Alexandre Pantoja had to overcome a lot to get his long-awaited shot at the UFC flyweight championship. That included a stint as a Uber Eats driver just two years before his title win over Brandon Moreno.
Pantoja defeated Moreno in the co-main event of UFC 290 this past Saturday in Las Vegas to claim the 125-pound gold. On Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour, he said he had to find a second job in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic to make ends meet.
Pantoja had just beaten Manel Kape via decision in Feb. 2021, just months after losing a decision to Askar Askarov on first series of Fight Island events in Abu Dhabi, where he played the role of backup fighter for a title bout between Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez. He decided to send his wife and kids back to Brazil for some time due to shortage of money.
Alone for eight months in Florida, Pantoja worked as an Uber Eats driver just days before his UFC clash with Brandon Royval in Aug. 2021.
“That’s about sacrifice for me,” Pantoja said. “I won the fight with Manel and used the money as down payment for the house, and bringing my family back was the most important for myself. Money was short, and my wife started to clean houses, and I started to drive Uber Eats. But I’d do this again if I needed, you know? It’s not just about myself, this is about my family and my kids, my two boys.”
Pantoja drove for Uber Eats and competed in jiu-jitsu tournaments for cash, he said, but pocketing an extra $50,000 for a “Performance of the Night” for beating Royal changed his life.
That didn’t come easy, though.
“One week before the fight [with Royval] I’m delivering Uber Eats, it’s raining and I’m sick,” Pantoja said. “When I go to fight week I’m very sick, and I’m very scared of getting COVID again. And I just prayed it’s not COVID, because I just had one month for my bills, you know?
“When I made weight and everything is OK, I just say thank you for God, because I had a knee injury, my ACL was completely broken, and I was sick, but when I got the money of the fight I know it was OK, I had six months to live. But then I won the fight, and I won the bonus, I can have surgery and relax for a couple of months and recover good.”
Pantoja re-entered the octagon 11 months later to finish Alex Perez in just 91 seconds to cement his position as the No. 1 contender. He waited for the resolution of the Moreno vs. Figueiredo tetralogy before finally earning his shot.
“The prophecy is true,” said Pantoja of his win over Moreno. “Everything I passed in my life, all the choices I chose, made me win the belt. I’m so happy for that. I gave my best that night, but I know I can do much better.”
“I’m happy because I get the belt and everybody knows my history,” he added. “That’s very important to me because a lot of guys like me, maybe thinking they never can come to the belt. Before I fight for the belt, I said on fight week I don’t need the belt, I have everything I need, my kids and my life, I have all the love I have, and I don’t need the belt to say I’m the champion. This belt is for everybody helping me to this moment.”
Pantoja credits his longtime head coach Marcos “Parrumpinha” da Matta, saying he deserves to be named “Coach of the Year” for 2023. And now, even though Pantoja agrees he and Moreno should meet one more time inside the cage even despite the 3-0 score in his favor, he wants a fresh challenge first.
“Of course I want to fight Moreno again,” Pantoja said. “I think everybody wants to see that fight again. I didn’t re-watch the fight, but everybody talked to me and said it’s one of the best flyweight [fights], one of the best title fights, but I think every division needs to [move]. He and Deiveson held this for two or three years, [so let’s] have another guys in the division. I know everybody wants that fight with Moreno again, but let’s go see what [UFC President] Dana White says. I think maybe put two guys to fight, and then after that fight with me.”