MADRID — BRANDON MORENO attended a VIP party on Friday, Sept. 2, at the Eiffel Tower. The invitation was made by Ari Emanuel, the CEO of UFC parent company Endeavor.
Overlooking the City of Light, the UFC’s interim flyweight champion and his manager, Jason House, chatted with Emanuel hours before UFC Paris. The conversation revolved around the UFC’s expansion plans in Latin America — including the impending UFC Performance Institute in Mexico City — and how Moreno, the promotion’s first Mexican-born champion, factors into them.
“[Emanuel] was just very complimentary,” House told ESPN. “He’s very excited for the future, and we told him the same. We’re very excited to be a part of his process and to be a brick in the foundation.”
Moreno, born in Tijuana, is already the face of the UFC in Mexico and a cog in the company’s future in Latin America. UFC president Dana White referred to him last month as “one of the biggest stars on the roster.”
But Moreno made the trip to Europe this summer to expand his profile even more internationally. He visited Italy, Paris and Spain, where he was escorted around Valencia and Madrid by executives from LaLiga, the country’s legendary soccer league as part of a collaboration with the UFC.
“I understand my market is in Mexico and the United States, right?” Moreno said. “But to me, it’s very special to go to a whole different country, to a place where I’m not expecting nothing. I don’t expect the guy to know my name or whatever. But people know my name and are asking for an autograph or whatever. It’s special, too. The goal right now is to be more recognized around the world. I’m putting in the work right now.”
That’s all part of the plan, House said. It started back in March when Moreno went to UFC London to do some media appearances.
“I think really our goal is to make Brandon a global star,” House said. “Not just a star in North America. But to increase our presence in these markets. These are big markets the UFC is expanding into and we kind to want to be a part of that growth. Make sure Brandon is capitalizing on the opportunities that his success has presented.”
MORENO COVERED HIS mouth with his hands, almost in awe. Enrique, the chef of the famous Casa Navarro restaurant in Valencia, displayed his famous paella to the table, which overlooked the beach.
Across the table from Moreno for the Sunday afternoon meal was UFC featherweight prospect Ilia Topuria, who lives in Alicante, about two hours south of Valencia. After lunch, LaLiga officials whisked the two fighters over to Mestalla, the 99-year-old stadium of soccer team Valencia CF. Moreno and Topuria spoke with teens from Valencia’s academy teams and then were given a tour of the vintage stadium by guide Melanie Gasulla.
Outside the home locker room, Moreno and Topuria met players before the game and got to see the pitch, where both joked around with Valencia mascot Super Bat. Topuria even grounded the character down with a single-leg takedown for laughs. Afterward, they stayed for the game, a 5-1 win for Valencia over Getafe.
Moreno and Topuria were both inundated with requests for photos from fans during their stay at Mestalla. After the game, there were fans waiting outside the stadium who were told that the players had already left. The fans said they were actually there to see Moreno and Topuria.
“They were asking for them,” LaLiga North American vice president Nicolas Garcia Hemme said. “They knew them. They saw them.”
When LaLiga and the UFC cooked up the idea to collaborate — the belief is there is a huge crossover audience among Hispanic Americans — Spanish league execs asked for Moreno to come over specifically.
“Brandon is incredible,” said Adrian Segovia, the LaLiga North America head of content and distribution. “He’s an example of a family man. He’s becoming a legend for [the UFC]. He’s a winner. But also he’s also a family guy with all the concepts that people are moving toward. We think that’s really something that connects with the values of LaLiga.”
The experience was an impactful one for Moreno, who grew up humbly in Tijuana playing FIFA video games and working for his parents’ piñata business. A day later, Moreno was taken by train to Madrid to visit Cívitas Metropolitano, the home of LaLiga’s Atlético de Madrid. And Wednesday, Moreno would visit with the iconic Real Madrid club across town.
“LaLiga from Spain is crazy, man,” the 28-year-old Moreno said. “It has a lot of history and a lot of soccer culture. It was awesome.”
This is the kind of opportunity that Moreno is trying to capitalize on, though, in an effort to build his name.
“Sitting on my couch is not the way to get more attention and more eyes on my personal brand,” Moreno said. “I need to go out and meet more people and more crowd. That’s why we are here.”
THE CURRENT PLAN, House said, is for Moreno to fight champion Deiveson Figueiredo to unify the UFC flyweight title next. The bout is likely to take place at UFC 283 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Figueiredo’s home country.
Moreno and Figueiredo have met three times before. The first bout, in December 2020, was a majority draw and one of the best fights of that year. Moreno won the rematch via submission in June 2021 to become the first Mexican-born champion in UFC history. Figueiredo then got the better of Moreno at UFC 270 back in January via tight unanimous decision to win the belt back.
At UFC 277 on July 30, Moreno beat Kai Kara-France via third-round TKO to win the interim title, which was put on the line because Figueiredo had injuries to both hands. If and when Figueiredo and Moreno meet again, it will be the first time in UFC history that two fighters compete against each other four times.
“For Brandon and I, the word we always use is legacy,” House said. “I think right now we’re writing chapters of his legacy. And the fourth fight with Figueiredo, doing that quadrilogy is a very important part of that legacy. We’re really excited to win this one and cement Brandon’s place as one of the top champions ever in the flyweight division and then take on the up and coming challengers that are gonna present themselves.”
After he won the title in 2021, Moreno went on a lengthy media tour in Mexico, including a trip to meet Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Moreno is beloved in his home country, and House feels confident his client could sell out Caliente Stadium in Tijuana — upward of 25,000 people — right now. It’s an MMA path that was paved first by Cain Velasquez, the first Mexican American fighter to win the UFC heavyweight title and one of the best fighters ever to compete in that division.
Velasquez parted with the UFC in 2019 and was recently charged with attempted premeditated murder and multiple gun assault charges in March 2022.
“I think Cain opened a lot of doors for us,” House said. “I think we’ve continued what Cain started. Cain obviously was a huge influence in Latin America, in Mexico. I definitely think he created opportunities for us that we’ve able to take to the next level. And someone hopefully will come behind our footsteps and leave it better.”
That’s one of Moreno’s goals, too. He wants to take Mexican and Latin American MMA to greater heights, but not just for him, for the next generation of fighters, too. Moreno said he spoke about that with Emanuel, as well.
“Obviously, I do this for myself, to be the best and do something for my family,” Moreno said. “But at the same time, if I can do something for other people, I will. I promise. Ari looks very happy, very motivated about the ideas in the future for Mexico and Latin America, in general.”
White has long said he wanted a homegrown UFC star from Mexico. “He has one now,” House said. And Moreno and his team don’t plan on stopping there. On Sept. 5, Moreno spoke about his desire to fight in front of a packed soccer stadium in Spain, like Cívitas Metropolitano, a gorgeous, high-tech facility that seats more than 68,000.
Not bad for a kid who had a modest upbringing in Tijuana.
“Sometimes, I try to not think too much about it,” Moreno said. “I’m feeling pressure every day. Man, starting with needing to fight against another guy, that’s pressure. Fighting in front of thousands of people, more pressure. And belts, more pressure. The media.
“But definitely, it’s very nice to think how my work is going around the world and being recognized by the people, the UFC, the fans. It’s nice.”
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