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ANAHEIM, California — There was a sense of foreboding among the heavily pro-Brandon Moreno sellout crowd of 17,387 inside the Honda Center each time Deiveson Figueiredo landed a punch.
Figueiredo lost his flyweight title to Moreno in June at UFC 263 and said later he blamed himself for not devoting 100 percent of his energies to preparing for the fight.
It was clear at Friday’s weigh-in — when muscles were rippling across Figueiredo’s body as he posed on the scale after weighing in at 124 pounds — that he put in the work.
At his best, Figueiredo is an explosive knockout puncher with better-than-average wrestling and high-level jiu-jitsu. He also looks mean. He looks like the kid who stole your cookies at lunch and warned you not to tell or there would be hell to pay.
And Moreno, to be honest, looks like the kid whom Figueiredo and others like him bullied repeatedly.
Though he lost a unanimous decision, 48-47 on all three cards and surrendered the belt back to Figueiredo, at least temporarily, Moreno was a winner where it counted.
He handled himself with grace and class in the aftermath of the defeat. He thought he won, but heaped praise upon Figueiredo and his team, and spent most of his 20 minutes at the post-fight news conference with a big grin creasing his face.
UFC president Dana White insisted before the fight that the bout wouldn’t make Moreno a star, because he had already become one. And White’s words were prophetic, as he received a raucous ovation every time his face was on one of the video boards in the arena.
The walls shook as he made his way to the cage, every bit the star to this crowd that White said he’d become.
He fought like a star, as well, shaking off several big hits from Figueiredo to put the issue in doubt even in the waning seconds of the bout.
He smiled and joked with the media, in both English and Spanish, after the bout, but held the significant analysis for a later time after he watched a replay and could properly identify his mistakes.
Moreno did most of the right things in the fight, but was outgunned by an equally talented, equally hungry opponent who rose his game when he needed it most.
But underneath the jokes and the disappointment was plenty of heartbreak for this 28-year-old from Tijuana, who was the last pick on "The Ultimate Fighter" and who was cut from the UFC in 2018.
“That’s life,” Moreno said of the loss. “This is our life. Again, right now I’m trying to be very positive and put my best forward with you guys. But this hurts, man. It hurts.”
Figueiredo said in the Octagon that he wanted to fight Moreno a fourth time, since each man is 1-1-1 in their three bouts, and said he wanted to do it in Moreno’s Mexico.
Later, at the post-fight, he joked about not fighting in Mexico because he’d never be able to get Henry Cejudo, one of his coaches, out and back home safely.
“Maybe I’ve changed my mind,” Figueiredo said about a fourth fight in Mexico. Later, he suggested doing it in the U.S. where the gate will be the biggest and the pay-per-view sales the highest.
Why Figueiredo-Moreno 4 can wait
No UFC fighters have ever fought each other four times, but this is a case that calls for it. But let’s pump the brakes on it being next. Moreno and Figueiredo first fought at UFC 256 in Las Vegas on Dec. 12, 2020. They rematched at UFC 263 in Glendale, Arizona, on June 12, 2021, and had their third fight Sunday.
Alex Perez is the last person other than Moreno or Figueiredo to fight for the belt and that was at UFC 255 on Nov. 21, 2020. If Figueiredo returns in May or June as he speculated Saturday, it would mean 18 or 19 months in between title shots for anyone in the flyweight division other than Moreno and Figueiredo.
The division is quietly becoming one of the UFC’s best, with a slew of gifted fighters dotting the roster. At one point, the UFC was going to axe the division because of a seeming lack of interest, but the improved quality of the fighters under matchmaker Mick Maynard’s shrewd direction has led to better fights, more interest and more competition.
Figueiredo said he’d want to fight Kai Kara-France if he doesn’t meet Moreno next. Kara-France knocked out Cody Garbrandt in the first round at UFC 269 on Dec. 11, and is one of four or five fighters other than Moreno who deserves a shot at the belt.
The best solution seems to be to give Kara-France the next shot and have Moreno fight someone like Askar Askarov on that card with the winners then meeting. That is a compromise in that it gives someone else a chance to win the title while preserving the opportunity for Figueiredo and Moreno to put an exclamation point on their incredible trilogy series.
Moreno has a draw with Askarov on his record from Sept. 21, 2019, in Mexico, and this will give him a chance to prove he’s the better fighter. And having Figueiredo and Moreno on the same card in different bouts will keep the rivalry front and center.
No one who saw their first three bouts would complain if they met again next, but variety is the spice of life. And this flyweight division is starting to get traction and be compared with the best the UFC has to offer.
It’s best to encourage that by keeping the field open for all.