To an outsider, Marlon Moraes’ head kick of Jimmie Rivera looked absolutely flawless.
Moraes’ switch kick landed flush, sounded like a baseball bat connecting with the ball for a towering home run, and dropped Rivera to the mat, enabling Moraes to rush in and to finish his UFC Utica main event in just 33 seconds.
But when you study the game as close as the bantamweight contender does, nothing’s ever perfect, even a highlight-reel finish that will be name-checked years down the road after his career is over.
“We were training for this fight a long time, maybe six months, so, I probably drilled that kick more than 10,000 times,” Moraes said during an in-studio appearance on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “We trained hard, every kickboxing and boxing class we’re repeating and repeating to try to reach perfection. I don’t think it was perfect. It was very good, but, my body a little bit adjusted, but I was glad I was able to land and it was a hard shot.”
Moraes credited trainer Mark Henry, best known as the man who helped hone former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar’s game, for noticing through relentless work studying videotape that Rivera had a tendency to leave himself open for left head kicks.
“Mark Henry, he watched fights like five times a day. I can’t believe how he finds the time to train all of us and watch tapes, probably 2-3 hours a day, and he told me, it’s hard for him can’t see very well on the left side for kicks, so we train a lot to try to get him to think I was doing something else so I could land the kick. He’s a man who lands a lot of hard shots, so we were training a lot of wrestling for the fight too. I was thinking about it a lot.”
So Moraes went into the biggest bout of his UFC career confident the opportunity to set up the finish with a head kick would present itself. But he admits to being surprised that opportunity showed itself in the opening minute of the bout.
“We knew we could knock him out with the kick, but I didn’t think it was going to be that fast,” Moraes said. “When I saw him drop I was like, man, I don’t need a takedown to get him to the ground, I’m going to go now. I just went and he was still strong, I felt. He went to get up and I was on top of him and managed to land a couple shots to the side of the head. The first one, he kinda dropped, the second won, he wakes up, the third one, he stopped.”
Moraes found the victory all the more satisfying because it came at the end of an acrimonious buildup. While there’s all sorts of fake hype and bluster in the MMA world these days, it was plain Moraes and Rivera legitimately didn’t not like one another.
Rivera, according to Moraes, deliberately left Moraes an autograph during a media session, which served as another layer of motivation.
“[It was] the little provocations, you know? We did the media signings, and he was before me, and he signed an autograph to me and left it on the table got ‘this is the autograph of the future UFC champion Jimmie Rivera’ and I got that one and put it high on my refrigerator and I looked at that every day.”
That was the sort of thing that helped push Moraes’ performance, and he comes out of it with not just back-to-back highlight-reel knockouts (following his dismantling of Aljamain Sterling), but there’s now a groundswell of opinion that Moraes deserves a crack at the winner of the UFC 226 bout between bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw and former champ Cody Garbrandt.
And for that, Moraes is grateful toward Rivera.
“It makes me push a little more and push extra,” he said. “And what he said, the fact he said I didn’t deserve to fight him and the bullsh*t lies make me push more, make me a better fighter, and I’m thankful for him.”