As far as alternative scenarios go, though, Moraes did quite well. He might not have the champion in front of him, but he does have a top contender in Raphael Assuncao. He has a shot at revenge, too, considering Assuncao was the one who handed him a loss in his UFC debut. And he gets to do it in a headliner, in both men’s native Brazil.
It’s a fight that Moraes believes makes “total sense” for him. And, now that he has it, the former WSOF champion says he’s not even thinking about the fact that it isn’t a stab at UFC gold.
“I think that’s life: You can’t keep longing for something you didn’t get,” Moraes said. “I think, when you get something, you have to appreciate it. I’m getting this big opportunity in my life and I’ll do my best to make sure it happens the way I want it to.”
Moraes (21-5-1 MMA, 3-1 UFC) and Assuncao (27-5 MMA, 11-2 UFC) are set to headline UFC on ESPN+ 2, which takes place Feb. 2 at Centro de Formacao Olimpica do Nordeste in Fortaleza, Brazil. The entire event streams on ESPN+.
Moraes is “very happy” with the headliner, which will serve as a rematch of UFC 212 meeting that Assuncao won by split decision. Getting here, though, involved dealing with some frustration.
Moraes hasn’t fought since June, when he finished Jimmie Rivera within the first 33 seconds of their UFC Fight Night 131 headliner. It was Moraes’ third straight win since his UFC debut, which Assuncao spoiled by split decision to snap a 13-fight winning streak.
With back-to-back “Performance of the Night” knockouts backing him up, Moraes made his case for a title shot. Not only did that not materialize, but the former WSOF champ also spoke of struggles to get any of his fellow contenders to say yes.
Amid difficulties to compete in his own division, Moraes says he even tried to get fights at featherweight – only to have that fall flat, too.
“Lately, in order to be a UFC fighter, you have to be very patient,” Moraes said. “It’s hard to get a fight because this guy only wants to fight that guy and so forth. And I was raised fighting whomever is in front of me. I never turned down the opponents that were put in front of me. It was a complicated situation. I told my manager I wanted to try to fight in the upper division, that if it was up to me I’d try to get a fight there, because it was hard to get an opponent that made sense.
“I tried fighting other opponents in the upper division, when some people got hurt. None of it happened and I was a little frustrated, but the fight with Raphael was one that I wanted all along. The opportunity came up and I said yes, like I always do.”
Moraes isn’t the only bantamweight to voice complaints of this kind. Assuncao, for instance, has long been making the case for a title shot that never happens. Rivera has also talked about the stranglehold placed on the division, thanks to three of its main players: ex-champs Cody Garbrandt and Dominick Cruz and champ T.J. Dillashaw.
Dillashaw, as we know, is currently gunning toward champ-champ status, which he’ll try to achieve in a UFC on ESPN+ 1 meeting with flyweight champ Henry Cejudo. And while these types of forays often lead to tricky logjams, Moraes believes there was “an easy decision” the UFC could have made to fix it.
“The moment that the champion decided to go down a division, there should be a title fight,” Moraes said. “Because, usually, champions – both in boxing and in the UFC – they go to the division above to challenge themselves, and not the lower one. I think, since you’re fighting someone smaller than you, it’s a smaller challenge. So I don’t think you’re looking to challenge yourself.
“So I think the interim belt should have come in the picture and I think both Raphael and I would be the main names to be in that fight. It’s a rematch between two guys who are living the best moments of the division. Both of us are coming off 11 wins in 12 fights. I’m coming off good fights – knockouts against top guys. I think it would make total sense.”
There will be no belts on the line in the bantamweight headliner, but that doesn’t mean the bout won’t carry title implications. Assuncao and Moraes have, after all, been making rather convincing title cases. And, now that ex-champ Cruz has been sidelined by injury, it’s hard to see who else could cut in line.
Moraes, on his end, is not only driven to reach UFC gold – he’s confident that it will happen. When it does, though, it will be in its own time. Which is why he’d rather focus on the rematch with Assuncao than on its possible ramifications.
“I don’t go into it with this thought (that the bout is a title eliminator),” Moraes said. “I fight to be champion. I want to be the champion and I’m pursuing that. But, honestly, I don’t want to cling to that. I want to go in there, to prove I’m better and win this fight.”