut from the organization after a pair of losses, Moreno’s faced more than his fair share of adversity in his career. But each of those setbacks has just made his victories sweeter — and earned him plenty of fans along the way.

“I think [being an underdog] was extra motivation, because you want to show the world that you deserve to be there and you deserve all of the huge things,” Moreno says. “For my entire professional career, it was like that — whether it was getting released from the UFC or the UFC giving the title fight to another guy. It’s always been about fighting against all of the other things outside of the fight. So, being the underdog for all of my professional career? I use that for inspiration and motivation for me.”