Throughout the wide range of talent on the large UFC roster, great fighters who are putting in solid work consistently inside of the octagon can sometimes get overlooked by the fans. There were many breakthrough contenders last year who had this same problem for a long time, such as Leon Edwards and Geoff Neal. This is where the term “Dark Horse” is labelled onto a fighter. Usually by a hardcore fan or a group of hardcore fans who recognize a certain fighter’s greatness where the mainstream audience does not. Here I am going to be profiling one of the best flyweights in the world and the greatest dark horse within the promotion currently. This is none other than Brandon ‘The Assassin Baby’ Moreno.
At the young age of 26 years old, The Assassin Baby finds himself surely in line for a title shot. He has been improving and growing constantly over the years. To me, he has proved himself as championship material throughout his 3 fight return to the UFC within the last eight months, which includes two great victories over top contenders in Kai Kara-France and Jussier Formiga, as well as a controversial draw against Askar Askarov, which myself and many others thought he clearly won. I am going to be presenting to you here Brandon’s journey from the very start up until now, and give my opinion on his future.
Early Life & Background
Moreno is a proud Mexican, born and raised in his beloved city of Tijuana. He comes from a humble and hardworking family who created and maintained a piñata business throughout Brandon’s childhood, which of course, as any young boy would have, Brandon enjoyed very much.
Originally, he told his parents at a young age that he wanted to become a lawyer. However, when he finished high school and found the beautiful sport of mixed martial arts, he was hooked to it and dropped the idea of law school to focus fully on becoming a fighter. He has said before that MMA made him a better person as a whole due to the discipline and values it has given him.
Mixed Martial Arts Career
Moreno made his professional MMA debut in April 2011 at the very young age of 17 in Mexico. Over the next two years, he gained a record of six wins and three losses on the regional circuit. In 2014, Moreno made his debut for the World Fighting Federation promotion. He stayed undefeated there, going 5-0 over a two-year span and won the WFF Flyweight championship. That led to him being cast in the Flyweight tournament on the 25th season of The Ultimate Fighter. Moreno was selected as a member of Team Benavidez. He would go on to build a great friendship with UFC veteran Joseph Benavidez which stands to this day.
Moreno was matched up against now-top UFC flyweight contender Alexandre Pantoja in the opening stage and lost via rear-naked choke in the second round. Brandon would then be a part of one of the rarest moves the UFC has ever pulled regarding a TUF contestant entering the promotion. He was booked as a short-notice replacement of Sergio Pettis to face the ninth-ranked contender at the time, Louis Smolka (who was 11-1 overall and 5-1 in the UFC at that point) at UFC Fight Night 96 on October 1st, 2016. This was while the TUF show was still airing, which, as I said, was a very unique situation. As a 7/2 underdog in the biggest opportunity of his career at the young age of 22, ‘The Assassin Baby’ showed his great skill set and potential with a fantastic first-round guillotine finish over Smolka. That earned him his first performance bonus within the UFC.
In his second fight for the promotion, Moreno returned to face Ryan Benoit on December 3, 2016, at The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament Of Champions Finale. He won the back and forth fight via split decision, showing great heart and durability in the process. Brandon’s third fight in the promotion would come against solid contender Dustin Ortiz on April 22nd, 2017 at UFC Fight Night 108. He finished the fight by rear-naked choke in the second round, earning him yet another performance of the night bonus and setting him up for a main event clash in Mexico City with the fifth-ranked contender at the time, Sergio Pettis.
On August 5th, 2017, Moreno and Pettis went head to head over five rounds in what was both of their first main events in the promotion. Moreno lost the bout by unanimous decision (49-46, 48-46, 48-46). Of course, a loss is always disappointing to a fighter. However, there were many positives for him to take away from the night as such a young fighter and he would use this loss as a growing experience. Moreno tested positive for a small amount of clenbuterol in his system from an in-competition urine sample collected on August 6, 2017, a day after his fight with Pettis. USADA determined that their finding the presence of clenbuterol in Moreno’s system likely resulted from clenbuterol-contaminated meat Moreno had consumed in Mexico. For such, Moreno justifiably faced no punishment by USADA.
Moreno was expected to face Ray Borg on April 7, 2018, at UFC 223. The bout was cancelled after Borg was injured by glass from a bus window that was smashed by Conor McGregor in the infamous dolly incident on fight week. The matchup was left intact and quickly rescheduled. It was scheduled to take place on May 19, 2018, at UFC Fight Night 129. However, Borg withdrew from the bout to take care of his child, who was recovering from brain surgery. He was replaced by the aforementioned Alexandre Pantoja, who had the submission win over Moreno on The Ultimate Fighter. Moreno lost the rematch by unanimous decision, which led to him getting cut from the UFC in late 2018.
After being let go by the UFC, Moreno signed a multi-fight contract with Legacy Fighting Alliance. He made his promotional debut against the prevailing Flyweight Champion Maikel Perez at LFA 69 on June 7, 2019. Moreno put on a great performance and won the fight via technical knockout in the fourth round. This showed the UFC that he is definitely a top-level fighter who is constantly improving. Sure enough, within two months, he had resigned with the promotion and was booked to face promotional newcomer Askar Askarov on September 21, 2019, at UFC Fight Night 159.
The exciting back-and-forth bout with Askarov ended in a split draw (30-27, 28-28, 28-29) which left many viewers, including myself, confused. Personally, I saw the fight in favour of Moreno 29-28 and I thought it was pretty clear. However, it was just one of those fights that the judges got wrong. Either way, it was a good showing for The Assassin Baby and a great way to return to the UFC. He was then booked to face top contender and prospect Kai Kara-France at UFC 245 on December 14th.
This fight is particularly where I saw people doubting Brandon Moreno and overlooking him. Kara-France is an excellent fighter in his own right and has a very bright future. However, he was simply out-worked and out-classed by the better fighter in Brandon Moreno, who was the underdog going into it. Moreno took the unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27). That fight took place on the early prelims but was clearly a main card-worthy fight. Fight placement is very important when building a division and a fighter’s stock. The UFC have been doing the flyweight division and Brandon Moreno a disservice by not giving them the platform to shine in front of the mainstream audiences. That, to me, is the main reason why Moreno is so underrated.
After his victory at UFC 245, he had mentioned wanting to fight top contender Jussier Formiga next. He was given what he asked for and deserved. The UFC booked Moreno to face Forminga on the 14th March at UFC Fight Night 170 in Brazil, Formiga’s home country. Formiga was one win away from a title shot in 2019 but took a loss to Joseph Benavidez in a title elimination bout. He had a dominant win in March of 2019 over who we consider now as the uncrowned flyweight champion, Deiveson Figueiredo. This puts into perspective the value of a win over Formiga. On March 14th in Brazil, Moreno picked up the biggest win of his career with a unanimous decision victory (30-27, 29-28, 29-28) in the headliner of the prelims on a bizarre event. The event was held behind closed doors due to the wild situation the world finds itself in with COVID-19.
As a fighter with a tremendous amount of experience at such a young age, Brandon Moreno has truly evolved into a great well-rounded mixed martial artist over time, right in front of our eyes. The Assassin Baby has always been an outstanding grappler. At the start of his career, he mainly based his game on that ability, without focusing on implementing his striking game to finish fights. After he was cut from the UFC, Moreno decided to change this mentality and improve his striking to a point where he is comfortable and able to get the finish in all areas of the fight. He credits this to his boxing coach, Drift Cortes, who he has been with for a matter of months.
Moreno’s last three fights have each been perfect match-ups for him to test himself and show his evolution and ability in every single area of fighting. The Askarov bout involved both high-paced striking exchanges as well as fantastic scrambles. Overall, Brandon got the better of both for the most part. His next contest against Kai Kara-France was purely a striking match. That’s the exact kind of fight Kara-France loves and performs the best in. Moreno controlled the fight in both kicking range and boxing range to many people’s surprise. The key factors in the fight from Moreno were the body shots, combinations particularly finishing with high kicks and a swift jab.
That fight at UFC 245 definitely proved Moreno can stand in front of any fighter in the division and have great success. So the perfect fight next was Jussier Formiga, whose game heavily revolves around his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills. It just so happened that Formiga was the perfect step up to the belt in the rankings, which is, obviously, the ultimate goal. Moreno passed the Formiga test with flying colours. He again controlled the fight on the feet for the short amount of time that it stayed there each time, winning the exchanges with swift hooks and managing the distance with that lightning jab. As for the grappling exchanges, Moreno clearly was the more active grappler, getting the better of the scrambles with Formiga taking top position a few times but Moreno staying solid defensively on bottom and not letting the Brazilian come close to finishing the fight.
Ultimately, ‘Brandon Moreno 2.0’ as he has been referred to by many during his resurgence, has the perfect style to become the champion when he gets his shot in my opinion. His striking is very technical, accurate and only getting better, his scrambling skills are extremely high level. His submission game and positional grappling are outstanding offensively and defensively as well as having an iron chin and inspiring heart.
The Future Of ‘The Assassin Baby’
One of the most compelling things about Moreno is his growth rate. As I have said, he is only 26 years of age, which is still years away from the theoretical athletic prime that lands at around the age of 28-33 generally. He has already shown great maturity in the concept of development and growth to take his game to a whole new level leaving him as the top contender currently. This just makes me wonder how great Moreno can be given another two years of development and another five on top of that. By then, he will have very likely found his athletic prime. The sky truly is the limit for Brandon. It is about time that people started realizing him as not only one of the best breakout talents in the sport since his comeback but one of the elite contenders in the UFC and a fighter filled with potential.
Of course, the UFC has a rich history of passing over rightful contenders for other fighters when handing out title shots. Unfortunately, I feel this will be no different with the current flyweight title picture. I believe that they will give Joseph Benavidez yet another title shot for the vacant strap against the man who knocked him out inside two rounds just in February this year. The UFC have stated that this is their intention due to the circumstances of the first fight (Figueiredo missing weight and the accidental headbutt just before the ending). Moreno has said in an interview he also believes that his close friend Benavidez should get the rematch. He stated that he is willing to wait his turn, which is a very honourable attitude from the rightful contender.
Despite these complications in the title picture and now the setback in events due to COVID-19, I believe that Moreno will fight for the title within the next year and a half. He has been vocal about his dislike for the antics of Deiveson Figueiredo and said that he wants to “kill him” inside the octagon. I feel that the matchup between Brandon and Deiveson would bring great light to the flyweight division and is definitely worth a slot on a PPV card. Of course, things might not play out in that way and Moreno may even have to fight Benavidez if he wants the belt, which would be a hard fight to take for both men. However, I believe that Moreno will get his shot no matter who has the belt. I feel in the form he is in now, he matches up very well with every one of them. I look forward very much to seeing ‘The Assassin Baby’ progress throughout his career.
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