For Marlon Moraes, to say that his upcoming fight has a lot riding on it would be a giant understatement.
The former WSOF bantamweight champion and UFC title challenger will face the surging Merab Dvalishvili in the featured preliminary fight of UFC 266. The event takes place this Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The 135-pound matchup will air on ESPNEWS and ESPN+ before the pay-per-view card kicks off.
Moraes, ranked No. 7 in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings, enters the bout on the heels of back-to-back stoppage losses to Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font. “Magic” knows he has a lot at stake against Dvalishvili in a loaded bantamweight division.
“I’m great, I feel healthy and I’m ready to fight,” Moraes told MMA Fighting during a visit to American Top Team. “It’s all or nothing. I have the mindset to go out there, perform, and I’m ready for him.”
Following a four-fight winning streak, which included finishes of Aljamain Sterling, Jimmie Rivera, and Raphael Assuncao, Moraes got his opportunity to fight for the vacant UFC bantamweight championship at UFC 238 in June 2019. Moraes found success early, but was eventually stopped by Henry Cejudo in the third round via TKO.
Now on a two-fight skid, and having dropped three of four, Moraes feels he is thriving on all the pressure he is experiencing.
“There’s always pressure in the UFC,” Moraes said. “Sometimes it’s a little more or a little less, but definitely [I’m feeling more pressure for this one]. I’ve lost my last two fights. I’ve got to win. I’m a winner, that’s what I do and I don’t like to lose. I hate to lose, and I lost the last two.
“I’m going out there to put it all on the line and leave Las Vegas with my hand raised.”
In his most recent fight against Font at December’s UFC Vegas 17 event, Moraes went to his wrestling right off the bat. Once Font was able to get back to his feet, he picked Moraes apart with his boxing before eventually dropping and finishing the 33-year-old with strikes.
That loss left a bad taste in Moraes’ mouth because he knew he was capable of much more.
“I kind of rushed a little bit,” Moraes explained. “I should’ve paced a little more, studied him a little more, but I definitely feel I’m a better fighter. I’m well-rounded and he’s got great boxing, great straight punches. I just got into his game, I made a mistake and I paid for it.”
Moraes will now face the surging No. 9 ranked fighter in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings in Dvalishvili, a winner of six straight. The last two victories for “The Machine” were over perennial contenders John Dodson and Cody Stamann, setting Dvalishvili up for the biggest fight of his career to date.
While many betting sites have Moraes as a more than 2-to-1 underdog, the American Top Team standout welcomes the challenge and pace that Dvalishvili brings to the table.
“He’s growing in the promotion,” Moraes said. “He’s top 10, in my opinion, one of the best in the world. His wrestling is insane, great conditioning, and he keeps coming. That’s a fight. That’s what I love — I love to fight. He’s gonna come, I’m gonna go for it, and let’s see who is gonna be the best one. I believe in my skills. I believe I can stuff his game and make him pay for it.
“Like we say in Brazil, ‘You only pay for what you put on your plate.’ He puts a lot on his plate and he’s gonna have to pay.”
While pressure can create diamonds, Moraes feels a sense of ease and freedom ahead of UFC 266. In his eyes, for the first time in several fights, he enters the matchup without a lot of nagging injuries.
With his health in a great place, Moraes is ready to show he can still be the fighter who fought for a world title a little over two years ago.
“[This is the healthiest I’ve been] in a while,” Moraes explained. “I’m championship level and I’m gonna prove that Sept. 25. You’re all gonna watch and don’t blink.
“I’m winning. I don’t know how, but this is my fight. He’s a high-level wrestler, high-level fighter, good striking, but I’m better.”