Children are told to dream big, but no one could have predicted that 9-year-old Marlon Moraes and 11-year-old Edson Barboza would one day be UFC fighters living their dream far from their Brazilian hometown of Nova Friburgo.
But here they are, with Barboza a top lightweight contender and bantamweight Moraes making his long awaited Octagon debut against Raphael Assuncao at UFC 212 on June 3.
Back then, though, they were just kids, unsure what the next day would bring. Yet as the years went on, it was clear that fighting would be their path in life. It wasn’t an easy one.
“I remember us sitting back in the locker room when I was probably 17 and he was 19 and we were fighting for another promotion,” Moraes recalled. “And we were talking like, ‘Man, what are we doing? We’re doing what we dreamed of, but it’s kind of hard.’ But then we said, ‘Yeah, it’s tough, but one day, one hundred percent we’ll be doing all right.’”
Eventually, Barboza left Brazil to chase glory in the United States, and Moraes would follow.
“When he moved here, a lot of people were upset because he was leaving,” Moraes said. “He was living his dream but a lot of people wanted him close, but I knew as soon as he got here the door was going to open. Then he opened the door for me, and when he was in Florida he gave me the opportunity to come here and teach.”
The two would soon begin making their mark on the pro MMA scene, and by 2010, Barboza was in the UFC. Moraes, who fought his first six bouts in Brazil, struggled in his early fights in the United States, and by the end of November 2011, his record was just 5-4-1.
The reason was simple, and it wasn’t until he ended up in New Jersey with coaches Ricardo Almeida and Mark Henry that he found the solution that turned him into one of the best bantamweights in the world.
“I was only a fighter back then,” he explains. “I had that fighter’s instinct – I want to kill, I want to finish guys. And with time, I’ve been developing. I’m very thankful for Mark Henry, thankful for Ricardo Almeida, Frankie Edgar. These guys taught me a lot about MMA, about how to go in there and take the right chances and what the fight gives to me. So I feel like now I’m a mixed martial artist. Back then, I was a fighter. I would say a mixed martial artist with a fighter inside him is very dangerous. Some people are fighters and some people are mixed martial artists. I’ve been putting both together.”
Moraes hasn’t lost since that fourth defeat in November 2011 against WEC veteran Deividas Taurosevicius. And what followed that fight have been 13 consecutive victories, eight ending before the final horn. So when the longtime World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion became a free agent, fight fans made it known that they wanted to see Moraes in the Octagon, and he’s getting his shot, in Rio de Janeiro against the No. 3-ranked Assuncao.
“It’s the perfect time for everything – perfect opponent, perfect show, perfect day,” he said. “I feel great now and I think I’m really ready for this challenge. And I don’t want to just win. I want to go out there and put on the best performance of my life. And I know if I do that, then the victory is going to be the consequence.”
At 29, Moraes comes to the UFC in his prime and with top-level fighters like Barboza, Edgar and Eddie Alvarez pushing him to the limit in the gym. It makes dealing with the first-time UFC jitters a lot easier, but according to Moraes, he doesn’t believe in such things.
“It’s just a fight, and that’s what’s in my mind,” he said. “It’s one more fight, one more day and a great opponent. This is what I wanted and this is what I asked for. So now, I got it, and I just have to go out there and fight. When that cage door locks, it’s just me and him. It doesn’t matter where we’re fighting, which promotion, I’m ready for this challenge.”
He makes it sound so easy.
“It’s not easy, but when you’re ready for something, you have no fear. You know you belong there and you know what you can do. This is why I’m comfortable. I’m excited and I just can’t wait for my debut on June 3 to show everybody who Marlon Moraes is and what he can do inside the Octagon.”
If he continues on the track he’s been on, Moraes will be an immediate player in the UFC’s 135-pound weight class, and given his exciting style, there are endless intriguing matchups for him. I tell him I can think of 20 good fights for him and he laughs.
“I have 20 good fights in there and if possible I want to do all 20,” he said. “Of course, my main goal is the belt, but I will do whatever I have to do to get there. I want to fight everybody and one day I want to sit back and watch and say, ‘Hey, I fought this guy, I fought this guy and this guy. Man, I fought all of those guys.’ This is what I want to do.”
And when it’s all over, he’s got an appointment to keep with his friend Barboza.
“We believed in the sport and we’re doing what we love,” Moraes said. “Things happened so fast for us, but now he’s a contender, I’m a contender and I can’t wait for us to have UFC belts around our waist. I think when we both have that belt, we’re going to go back and sit together and say, ‘Look at what we’ve accomplished.’”