At UFC 288, Henry Cejudo fell short in his attempt to reclaim the bantamweight title, losing a split decision to Aljamain Sterling. In the aftermath, Cejudo contemplated returning to retirement, before ultimately seeming to settle on chasing a fight with current top bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili.
There is another option available to the former champ-champ though: Flyweight champion Brandon Moreno.
After UFC 288, Moreno posted to his social media calling out Cejudo at 135 pounds, so the two could settle a personal dispute.
Once friends and training partners, Cejudo and Moreno had a falling out years ago, and on The MMA Hour, Cejudo’s coach Eric Albarracin recounted the tale, explaining that the beef originated with The Ultimate Fighter season 24, and Cejudo’s role as a coach.
“Henry was living in Phoenix and Brandon Moreno was living with him, [in] ‘14, ‘15, ‘16,” Albarracin explained. “... He didn’t have a world title, and The Ultimate Fighter was coming up, and TUF 24, you had to have a world title. Well, one of Henry’s first coaches was Tommy Ortiz. We called him up and said, can we get him a title shot? Obviously he deserved it, but we needed it immediately. It was the local-est promotion, but it could have been [any belt] to get on the show. So we set that up.
“[Henry] was being followed with UFC Embedded, and I believe it was for Demetrious Johnson, the first one. Friday, a week before the fight, and I think Henry was cutting weight, and he didn’t want to go down to Tucson. It was about two hours away and he was going to be in the corner, and the idea was, ‘Henry, if you’re in his corner and the UFC is following you, they’re going to have a highlight of Brandon Moreno winning,’ and I told Brandon Moreno [to] call out Dana White — ‘Put me in the big show!’ — and now we have a highlight on UFC Embedded. And it worked out just like that. Henry was sick, he didn’t want to go, but I was like, ‘We’ve got to go.’ He got the world title, did the introduction.
“Brandon is the world champion from WFF MMA, but they didn’t put him on,” Albarracin continued. “He wasn’t top 16 of the fighters. He wasn’t on the show. ... So I said, ‘Henry, you’ve got clout. You’re an Olympic champion, you’re coach of the show, just like Conor McGregor is doing right now on The Ultimate Fighter on ESPN+, you can put him on the show.’ And he put him on the show and they took someone out.”
That’s where all the trouble started.
The fact that the winner of the show would get a title shot against then-reigning champion Demetrious Johnson led to some unique rules for Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, the big one being that the 16 competitors were seeded ahead of coaches’ selections, meaning that if one coach selected the first overall seed, the opposing coach would get the 16th seed by default. And that ultimately caused a big problem.
“They day they pick the fighters, you only see them once to train, and then you’re supposed to pick them,” Albarracin said. “They’re ranked 1-16, but we don’t know who is seeded. Henry wants Brandon Moreno. In my mind, we know Brandon Moreno is good, but we know they didn’t know who he was, so I’m like, ‘Nobody’s going to pick him first. We can get him second. Let’s get the highest seed possible. Business.’ Because it would go if you picked 2, they get 15, if you picked 3, they get 14 and vice versa.
“[Joseph] Benavidez wins the flip, picks Tim Elliott. Fourth seed but he’s the only UFC veteran, went on to win the show. We get Kai Kara-France, 12th seed [by default]. We get the call. Dana White is here with the list, the seeds, and I can see them. So I look and it says No. 1 [Alexandre] Pantoja, and I’m like, ‘Dude, we can go get the No. 1 seed right now, Pantoja’s available.’ He’s like, ‘No, I want to pick Brandon Moreno.’ I’m like, ‘Man, business-wise, we’re going to send the other guy, the 16th seed, to the other side though. Brandon will be there, trust me.’ Business-wise, if we get Brandon Moreno, who could be anywhere from 10 to 14 we were thinking, we send them another high seed and we start with a low seed. So we already started with 12 and then we’re going to get 13. And then they get a pick and they pick the No. 1 seed, so they start 1, 2, 3, 4, and we’re with 12, 13, 16. Tournament’s over already. So I’m like, ‘We’ve got to pick Pantoja.’ He picks Pantoja, and who do you think is the No. 16 seed? Moreno. Friendship’s over.
“Henry never went to the house. He felt so embarrassed that he didn’t pick his best friend. I still feel bad about it. That’s the story.”
Pantoja and Moreno went on to compete in the first fight of the show, with Cejudo withdrawing himself from Pantoja’s corner, given his friendship with Moreno. Pantoja ended up winning the fight and making it to the semi-finals, where he was upset by Hiromasa Ogikubo. But the story doesn’t end there, because Albarracin alleges that this was all a grand plot by the UFC to punish Cejudo for shoehorning Moreno onto the show.
“We go to the UFC that night, we’re guests of the show, it’s International Fight Week, and I don’t remember who it was. ... You know what they came up and asked me? First question, ‘Did you pick Pantoja?’” Albarracin said.
“They planned it. If you’re putting your own guy in and kicking one of our guys out, you’re going to have to make a choice. If you’re picking your best friend, the No. 1 seed goes to the other side. if you pick the No. 1 seed, Brandon goes to the other side. They planned it all along and they did it on purpose. UFC, they caused the beef. I know they did.”
Planned or not, the friendship ended and Moreno went on to help his coach on TUF, Joseph Benavidez, train for his fight with Cejudo at the TUF Finale. Since then the two haven’t interacted much, and ultimately, both have gone on to be incredibly successful. Cejudo became only the fourth simultaneous two-division champion in UFC history, while Moreno has since claimed the flyweight title. And while Cejudo is currently focused on other things, Albarracin says that one day, perhaps the two can meet again, across the cage from one another. But if it does happen, Moreno may be biting off more than he can chew.
“When [Henry] was training for Demetrious Johnson, the first time, we had five sparring partners for him,” Albarracin said. “... But one day, four of the five partners didn’t show up for sparring, and it was just Henry and Brandon Moreno. And I know that Brandon will never forget that day, because Henry Cejudo put the beating of a lifetime on him.”
Moreno currently has other fish to fry. The flyweight champion has his chance to settle a different score when he defends his title against Pantoja at UFC 290 on July 8 in Las Vegas.