Brandon Moreno, piñatas and the promise that inspired UFC supremacy

“Maybe not today,” Brandon Moreno began. “Maybe not tomorrow.” Hell, “Maybe not next month.”

Pero only one thing is true,” he decided. “I will be champion one day, I promise. I promise.”

The promise is a volatile currency, especially in the fight business. After Moreno made his, in 2017, he would lose his next two fights and be cut from the UFC. The promise’s value was tanking; Moreno’s market was collapsing. Yet somehow, four years later – after a wait of more than 1,500 days – the Mexican kept his promise. In the same Octagon from which he had been exiled, Moreno felt the UFC flyweight championship draping over his shoulder as tears cascaded down his cheeks.

Moreno, now 29, became Mexico’s first ever UFC champion by dismantling Deiveson Figueiredo in June 2021, six months after the pair battled to a draw in their first meeting. After submitting Figueiredo to win the gold, Moreno let it slip in a closely-contested trilogy bout 13 months ago, but this January the “Assassin Baby” ventured to the Brazilian’s home country to unify the flyweight titles in a fourth fight, elevating himself from interim champion to undisputed.

“Obviously this last one confirmed what I know I am, so that’s why this one was special,” Moreno tells The Independent. “But I think the second fight against Deiveson – the first victory – is the most special fight of my life, just because it was the first time [becoming champion]. All the hard work, all the sacrifices paid off that day; I got the title, I was the first Mexican-born-and-raised champion of the world, so I was so happy. The fourth one against Deiveson, I already knew I could beat this guy and be champion again, so I just went to Brazil to confirm that.”

Figueiredo had never before been submitted until his second bout with Moreno. He had never suffered a knockout or TKO until his fourth fight with the Mexican, who battered the Brazilian’s eye to the point of disfunction last month, forcing a ringside doctor to halt the contest. The endlessly enthusiastic Moreno is adored by an overwhelming percentage of fight fans, but the crowd in Rio de Janeiro were of a different percentile, hurling food and plastic cups at the tourist.

“It was kind of weird, I wasn’t expecting that to be honest,” Moreno says. “I wasn’t expecting the end of the fight [to come the way it did], and maybe [the crowd reacted in that manner] because the people were a little bit confused? A lot of people thought I poked Figueiredo’s eye, but obviously you can see in the replay that it was a completely legal punch. But the people were a bit confused, a bit worked up, and I was happy because I won – I was dancing in the Octagon – so maybe that’s why people were a little bit mad in that moment.

“I kind of understand. I’m not saying it’s correct, I think it’s very disrespectful, but as a Mexican I’ve seen that before in soccer stadiums and in lucha libre. But before the event I was walking around the streets in Rio, and all the people were very respectful. Even if the people don’t know you, they can see from your face or ears that you’re a fighter. If they recognise that, they’re very respectful.”

Moreno is not just any fighter. The now two-time champion is ninth in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings, at the time of writing, and his career-defining, four-fight odyssey with Figueiredo was a showcase for the Mexican’s eclectic skillset.

But before the punching bags, there were piñatas.

“Yeah, man!” Moreno beams. “I don’t know if piñatas are very popular in the UK, but obviously in Mexico they are so popular. I was born watching my parents work so hard in the piñata business, for me and my brothers. It was a very interesting childhood I had!”

Moreno helped his parents in their venture, which they still run to this day, but shifted his focus entirely to fighting as a 22-year-old.

“I remember I stopped after my first UFC fight,” he recalls. “I finished The Ultimate Fighter, then the UFC called me for a short-notice fight, and I won the fight and the Performance of the Night bonus. With that money I bought my house and everything, and I stopped working with my parents.

“But they were so proud of their little kid. Right now, they’re still working on the piñata business, but because they love to work! If I tell them, ‘Hey, you don’t need to keep working,’ they will say something like, ‘We want to keep working because we feel alive, we feel very good doing this.’”

While Moreno’s parents are now fueled by that want, rather than a need, the 29-year-old understands the responsibility of having to provide for a family. Moreno and his wife, Shirley, are parents to three daughters – aged two, four and nine years old.

Moreno celebrating his first UFC title triumph, after submitting Figueiredo in 2021 (Getty Images)
Moreno celebrating his first UFC title triumph, after submitting Figueiredo in 2021 (Getty Images)

“It’s weird, because maybe guys at 17, 18 don’t think about family, but when I was younger I was thinking about that: ‘I want to be a family guy, have my wife, my kids, and grow a nice, happy family in the future.’ I have a nice family right now!”

But could Moreno ever have imagined being a father to three girls?

“No, obviously!” he laughs. “My wife was trying to get a boy! She went to her doctor to ask what she could do to try to increase the possibility of a boy, but I don’t know... three daughters, that’s it!”

Moreno’s eldest daughter, Maddie, is naturally the most aware of what her father’s work entails, and he admits that he would not prevent her from walking a similar path to his own – though the champion does not expect her to want to.

“My older daughter is doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and like one month ago she started doing kickboxing classes,” he says. “It’s just for self-defence, man, you never know. For me it’s important for her to know how to defend herself, but I don’t think she’s interested in doing something professional in the future. I will support her 100 per cent if she wants that, though.”

Maddie, in turn, supports her father 100 per cent. When Moreno was forced to miss his daughter’s ninth birthday while preparing for his clash with Figueiredo in Brazil, he was grateful for her understanding; “I felt very sad that day, but she understands it’s to give them something better in the future.”

If that is a promise Moreno has made, expect him to keep it – no matter the odds.

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