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Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil prepares to fight Manel Kape of Angola in their flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on February 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Well Earned: Alexandre Pantoja Finally Gets His Championship Opportunity

Injury Scuttled His First Chance To Face Brandon Moreno For The Title, But Saturday Night, The Brazilian Challenger Will Once Again Share The Octagon With The Mexican Champion

Standing in the Octagon just moments after defeating Brandon Royval, Daniel Cormier directed Alexandre Pantoja to look outside the Octagon, where then newly-minted flyweight champion Brandon Moreno was stationed, calling the fights of the Spanish broadcast.

Pantoja held a pair of victories over “The Assassin Baby,” and after dispatching Royval by submission in the second round, it felt like the Brazilian was positioned to be the next challenger.

“This is a good record, no — 30-26 and one choke?” Pantoja asked playfully, citing the results of from their two previous encounters, the first which came when they were contestants on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, and the second nearly three years later.

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“But I like you, Moreno; you know that,” continued the victorious fighter. “I spent some time with him in TUF and I say all the time, I’m happy I made this guy better because every time I (beat) him, he’s grown up. The first time I (beat) him, he came into the UFC (earning) bonuses. The second time I (beat) him, he (fought) and came back like a champ.

“But now is my time, Moreno,” he added. “I see you in December. December is good for you? If it’s good for you, it’s good for me, too.”

Moreno was nodding in approval the entire time, welcoming the challenge and seemingly agreeing on the spot to share the Octagon with Pantoja, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Just a few weeks after beating Royval and setting up his championship clash with Moreno, the Brazilian veteran suffered a knee injury that put him on the sidelines for the better part of a year, sending Moreno into a third fight with Deiveson Figueiredo, which he lost, only for the indomitable Mexican competitor to claim the interim title and then unify the belts with a second victory over Figueiredo at UFC 283 in January.

“That’s something God gave to me,” offered Pantoja, reflecting on his road back to title contention just a few days prior to finally sharing the Octagon with Moreno in the co-main event of UFC 290 this weekend at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. “If you want to be a champion, you’re going to recover, prove how much you want to fight for the belt.”

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On the night Moreno claimed the interim title with a third-round stoppage win over Kai Kara-France, Pantoja made his return to action, and a thunderous statement by running through former title challenger Alex Perez in 91 seconds.

After calmly walking to the center of the Octagon and touching gloves with his opponent, Pantoja went into attack mode, taking the fight to Perez before he could find his footing. He bullied Perez, showing him little respect before shoving him to the canvas and climbing on his back, where he swiftly worked to secure the rear-naked choke finish.

“I just do myself, what I do all day in the gym,” he said when asked about the performance and his intentions stepping into the Octagon at UFC 277. “When I fought with Alex Perez, I made a big statement to prove how ready I am.

“I’m not gonna fight for the belt just because I have two wins over Moreno — I fight because I deserve it. I’ve (been one of the top contenders) for a long time, I’ve fought professionally for 18 years, and I’ve passed every test in this game.

“I’ve never taken shortcuts to come to the UFC or fight for the belt,” he added. “I won the belt in Shooto Brazil. I came to the USA and fought for the belt in LFA, won the belt in LFA before RFA and Legacy went together, beating Damacio Page. Then I go to TUF and that’s when I went to the UFC.

“It’s been a long journey and now I feel so ready.”

Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil reacts after defeating Alex Perez by submission in a flyweight fight during the UFC 277 event at American Airlines Center on July 30, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil reacts after defeating Alex Perez by submission in a flyweight fight during the UFC 277 event at American Airlines Center on July 30, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

That feeling of readiness extends to all realms, and while some may wonder how nearly a year on the sidelines could impact his performance this weekend, the flyweight title challenger is quick to point out that an additional year of recovery, training, and focusing on fighting for the belt has him dialed all the way in heading into Saturday’s co-main event.

“I feel much better now,” began Pantoja, who advanced to the semifinals on TUF and holds additional victories over Wilson Reis, Matt Schnell, and Manel Kape, in addition to having bested Moreno and Royval inside the Octagon. “If I was better one year ago, I’m much better now. I train all the time for five rounds. Everything is different: my diet is different, my training is different, and I’ve been feeling like a champion for a long time.

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“The best part of that is that I don’t feel a lot of pressure right now. I don’t feel a lot of pressure for that because I know how much I deserve that. I feel so ready.

“I tell my wife, people on my side, ‘You can feel a lot of excitement, feel it for me,’ and maybe on July 9 when I have my belt I’m going to explode,” he added with a laugh. “Right now, I need to keep that mentality, keep my body strong until the cage opens for me.”

Despite his two previous victories over Moreno, Pantoja has always been complimentary about the improvements, the growth, and the development the current champion has shown throughout his career.

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Even with Moreno having suffered another loss since they were first penciled in to face each other for a third time, Saturday’s challenger knows that he’s in for the toughest fight of his career at UFC 290.

“I know Moreno is a tough guy. My two fights against him were never easy; they may look easy, but they were never easy,” offered Pantoja. “The fight on TUF, that don’t count because it’s a different tournament. I’m going to face a very tough guy, very strong guy, good grappling. I know we’re going to be Fight of the Night.

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“I think the thing that he’s improved most is his mind,” he continued, offering his take on what has been Moreno’s greatest improvement since their last encounter. “Obviously, he boxes more, he does more, but his mind is different, and I can see that, and that’s where we’re going to crash, me and him, because I have a good mind, too.

I think this fight is going to be a war — a lot of blood in this fight — because I’m not gonna give up and he’s never gonna give up. I know what’s coming July 8 — the prime Moreno — and that’s what I want.”

He also wants to put a quick end to a new and rare occurrence in the UFC.

For much of the last 15 years, there has been at least one Brazilian titleholder in the UFC, but with Amanda Nunes announcing her retirement following her successful title defense against Irene Aldana last month in Vancouver, the UFC’s championship charts are currently without a representative from the South American nation.

“We have no more Brazilian champions in the UFC, and I can bring the belt home,” said Pantoja, who looks to become the second Brazilian to capture the flyweight title. “That’s something very special and now I can make that happen.”

Accomplishing that task might actually be the thing that energizes Pantoja the most heading into Saturday’s pay-per-view, as the mild-mannered flyweight standout has never held UFC gold out as a goal he’s been desperately pursuing.

Instead, he’s simply worked to provide for his family, worked to improve himself as both a man and a fighter, with this weekend’s championship matchup with Moreno the logical result of all that hard work.

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“I never had a big dream of ‘Ah, I’m gonna win the belt in the UFC,’” he said. “My choices brought me this belt. When I look through my life, I see how much I deserve this.”

He does, and now, in a couple days, the calm and focused challenger will finally make the walk and step into the Octagon with Moreno once more, the UFC flyweight title hanging in the balance.

“I feel calm,” he said, “and when I feel calm, when I feel zen, that’s when I’m strong, that’s when I’m dangerous.

“I’ve been feeling like a champion for a long time, and July 8, that’s the day I’m gonna prove for everybody…”

He paused, searching for the right words.

“All the world will know about me July 8.”

UFC 290: Volkanovski vs Rodriguez took place live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 8, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!