If anybody was happy to see current flyweight champion Henry Cejudo chumming it up with Joseph Benavidez out in Australia, it was Marlon Moraes — the bantamweight limbo contender who finds himself in a strange situation. A week before the flyweights showed up at UFC 234 together in Melbourne, Moraes put an emphatic stamp on his own claim to a title shot by taking out perennial contender Raphael Assuncao in Fortaleza, Brazil.
The X-factor is bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. After losing to Cejudo in Brooklyn last month in a flyweight title fight, Dillashaw is lobbying for a rematch, a concept that would leave Moraes — and Benavidez for that matter — out in the cold.
That’s why Moraes couldn’t help but think that perhaps Cejudo and Benavidez showing up at a UFC event together might be a good omen.
“I think it’s logical,” Moraes told MMA Fighting. “Cejudo fights Joseph Benavidez, and I fight Dillashaw, and the winners may meet each other. It makes a lot of sense. It’s not good for Dillashaw, but it’s good for me, and it’s a good scenario for the UFC.”
Since dropping a split decision in his UFC debut back at UFC 212 in 2017, Moraes has been on a torrent streak in the bantamweight ranks, winning four in a row and finishing the last three. In his rematch with Assuncao, Moraes wasted little time. He methodically took apart one of the best, most unheralded fighters of the last five years, finishing with a guillotine choke midway through the first round. It was a fairly declarative win.
That’s why the longtime WSOF 135-pound champion thinks it’s his time to try on one of them new UFC belts. He knows his body of work warrants attention.
“I think I’ve done enough,” Moraes says. “Everybody wants to fight one day for the title, but people don’t want to take the hard way. I took the hardest possible way. I signed with the UFC, and fought Assuncao. He was number 3. Then I fought John Dodson, nobody wanted to fight him because he was coming on strong in the division. He’s a guy that finished Dillashaw before, and I took that fight and won. I fought [Aljamain]Sterling, he was top five, [Jimmie] Rivera, top five. And then Raphael again, top three.
“I’ve fought all the guys at the top. It’s time to have my chance now.”
Moraes and his camp are going to meet with the UFC in Las Vegas in the coming days to figure out the next step. There are numerous factors in play that might sway the decision one way or the other. For starters, does the UFC want to keep the flyweight division alive for the time being? If so, Cejudo could defend his title against Benavidez and all would be right in the traditional way of matchmaking (the one that adheres to the meritocracy). Or he could defend the 125-pound belt against Dillashaw again, a scenario that Moraes sees as unnecessarily preferential.
“The UFC runs a business,” he says. “It’s not the Dillashaw Promotion. The UFC has to think about their own.
“Even Dana said when he was promoting my fight with Assuncao, this fight’s going to get a clear cut contender for the 135-pound division, and now he has a clear cut [contender]. And man, come on, ‘I want to go down, I want to go up, I want to stay, I want to do this and that,’ come on. He’s the champion. He has to do what the fans want to see, and he has to do what the UFC wants him to do.”
The other factors are pretty basic. How does the UFC keep the weight classes moving along? What is the tidiest way to go about business, versus what is the most alluring — and are those two things mutually exclusive? And how does the timing work out for the hypothetical desires of the matchmakers?
This last part is where the 30-year-old Moraes thinks he can simplify things.
“They got to make me a champion because I’ll be active, I’m going to be fighting,” he says. “They know that. I won’t be saying, ‘I don’t want to fight this guy I don’t want to fight that guy, I want three months off or four months off,’ no. I want to be fighting. I want to compete. I want to prove myself.”
Though there’s not exactly a chip on Moraes’ shoulder (yet), he’s taking precautions to manifest one; he’s also taking every measure to express himself while his clout and leverage are at an all-time high. Moraes isn’t exactly holding back when it comes to speaking his mind about Dillashaw. (“I know he’s all behind science, needs so many weeks, so much time off, all that,” he says. “I don’t need this shit man. I need to train hard, spar, run, it’s about that.”). And even Cejudo, who is flirting with many ideas of his own now that he holds the victory over Dillashaw, isn’t safe from Moraes crosshairs.
“Cejudo doesn’t want to come up,” Moraes deadpans. “He knows Dillashaw’s a good fighter. He knows Dillashaw’s better than him. He doesn’t want to give him another chance. Dillashaw wants this fight because he wants his revenge. He lost. Cejudo shouldn’t come up though. [But Cejudo] should stay down there and take care of his division, and don’t worry about up here. If he steps up here, at the end of the day we’re going to have to fight him and he’ll be in big trouble. He doesn’t want to be in big trouble. He knows where he has to stay.”
One of the tricky areas that UFC is navigating is how to keep the shine on its bantamweight champion after losing a fight in a lighter weight class. It’s a different kind of situation, given that in some people’s minds the 135-pound belt — which wasn’t meant to be made vulnerable in the Cejudo fight — might have been ended up diminished.
It was in that idea that Moraes struck a chord directly after beating Assuncao in Fortaleza. He declared himself the real bantamweight champion, given the unique set of circumstances. Asked if he really believes that, he sighs.
“My friend, he’s a champion on paper, but I am the best 135er on the planet, and nobody can deny that,” he says. “That belt should be around my waist, because I earned it and I fought, and I didn’t lose. I won. The champion should be the one that won the last fought. I’m the best 135er on the planet right now.”
Moraes says that right now he doesn’t want to talk about taking another fight if Dillashaw’s superfight with Cejudo extends to a series. Right now it’s all about Dillashaw. And if all goes Moraes’s way, he would like to get that fight as soon as possible.
“I’m in the gym now, ready to fight. I’m ready to take the belt and I’m ready defend it — I can take this belt and defend it at least twice this year. I’m ready for this, this is what I worked for. If I lose, I lose, I will get back. But I’m going to fight. I’m going to be active. My dream is to fight four times this year.”