Going back a bit over 2 years ago, the bantamweight title picture looked completely different than it currently does. The T.J. Dillashaw-Cody Garbrandt rivalry had just closed its second chapter, Petr Yan had just entered the top 10, and Marlon Moraes was on the verge of receiving his title shot. Then, things all changed.
Dillashaw went on a 2-year hiatus, due to a USADA ban for EPO usage, which left the title open for contention. Also, Demetrious Johnson was traded to ONE Championship for Ben Askren, taking away any possibilities for a trilogy fight against Henry Cejudo. This turn of events ultimately led to a match-up between Cejudo and Moraes for the vacant bantamweight title.
Leading into the fight, Moraes was one of the scariest guys ever seen at 135 pounds. After dropping his promotional debut to Raphael Assunção, the longtime World Series of Fighting champ went on a four-fight winning streak, in a form that had many fans truly believing he was the next UFC champion. It was not necessarily the wins that made his run so impressive, but who he did it against. Jimmie Rivera came into their fight on a 20-fight win streak, with his last loss dating back to his second pro fight in 2008. It took Moraes just 33 seconds to take him out with a switch kick to the head. Prior to that, he scored a first-round knockout of Aljamain Sterling, who is now the divisional champ. In Feb. 2019, the Brazilian avenged his only UFC loss at the time with a first-round submission of Assunção. Needless to say, the aura surrounding Moraes up to this point was reasonable and justified.
For further proof of what was perceived of Moraes, he was the odds-on favorite going into the Cejudo fight. In the first 8 minutes of the fight, it seemed as if the oddsmakers had it correct. Cejudo’s lead leg was getting chewed up from relentless kicks, and it felt as if he was a little overmatched in every area. However, once Cejudo started to apply higher pressure and aggression, particularly in the clinch, Moraes couldn’t find an answer. He eventually got stopped late in the third, when Cejudo finished him with punches.
The Cejudo fight seemingly took a big toll on Moraes. Since facing Cejudo, Moraes has gone 1-2. But, even his one win holds some controversy, as not too many fans took too kindly to the judges awarding Moraes the victory against Jose Aldo at UFC 245. In his last two losses to Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font, Moraes looked like a shell of his old self. Granted, his opponents have been nothing but world-class. To be fair, all three fighters Moraes has faced since his title fight currently hold a position inside the top five. However, if a fighter drops three in a row, his back is certainly against the wall in the UFC.
What concerns me isn’t that Moraes is losing fights but rather the fashion he loses in. Even putting aside all of his offensive disparities between his fights a couple of years ago versus now, it appears Moraes’ chin is no longer what it used to be and his defense is suspect. He was knocked down by both Font and Sandhagen, and he has also been taking a significant amount of damage recently. He was outstruck in both fights – 23-68 combined – and his significant strikes absorbed currently sits at 4.11 per minute. In perspective, Nate Diaz, perhaps best known for his toughness, absorbs 3.73 strikes per minute. Moraes has been taking an unusually high amount of damage recently.
This Saturday, at UFC 266, Moraes has a tough task in front of him. Merab Dvalishvili has not lost a fight since the beginning of his UFC run, and while he is primarily a grappler, there is so much to lose for Moraes in this fight. This will be the first time Moraes is facing someone outside of the top ten in the UFC, and quite frankly, the last chance for Moraes to convince the fans that he can sit near the top of the heap. The division is already stacked as it is, and it is only adding more and more top talent.
I don’t believe Moraes will be gone from the promotion, even with another loss on Saturday, but it will certainly put him dangerously close to a pink slip. Fighters have gone better than 1-4 in their last five fights and still been cut. Regardless, it is do-or-die time for Moraes as he faces Dvalishvili this Saturday night.