Brandon Moreno building his legacy via MMA’s rise in Latin America – Orange County Register

    The UFC brings its first pay-per-view of 2022 to Honda Center in Anaheim, featuring a heavyweight title fight between former training partners.

    It is challenging to create a better storyline for UFC 270 on Saturday than the first title defense of hulking champion Francis Ngannou, who has finished 10 of his 11 victories in the Octagon via ferocious knockouts, against interim champion Cyril Gane, unbeaten and virtually unchallenged in his 10 UFC bouts.

    The co-main event, however, is a tasty trilogy title bout in the lightest men’s division. The prospect of Brandon Moreno, making his first flyweight title defense, squaring up against former champ Deiveson Figueiredo has fight fans salivating.

    But there is an undercurrent to this UFC 270 card that is more wave than ripple.

    The rising tide is in the form of Moreno, who became the UFC’s first Mexican-born champion when he dethroned Figueiredo in June. And the boats being lifted are the Latin American fighters benefiting from Moreno’s meteoric ascension.

    UFC President Dana White, with his background and affinity for boxing, has long had his eyes on making MMA thrive in Mexico. “It took longer than I thought it would. But that kind of does make sense because those people have boxing gloves running through their veins,” White said.

    Patterns had developed for the sport’s rise in other countries, based largely on fans being able to aspire to become champions like Conor McGregor in Ireland, Kamaru Usman, Israel Adesanya and Ngannou in Nigeria and Robert Whittaker and Alexander Volkanovski in New Zealand and Australia.

    So White knew what needed to happen in Mexico.

    “What you got to do is you have to get the younger generation training in MMA. And you got to have a Mexican-born champion, and now we finally have one,” White said.

    And the flashpoint for the revolution might be in Tijuana.


    The 125-pound king known as “The Assassin Baby” won’t let anything deter him from Saturday’s mission.

    Moreno and Figueiredo fought to a majority draw 13 months ago, then Moreno tapped out the Brazilian champ in the third round in June to win the belt.

    Their third fight comes with Figueiredo, who exuberantly and graciously congratulated an emotional Moreno seven months ago, bad-mouthing the Tijuana native for some perceived old bad blood involving his new coach, former UFC double-champ Henry Cejudo.

    “He’s trying to sell the fight. Yeah, it’s not my way. I respect him,” Moreno said.

    UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno will face former champion Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 270 at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday, Jan 22, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    Moreno shrugs off the trash talk. What he’d rather highlight is the fact he is joined on this card Saturday by three of his teammates from Raul Arvizu’s Entram Gym in Tijuana.

    “The most important thing right now is extra motivation. You know, because think about these kinds of moments,” Moreno said with a wide smile. “Four or five years ago? Yeah, I mean, four guys from a Mexican team of mixed martial arts fighting in a pay-per-view card?”

    Lightweight Genaro Valdez and welterweight Michael Morales make their UFC debut. Strawweight Silvana Gomez Juarez looks to avenge her first time in the Octagon. Having all four of his clients on the same card has been as convenient as it’s been meaningful for manager Jason House.

    “This team has a great culture, they’re family, and it means the world to me. I think what Brandon has done is really opened the doors wider for other teammates to have these opportunities,” House said.

    Moreno watched as the UFC launched its Latin American developmental program in 2012. He was one of many sent to Albuquerque in 2014 – all expenses paid – to train and evolve the sport. Then came “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” reality show series, but as fighters were signed, a number of them were later released.

    Moreno himself was among a flurry of 125-pounders let go in 2018 as the flyweight division was on its deathbed. He went and won the LFA flyweight title and got signed back into the UFC in 2019.

    Brandon Moreno celebrates after defeating Deiveson Figueiredo to win the flyweight championship during their UFC 263 match at Gila River Arena on June 12, 2021, in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    Since then, he has gone 4-0-2 in the UFC, won the belt and helped reinforce a Tijuana team of fighters.

    And if you weren’t sure of Moreno’s emotional investment in his teammates, footage of him in the corner of Valdez, for his frenetic second-round TKO victory over Patrik White featuring a blistering and breathtaking first round on Oct. 5 on Dana White’s Contender Series, tells the story.

    Moreno’s teammates are brimming with gratitude. To be part of fight week at the Anaheim Hilton for UFC 270?

    Un sueño, they said. A dream.

    “It’s like a dream because I see other times the UFC on TV,” said Valdez (10-0), who fights Matt Frevola. “And I say, ‘One day, I stay here.’ And a couple of my friends fighting in the UFC, when I go to the house and see the UFC … one day, one day I feel like I’ll live my dream.”


    Valdez began boxing when he was 13. After his dad died, he took a few years off, then jumped back into MMA when he was 20.

    UFC lightweight Genaro Valdez poses for a portrait during a UFC photo session on Jan. 19, 2022, in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC courtesy of the UFC)

    Now 34 and boasting a 10-0 record, Valdez had his first pro MMA fight nearly six years ago just after starting at Entram. He said he used to sleep on the floor of the gym, sometimes struggling to make enough money for food or medical care.

    “He’s been one of the top talents in Mexico for a long time and has an amazing record,” House said. “He put on I thought one of the most gutsy performances in all of (Contenders Series) this past season, and we’re very excited to see him make his first walk to the Octagon.”

    As for Valdez sleeping on the floor at Entram? The gym now boasts four floors, with apartments and rooms for the fighters to stay.

    “Our head coach, Raul, he built kind of a little neighborhood, you know, he built some rooms,” Moreno said. “All these dreams come with helping each other and, yeah, hopefully, this year a new generation of fighters from Latin America are coming.”

    Morales is one of them. The 6-foot-tall 170-pounder, like Valdez undefeated and making his UFC debut, is only 22 and arrived at Entram from Ecuador.

    UFC welterweight Michael Morales will face Trevin Giles at UFC 270 at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday, Jan 22, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    Morales’ parents are judo black belts, so he was training when he was 5. Ten years later, he made the transition to MMA and fell in love with the disciplines. He made his pro MMA debut shortly after turning 18 and is coming off a unanimous-decision victory over Nikolay Veretennikov on Dana White’s Contender Series in September.

    Morales (12-0), who takes on Trevin Giles on Saturday, couldn’t stop smiling Wednesday. “Brandon is everybody’s inspiration. All of us new fighters have more opportunities thanks to Brandon,” he said through a translator.

    Juarez, 37, is another South American import. She was fighting on the regional scene around South America before making the move and feeling welcome in Tijuana.

    UFC women’s strawweight Silvana Gomez Juarez will face Vanessa Demopoulos at UFC 270 at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    The Argentinian strawweight, scheduled to appear on Dana White’s Contender Series on Oct. 12, made her UFC debut on just a few days’ notice and lost to Loopy Godinez in the opening round.

    Now Juarez (6-3) has had a full camp to prepare for Vanessa Demopoulos on Saturday.

    “This is everything that I’ve worked for to get here,” Juarez said through a translator. “It’s something that it’s like the experience is better than words can even say. Being around Brandon and being around the camp is something that’s indescribable.”

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