IT WAS A MID-DECEMBER evening at the UFC's Performance Institute in Las Vegas, and Brandon Moreno was trying to find it in him to train at a world-class level. It wasn't going well.
Moreno was in the middle of camp for his title unification bout against Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 283 on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. It's a legacy fight for both flyweights, marking the first tetralogy in UFC history. Over the last two years, they have fought three times to perfectly even results of one win for Figueiredo, the champion; one win for former champ Moreno, who now holds an interim title; and one draw. While anything is possible in MMA, this fourth meeting figures to finally settle the score for good. One more fight, winner take all.
The 29-year-old Moreno is now in a good place going into a weekend of this magnitude, but that was not the case five weeks ago in Las Vegas. Moreno was physically sick and still emotionally upended from a forced split with his head coach, James Krause, who is at the center of multiple investigations into an alleged betting scandal. The notoriously cheerful Mexican star wasn't smiling as he trained, and his energy was noticeably low.
It reached a point that Jason House, Moreno's manager and close friend, quietly considered canceling the fight. The hand they'd been dealt was just too much to overcome, and the fight was too important.
The whole thing felt unjust.
"The toll of everything got to him and he got really sick," House told ESPN. "He didn't look good. There were a few sparring sessions where he was sicker than a dog, and it was only his toughness that was on display.
"Brandon is family to me. I'm a godparent to his kids. I have to do what's best for him and his family. This whole thing with Figueiredo has been playing out for two years, and I needed to make sure he was able to enjoy it and put his best foot forward. If that couldn't happen, we needed to consider our options -- including pulling out of the fight -- because Brandon has done everything right. He deserves to have this moment in the right manner."
What happened throughout Moreno's latest camp is a testament to his resilience, the selflessness of his team and a late-replacement head coach, Sayif Saud, who never had so much as held pads for Moreno before he agreed to take the reins of his preparations midcamp. It's a great story, Moreno rekindling his joy amid a tricky situation ahead of the biggest fight of his life.
It will be an even greater story if Moreno is successful this weekend. Despite all the odds his team has faced, everyone on it is confident that will be the case.
"This was hard for everybody, [because] it was trying to build everything back together," Moreno said. "But right now, in this moment, I feel we did it. I feel very confident about what we did, and I am ready to fight."
MORENO STARTED PREPARING for this fight back in November at Krause's Glory MMA facility in Lee's Summit, Missouri.
It was to be his second full camp under Krause, who was widely considered one of the sport's top up-and-coming coaches. After Moreno lost a very close five-round decision to Figueiredo in their third meeting last January, the Mexican fighter decided to leave his longtime MMA team in Tijuana, led by coach Raul Arvizu, to train with Krause. The partnership got off to a beautiful start in July, when Moreno won the UFC's interim title by knocking out New Zealand's Kai Kara-France.
Moreno believed Krause was so influential in that win that within 12 hours, he'd ordered a UFC belt to the tune of $1,000 and had it shipped to Krause's house in Missouri. He truly felt Krause owned a part of that title.
"When a fighter bonds with a coach, you're basically fighting on autopilot," House said. "You're following commands, and that comes from spending months, hours upon hours, with one coach -- watching film together, training together, eating together. People don't know this -- Brandon lived in James's house for a while. That bond, that absolute trust, Brandon had that with James."
Moreno was in Lee's Summit on Nov. 19 when the first real sign of trouble for his camp emerged. That week, the Nevada State Athletic Commission stopped Krause from cornering a fight in Las Vegas, as it investigated his role in a suspicious bout involving his student Darrick Minner on Nov. 5. Before the contest, betting odds shifted dramatically away from Minner, who went on to lose in the first round via TKO. It was later revealed Minner went into the fight with an injured knee.
"In that moment, all of the fighters [at Glory] wondered what could happen in the future," Moreno said. "I started to think about the future then. Nothing really serious, but I started to have that thought."
Two weeks later, the UFC took action by notifying its roster that "fighters who choose to continue to be coached by Krause or who continue to train in his gym will not be permitted to participate in UFC events pending the outcome" of investigations. The UFC also released Minner from the organization.
"One day before it was all over social media, [Krause] called me and we had a deep conversation," Moreno said. "He told me about everything and that was sad, man. I can't lie to you. It was disappointing and I was sad. But something special in me that I recognize is that I'm very good at passing the page. If I need to do something to change my bad situation, I will -- and fast."
With Krause and his gym suddenly unavailable, Moreno had no reason to stay in Missouri. He and his team packed up and relocated to Las Vegas, where Moreno has owned a house since 2021.
He'd lost his head coach, but his team was otherwise intact. Jorge Capetillo, Pedro Joya, Hector Vasquez and Israel Silva -- Moreno had a full coaching staff around him that covered his boxing, Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu and wrestling. He still had Krause's game plan.
Maybe that'd be enough.
House, however, knew better. He believed in Moreno's ability to put his head down and deal with adversity, but he recognized that his fighter's team was carrying a lot of weight. They'd taken a massive hit, and it'd be a mistake to ignore that. It had to be addressed.
"Your coach is your eyes in this sport," House said. "So, to lose that, you feel blind for a while. Brandon needed love. He needed someone to care for him and take the reins from him, because when you go to Brazil and you have fans screaming at you and it's a fight for your legacy, you need someone to take the ball and run with it. In my mind, we had to make some decisions."
SAUD DOESN'T REMEMBER exactly when, but at one point a few years ago, Moreno left an impression on him backstage at a UFC event. Moreno wasn't fighting that night, but was there to corner one of his Mexican teammates.
Saud, who runs Fortis MMA in Dallas, understands MMA is an individual sport, but he is still very big into the team concept. That shows in the culture of his gym. Fortis MMA consists entirely of homegrown talent. There are no transplants from around the world, no dorms built into the gym to house temporary guests who only wish to hold a single fight camp there. Saud oversees fighters from their MMA infancy. Several former world champions have asked to train under him, and he's turned them all down.
Saud had never worked with Moreno, but what he observed in him that one night backstage reflected the same culture he believes in as a coach. There was Moreno, a UFC champion, investing everything he had into a teammate.
"I could see the passion and the nerves he had for that fight, and I told his manager, Jason, 'That kid you've got has a huge heart,'" Saud said. "How much he cared about his teammate winning, that's what you want as a coach -- because those are the guys who have character. Those are the guys you build teams around."
That impression came to Saud's mind when he and House first discussed the possibility of him joining Moreno's team in mid-December. Under normal circumstances, Saud probably wouldn't have entertained it. But the circumstances weren't normal, and Moreno wasn't just anyone. Saud felt the same way House did as the situation was unfolding. It felt unfair. Moreno had been dealt a massive disadvantage ahead of the biggest fight of his career, and he'd done nothing to deserve it.
"I never wanted to hop on someone else's work, that's not my style," Saud said. "But this wasn't Brandon's fault. I saw him trying to find his way as a young man in all of this. He's someone that needed help, and I was in a position to help him."
In mid-December, Saud took over Moreno's camp. He corresponded with the team daily via text from Dallas, and flew to Las Vegas at the end of every week to oversee practice in person.
As unwelcome as the entire situation was, the team was well suited to jell quickly. Saud is a general by nature. He commands the room and doesn't mind leading. On top of that, Moreno's team was eager to be led. His stable of coaches wanted a head coach they could follow. There was no clash of egos to overcome. Everyone had the same goal.
Still, five weeks is not a lot of time for a head coach and fighter to build a relationship. Ideally, that's something that happens over the course of years. Moreno acknowledged as much with Saud from the start, while still offering optimism.
"The first day I talked to Sayif, I told him, 'If we can connect, I promise that I'm a soldier,'" Moreno said. "'If you tell me I need to do [something], I will. If I believe in you, it works.'"
Within one week of Saud coming on, it was clear that he and Moreno had connected. Moreno's energy returned, along with his trademark grin. Everyone started to breathe a little easier, and any thoughts House had of postponing the fight were brushed aside.
"With all that happened and making this big change five weeks out, everybody was a little anxious to see how things were going to turn out, including Brandon," Saud said. "But the way we came together the last four, five weeks -- we put the rounds in, put the time in and worked together. We truly just all worked together for one goal."
EVERYONE INVOLVED IN Moreno's camp for this fight is linked together in a group chat on WhatsApp titled "The Last Dance." It's a nod to the 2020 docuseries about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
House and Moreno, especially, see similarities between this fourth fight against Figueiredo and those Bulls. In a way, House is sad to see this rivalry end. It has elevated both flyweights over the last two years.
"This last one is very reminiscent of that last season with the Bulls, because they were going to break up the team at the end," House said. "This is such a big part of our legacy because in this sport you need a dance partner, and not everyone is so lucky to get one. How is Anderson Silva's legacy different if he doesn't have Chael Sonnen? How is Chuck Liddell's different if he doesn't have Tito Ortiz? This is the last dance. We have to win this. This is for everything."
As much as that's true, the tone of "The Last Dance" group chat has remained very laid-back -- following the lead of Moreno himself.
When Moreno's professional MMA career began in 2011 in Mexico, he went 3-3 in his first six fights. He was recently asked in an interview: What kept him going at that point? A mediocre 3-3 start might have discouraged some athletes from sticking with such a difficult sport. Moreno responded that at that time in his life, he wasn't thinking about results. He was just "having fun and trying to punch someone in the face."
Going into this fourth fight, Moreno has tried to return to that focus. He wants to win and cement his legacy, but even more so, he wants to enjoy the final chapter of what he and Figueiredo have built. Luckily, despite all he went through, he is.
"I love Deiveson," Moreno said with a laugh. "We are building something huge together, and after this fight, whatever happens, we are building a huge legacy between us. It's almost poetic for me, it's a nice movie. Every single piece of the movie is connecting to this last part. I'm trying to be very focused and be happy. Follow the game plan and be smart, of course, but man, I just want to enjoy the moment."