World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes hasn't come right out and said it, but it appears he is growing a little restless with the level of competition WSOF is throwing at him.
Moraes returns to action this Saturday, defending his title against unheralded challenger Joseph Barajas in the main event of WSOF 28. In many ways, the fight represents more of the same for Moraes: a paycheck and a chance to preserve what is his, but ultimately one that comes with a caveat. If Moraes loses, his stock will take a sizable hit; yet if he defends his belt, as oddsmakers overwhelmingly expect him to do, a win over an unfamiliar name like Barajas will do little to propel Moraes in the eyes of fickle MMA fans.
And that, more than anything, is frustrating for the man who may very well be the best bantamweight outside of the UFC.
"I feel like sometimes people don't think I'm that good, because I'm not there with those big names, big stars," Moraes said Monday on The MMA Hour. "But man, I know I can beat these guys. I'm a guy who watches every fight. I know every fighter, every 135er in the UFC. I've been watching these guys fighting and I see, man, I have the game to beat these guys. I see guys like T.J. Dillashaw, of course, he proved so much. His game, he's a very good striker, in my opinion, one of the guys who's most improved in the last couple fights. But man, if he can hurt Dominick Cruz with kicks, Dominick Cruz is not going to walk for one month if I kick him.
"It's just a different level of kick. I just feel like that and I can't wait to prove it. I love the World Series of Fighting. They've been doing so great for me, but at some point, man, I'm going to have to move it on. And when I move it on, I'm going to carry these guys with me. They know I'm very thankful, and I know if I need, Ray Sefo is going to be in my corner and all of those guys are going to be behind me. It's kind of like a tattoo that I'm going to have for the rest of my life."
Moraes is not the first non-UFC champion to express frustration about his talents being unmatched by his peers. He is also not suggesting that he will leave WSOF in free agency once his current contract is up.
But MMA has always been about who you beat, and as time passes and the upper echelon of the division rolls along without him, the 27-year-old training partner of Frankie Edgar finds himself increasingly aware of his exclusion from the conversation of ‘best in the world.'
"I did not say I want to be a free agent," Moraes said. "I just want to fight with the best. Let's see what's going to happen. MMA, it's a new business. Everybody is doing different things now, and we never know what's going to happen tomorrow. But I'm definitely looking to fight with the best guys. This is what I want and this has always been my dream, and this is why I started in the martial arts."
With more and more fighters looking to fight out their contracts and test their value on the open market, free agency has never been a more prevalent topic in MMA. On Monday alone, the fight community learned of two major re-signings, as the UFC locked up heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem and undefeated bantamweight Aljamain Sterling to deals following the high-profile exit of Benson Henderson to Bellator.
Moraes will have one fight remaining on his WSOF contract after WSOF 28. He already finds himself among the highest paid bantamweights in the sport, though, earning a reported $140,000 salary for his most recent victory over Sheymon Moraes, according to commission figures. So when the time comes to negotiate his next deal, if Moraes reaches a crossroads decision between earning potential and fighting against the elite, he is unsure which direction he will choose.
"I don't know, my friend," Moraes said. "I don't know. My life now, I'm enjoying so much what I'm doing. But I know the UFC is a great show, and when I step in that cage, it's going to be for the right things. I know where's my value and (what) I bring to the promotion. I'm a guy, I'm going to be training all year. I know the UFC is the biggest promotion of all, and if guys like you just said -- Cody Garbrandt, he's got no opponent (at UFC Fight Night 83), so I'm a guy who would take fights on short notice. I would take fights in 10 days.
"I'm a guy like that. I always look up to (Donald) Cerrone and see how does it. Man, one day I want to be like this guy. Six fights in one year, seven fights. I'm still 27, I have a lot of things to go and I just want to let go."
None of this narrative will matter much if Moraes fails to take care of business though, and the Brazilian champion knows it. So regardless of whether Moraes walks to the cage against Cruz, Dillashaw, or Barajas on Saturday night, he is keeping sight of what is important.
"To be honest with you," Moraes said, "I want to fight with the top guys in the world, but when I'm walking Saturday to that cage, in my mind, I'm going to fight the best guy in the world. I know I belong to fight with the best guys. I know I can beat the best guys. But I'm fighting Joseph Barajas, so we're working hard and I tried to improve every aspect of my game, and now I feel unbeatable. I don't think anybody in this division can beat me, and Saturday I'm going to fight the best fighter in the world. That's Joseph Barajas, and I'm going to beat him and prove to everybody that I am the best 135er."