The happiest man in the world lives in Tijuana, Mexico. If the ever-present smile doesn’t give it away, then just hearing Brandon Moreno talk about his Saturday bout against Sergio Pettis does the trick. This is a 23-year-old about to face someone trained to punch him in the face this weekend, but you wouldn’t know it by his demeanor. He might as well be going out for a day at the beach with his family.
“It’s a lot of feelings,” he said of his first UFC main event. “I feel pressure, I feel nervous, but the thing I feel the most is happiness. My last fight in Mexico was in 2012 and now I’m coming back to Mexico with the UFC, in the main event with a really good fighter like Sergio Pettis. So I’m excited.”
The best part about it is the sincerity of “The Assassin Baby.” Stay in this game long enough and it’s easy to pick out the fakers from the real folks. Moreno is real, both in the Octagon and outside of it, and it’s on MMA’s biggest stage that he’s gone from unknown to contender in less than a year.
“My first year in the UFC has been amazing,” he said. “It’s like a dream. Not a lot of fighters have the opportunity like me. I had a really hard fight against Louis Smolka, the number nine-ranked fighter at that time, but I beat him and I beat (Ryan) Benoit, beat Dustin Ortiz and passed some really hard tests. But I feel comfortable with that because I love the challenge.”
Hearing it like that, it almost sounds ho-hum, but Moreno’s rise has been anything by average. At this time last year, Moreno was about to introduce himself as a member of The Ultimate Fighter 24 cast. Following a rough 3-3 start to his pro career, he dropped down to the flyweight division, won eight straight and was then pitted against the top 125-pounders outside the UFC to compete for a shot at Demetrious Johnson’s world title.
Moreno, seeded 16th, lost his opening round bout to Alexandre Pantoja, but his performance in the bout caught the attention of fans, media and, most importantly, the UFC, which gave him a call when Pettis was forced out of his Oct. 1 bout with Smolka. That call came eight days before the fight.
But the Mexican prospect took the bout and shocked the MMA world with a first-round submission win that earned him Performance of the Night honors and truly announced his arrival. Moreno went on to gut out a decision over Ryan Benoit before another Performance of the Night finish, this one of Ortiz. Now he’s 3-0 in the UFC, ranked seventh in the world, and possibly one win away from a title shot.
“It’s a possibility,” he said of fighting for the 125-pound crown. “If I beat Sergio Pettis really good, maybe (UFC President) Dana White and (UFC matchmaker) Mick Maynard will think I can go for the title.”
Yet out of all those good things, the one Moreno is smiling about the most is fighting at home in Mexico for the first time since 2012.
“I’m so happy and excited that my next fight is in Mexico City,” he said. “I remember the people and, for me, that’s the most important thing. For so long, I was always the visitor and not the local, and the love of the people is so important for me.”
He will hear them on Saturday, and in response, it’s safe to say that they will get a smile they won’t forget.
“I love my job and that’s the truth,” Moreno said. “So when I go to the Octagon, I enjoy it all. I enjoy the fights, the adrenaline, the pressure, the nerves. I love all of that.”