Renato Moicano says nobody cares about UFC Fight Nights. Is he right?

In case you haven’t noticed, UFC lightweight Renato Moicano has entered his telling-it-like-it-is phase. No mumbling through clichés. No deferring to the UFC brass while reciting lines about how he’s just happy to be here fighting whomever they put in front of him.

Nah, not when he’s the co-main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night event, which he’s pretty sure you won’t care much about no matter what he says or does.

“It’s a Fight Night, nobody cares,” Moicano told MMA Fighting this week. “Main event, co-main event, nobody cares.”

Speaking to MMA Junkie last week, he put at least some of the blame on the venue itself, the diminutive UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas that now plays host to most UFC Fight Night events.

“Nobody likes the Apex, my brother,” Moicano said. “You can ask anybody. The fans hate the Apex. The fighters, I’m pretty sure they don’t like the Apex, too. … I know the UFC has so many fighters right now and [has] to make so many fights. It makes sense for the Apex and ESPN. If you’re asking me if I’m happy to fight at the Apex, no way, brother.”

The thing about it is: Moicano is right. His lightweight bout against Drew Dober on Saturday at UFC Fight Night: Dolidze vs. Imavov is, on paper, a certified banger. Both are quality, seasoned fighters. Both have exciting fighting styles. They’re even both ranked, according to the UFC’s own internal rankings system. (Moicano is the No. 13 lightweight, while Dober is No. 15.)

But when you stick them on an ESPN+ card in the Apex, it’s like the volume gets turned down. I mean that literally, by the way. (And also figuratively.) These Apex events, they’re quiet, almost somber affairs. There aren’t enough seats in the joint to really generate much crowd noise or energy. It feels like you’re watching two dudes fighting in a warehouse in front of friends and family.

There is a certain appeal to that. Or at least, there was, especially back when it felt like a novelty. Remember those peak pandemic fight cards? Empty arenas. The unmuffled and agonizing sound of leather on face. You could hear every word each fighter’s coach shouted. You could hear the fighters breathing. It felt oddly intimate, like a couple of coworkers had decided to square off on the loading dock after hours and the rest of us had gathered to watch and place bets.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: (R-L) Renato Moicano of Brazil knees Brad Riddell of New Zealand in a lightweight bout during the UFC 281 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Renato Moicano knees Brad Riddell in a lightweight bout during UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 12, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

That novelty has officially worn off. Now we realize that the knockouts don’t feel the same without 18,000 people jumping to their feet and roaring out some primal approval. Now the Apex fights just feel like practice.

Of course, the fighters feel it, too. How could they not? Nobody becomes a pro fighter because he or she is uncomfortable being watched. There’s an exhibitionist element to this for many fighters. You can’t help but get a certain energy and excitement from the thousands of people who spent their hard-earned money to sit out in the dark and watch you work. Going from that to the sleepy little Apex probably can’t help but feel like a demotion.

And that’s the other thing: the unstated but still very clearly established place that these events occupy in the UFC programming pyramid. Pay-per-views are at the top. We know this because they contain the biggest fights at the highest prices. Then there are the UFC Fight Night events that take place in actual arenas with actual crowds. Then there’s this other stuff.

If you’re a fighter who’s been relegated to that other stuff, it sort of tells you what the UFC thinks of you, and therefore also tells fans what they should think of you. No fighter is going to love that.

As Moicano put it, these kinds of events are “just a sh*tty way to put UFC on ESPN.” Content for the sake of content, in other words. If you’re home on Saturday night and want to watch some fights, these are the fights available for you to watch. But nobody is canceling plans for Roman Dolidze vs. Nassourdine Imavov. (“I’m sorry, I don’t have nothing against these guys, but I don’t even know their names,” Moicano said.)

That content model makes sense for the UFC and ESPN. These events are cheap to produce and they keep the streaming service stocked up on that sweet, sweet live sports content. But for the fighters, it’s got to feel like a drag. The training for these events is still incredibly hard. The fights themselves can still be brutal. A trip to the emergency room sucks no matter how many people watched the event that preceded it. Can you blame fighters if they’re not all that enthusiastic about doing it for the sake of cheap content?

Here’s where the Don Draper voice usually chimes in with a reminder that’s what the money is for. And if you listen to Moicano’s interviews or follow his YouTube page (it’s honestly pretty great), you already know that “Money” Moicano is very aware of this. He’s also savvy enough to know that whatever he risks by making the bosses mad with these kinds of comments, it’s probably outweighed by what he gains from being brutally honest.

His fight with Dober? That’s a good matchup. It makes sense and it matters for the division. If Moicano promised us fireworks and warned us not to blink, it would just be more pre-fight clichés, too easily ignored. But if he tells us he knows nobody cares and people probably won’t watch but screw it, he’ll go out and win anyway? At least that’s something different. At least it’s honest. And in the fight business, that kind of honesty is still rare enough to get some attention.