In 2018, Brandon Moreno lost everything.
Following two successive defeats in the UFC, he was cut from the promotion; his professional career in tatters at the age of 24.
A husband and father of two living in Tijuana, Mexico, Moreno no longer had a way to provide for his family.
“That was a breaking point for me, 2018 was the worst year of my life,” Moreno, now 28, told BBC Sport.
“I had nothing, man. I had nothing to give a better life to my two daughters and my wife in that moment.
“I don’t want to even remember that year because it was so terrible.”
What followed has been one of the great redemption stories in MMA.
Moreno would go on to be re-signed by the UFC, work his way up the flyweight division and dramatically claim the title in 2021, becoming the first Mexican-born champion in UFC history.
Now the ‘Assassin Baby’ is set for his first title defence, in the third fight of an epic rivalry with Brazil’s Deiveson Figueiredo, at UFC 270 in Anaheim, California on Saturday.
Moreno says it was a change in mindset in 2018 which has led him to this moment.
“I’m good at fighting, and that’s it. I was thinking ‘what can I do if I don’t fight?’, he said.
“I started thinking about my life, and what I wanted to do. I was just very disciplined and trained hard, evolving my game.
“Thank god everything is perfect now, but at that moment it was hard.”
‘After 16 years I finally did it’
Saturday’s bout between Moreno and Figueiredo will be the next chapter in one of the UFC’s most compelling rivalries over the past two years.
The pair first met in December 2020 where Figueiredo, 34, defended his flyweight title in a majority draw.
Moreno would come out on top in the rematch six months later, however, dominating the fight and submitting his Brazilian counterpart with a rear-naked choke in the third round.
The scene sparked emotional celebrations in the octagon with Moreno in tears while looking at his newly-won flyweight title in disbelief.
He says it is difficult to describe how he was feeling at the time.
“A lot of people ask me to describe that moment. I try but I can’t,” said Moreno.
“It was so special, a really unique moment. I was just feeling a lot of peace in my body and soul.
“Ten years as a professional, 16 years doing the sport, and finally I did it.”
Life has changed in Mexico for Moreno since he became champion.
He says more people recognise him in the streets, fans visit his gym daily to take photos and he’s sometimes doing as many as eight media interviews a week.
UFC president Dana White has admitted the Mexican is now a “huge star”.
Despite Moreno’s increase in popularity, he is more proud of the effect his title reign is having on MMA in Latin America.
“Since my victory, a lot of good things have started to happen,” said Moreno.
“For example in [Dana White’s] Contender Series, five training partners from my gym in Tijuana have won a contract with the UFC. That’s a new generation of Mexicans there.
“But it’s not just Mexico – someone from Ecuador and Argentina won too. It’s Latin America, man. We need to keep working so hard to evolve MMA, so this is special.”
‘Cejudo is a traitor – but I’m not angry’
In Figueiredo’s corner for the fight on Saturday will be former UFC two-weight champion – and Moreno’s former training partner – Henry Cejudo.
The 34-year-old American has been training with Figueiredo and helping him prepare for the bout.
Figeuiredo has accused Moreno of betraying Cejudo six years ago, saying the Mexican helped train Cejudo’s opponent at the time, Joseph Benavidez.
Moreno says he respects Figeuiredo’s opinion, but disagrees.
“Everything is about perspective. He has his version, I have my version,” said Moreno.
“The fans who are close to this history also have their own opinion. But what I saw in that moment, I feel he [Cejudo] is a traitor.
“I’m not angry with anybody. They’re not my type of people, you know. I don’t like some guys from his [Figeuiredo’s] team, but that’s another conversation.
“But those guys Henry and Figueiredo, I don’t feel any bad vibes with them.”
Moreno is expecting Figueiredo to be stronger than the last time they fought, but is confident of retaining his title.
“He will definitely have new skills from the last fight because it was a mess for him,” said Moreno.
“But I’m 100% mentally and physically prepared. I will be sharper in my strength and conditioning. I feel more explosive, more powerful than the last fight, my cardio is on point and my technique is on point.
“I don’t care what Figueiredo is doing – I’m very focused on my goal, always.”
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