It took Marlon Moraes 10 years to accumulate the first five losses of his MMA career. The former Ring of Combat and World Series of Fighting champion and ex-UFC title challenger picked up his next five defeats — all of which have come by knockout — in under three years.
On Saturday, Moraes, who entered UFC Vegas 50 as the No. 10 ranked fighter in the official UFC bantamweight rankings, was stopped in the first-round by (No. 14 ranked) Song Yadong. Before Yadong flattened Moraes, the advantage the younger fighter had over Moraes in speed and power was unmistakable.
Moraes’ tumble down the bantamweight ladder began in June 2019 when he faced Henry Cejudo, who held the UFC’s 125-pound belt at the time, for the vacant UFC bantamweight title. Heading into the matchup, which headlined UFC 238, Moraes had scored five knockouts, one submission and earned one decision in his previous seven victories. His sole loss during that span was a split-decision setback to Raphael Assuncao when Moraes made his UFC debut in June 2017.
Moraes entered the Cejudo bout with the highest knockout rate in UFC bantamweight history at 1.72 KOs per 15 minutes of action. Moraes was a -160 favorite over Cejudo, who checked into the fight as the +130 underdog.
Moraes looked astonishingly fast in the first round against the flyweight champ. The Brazilian finisher chewed up Cejudo’s legs with merciless kicks and used his length to frustrate the Olympic gold medal winner. When the first round ended, Cejudo had landed just five significant strikes on 22 attempts. Moraes and his team had to be mentally updating the fighter’s resume to include the words “UFC champion.”
Cejudo turned the tide in the second round by upping his pressure and moving into punching range instead of laying back in kicking range. Any confidence Moraes had built up in the first round seemed to trickle away over the first 3:30 of the second stanza.
Moraes’ body language in the corner before the third round began drew the ire of his coach, Mark Henry. Henry implored his fighter to “listen to me” and “don’t put your damn head down” while invoking the struggles Moraes’ mother had gone through in raising him.
The cajoling of his corner failed to motivate Moraes. He was tentative in the third round and allowed his foe to control the pace and location of the fight before Cejudo ended the action via ground strikes at the 4:51 mark of the third stanza.
Moraes bounced back from his loss to Cejudo with a December 2019 win over former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, who made his bantamweight debut against Moraes at UFC 245. The judges awarded the fight to Moraes via split decision.
UFC president Dana White disagreed with the decision, “I do (think Aldo won). Yeah, he won the fight. Listen, you can’t win a fight running backwards for two rounds. It just doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what the f*** those judges were watching. To give that to Marlon was crazy. But, he won it,” White said.
Dana White felt Jose Aldo won his fight against Marlon Moraes and that Henry Cejudo wants to face Aldo next pic.twitter.com/f04txiHWEI— Aaron Bronsteter (@aaronbronsteter) December 15, 2019
With that, the UFC decided to book Aldo, and not Moraes, opposite Petr Yan for the vacant bantamweight title at UFC 251.
Ahead of his next outing against Cory Sandhagen, Moraes shifted his camp to American Top Team. UFC commentator Dan Hardy noted that Moraes’ approach had changed and that he seemed to counter more in that fight than he did in his earlier outings. That scrap ended with Sandhagen scoring a highlight reel spinning kick knockout.
Moraes had a relatively quick turnaround for his next bout. Two months after his loss to Sandhagen, he met Rob Font. Instead of his electrifying striking, Moraes used his grappling in the early moments of the Font bout. During the broadcast, UFC commentator Michael Bisping noted that Moraes’ approach might have been influenced by the brutal knockout loss the former title challenger dealt with in the Sandhagen scrap.
Moraes could not keep Font on the mat and he fell to the strikes of his foe at the 3:47 mark of the first stanza.
The former WSOF bantamweight champ didn’t enter the UFC octagon again until he faced Merab Dvalishvili in September 2021. Moraes started out well against Dvalishvili, but his aggressive pursuit of a finish in the middle of the first round might have sapped Moraes’ energy reserves.
The second round of that fight was a nightmare for Moraes as he absorbed 142 total strikes without attempting to land a single blow of his own. The end of the bout came 3:39 into the round.
On Saturday, Moraes, who turns 34 in late April, seemed to lack power and speed and maybe some confidence in his knockout loss to Song Yadong.
It must be noted that Moraes’ opponents in his five recent losses have all took home “Performance of the Night” bonuses in earning their knockout victories.
With the run he’s on, it’s not out of line to wonder what’s left for Moraes, who did remove his gloves, but didn’t announce his retirement, in the octagon on Saturday, in the UFC.
If we’re to take the words of UFC president Dana White to heart, Moraes is a broken, and possibly ruined man, and has been since the Cejudo fight.
“Moraes came out and put a beating on him in that first round,” White told Kevin Iole in November 2021. “He went back to the corner, made the adjustments he needed to make, came back out, and broke him. Broke Marlon Moraes. Never been the same since. Not only did he break him, I think he ruined him.”
I don’t think Moraes is done as a UFC fighter because he has a value to the promotion, but he needs to consider what that value is and if he’s willing to play the role the UFC has designed not just for him, but for other fighters like him who have recognizable names to MMA fans.
Moraes was a top UFC title contender, a former WSOF champion and a fighter who challenged for UFC gold. UFC fighters with those credentials — with some rare exceptions — are not provided the opportunity to reset, fight down the rankings and get back on their feet. The UFC’s business doesn’t work that way.
Instead, the promotion usually gives veterans like Moraes tough matchups against rising stars, fighters it hopes will step up and replace the aging stars with fresh blood and new names the fans can latch onto. For example, the booking Moraes received at UFC Vegas 50 against the 24-year-old Yadong.
Expect Moraes to slip in the rankings come next week and when he gets another fight, expect it to be against another young stud who the UFC hopes will capitalize on the name and accomplishments of Moraes.
Why? Because it’s always the abattoir and never the pasture for veteran UFC fighters.