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There’s something to being introduced to someone at a young age that can help to build a lasting emotional investment in their future. Take Nate Diaz. When most fans were introduced to him on the fifth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he was a fresh-faced 21-year-old best known for being Nick Diaz’s brother. It was good timing for Nate, as his brother was coming off a thrilling upset victory—it was later overturned to a no contest due to a positive test for marijuana—over Takanori Gomi at Pride Fighting Championships’ last A-list event. There was currency in being the scrappy little brother of a beloved figure, and Nate has backed it up with plenty of spirited performances over the course of his 14-year career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The bond between the younger Diaz and MMA fans was never more apparent than it was at UFC 263 on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona, where he received an extraordinary, almost shocking reaction from the crowd. Greeted like a conquering hero, Diaz was revered to a degree that it was difficult for Leon Edwards to stand out even in a convincing and mostly one-sided victory. With most fights, fans are happy to celebrate with the winner even if they preferred the other fighter going in, provided the win is impressive enough. In this case, the crowd was with Diaz before, during and after the fight. That was just all there was to it.
There may be a similar dynamic forming with another fighter on the card: Brandon Moreno, the first Mexican-born UFC champion. Like Diaz, Moreno was introduced to MMA fans through “The Ultimate Fighter” at a young age. Just 22 years old with a baby face and a bright smile, Moreno was unassuming and overlooked as the 16th seed out of 16 competitors on the show. “The Assassin Baby” was an appropriate nickname given he has retained a boyish charm even well into his 20s. Yet he showed promise in the cage, busting up the eye of top seed and Resurrection Fighting Alliance champion Alexandre Pantoja while taking down the Brazilian multiple times. “The Ultimate Fighter” by that time had declined in popularity and did not have the same viewership, but Moreno stood out even in that eventual defeat.
For Moreno, the question was never about his fighting style or his personality. The issue for Moreno involved how good of a fighter he would prove to be. Moreno has always been scrappy and he’s a tough out for anyone—he has still never been finished 26 fights into his career—but he did not put together the sort of dominant performances that screamed he was championship material. Ultimately, that worked in his favor, as it gave him an everyman persona that made him relatable while his skills came together and his potential was realized.
The first fight with Deiveson Figueiredo was a key moment for Moreno because more than proving he could hang with a dangerous champion, the excitement of the fight engaged fans on an emotional level. When Moreno then beat Figueiredo and did so with surprising ease, it showed he was a fighter not only worth watching for the entertainment value but worth investing in because he can win The Big One.
The electric reaction to Moreno’s championship victory at UFC 263 might portend big things for him moving forward. The UFC has been attempting to fully capture the Mexican and Mexican-American fight fan audience for over a decade now. It’s easy to understand why. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans drive the business of boxing more than any other group, as evidenced by the outsized importance of Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day on the boxing calendar. The more that passion and enthusiasm filters into MMA, the better it is for the sport. MMA is already quite popular with those groups thanks to the likes of Cain Velasquez, but Moreno has the potential to bring that excitement to a new level.
Moreno, of course, has to continue to perform at a high level. He has not exhibited the dominance that suggests he will rule the division for years to come. However, Diaz’s example demonstrates that a lot of the hard work has already been done. Fans are lured in by moments, and once a fighter has captured their imagination, that enthusiasm can last long past their career apex.
The losses to Rafael Dos Anjos, Josh Thomson and Benson Henderson did little to damper the excitement for Diaz’s fights with Conor McGregor, and his losses to McGregor and Jorge Masvidal did not diminish the excitement for the fight with Edwards. If Moreno pulled in fans in a big way—that remains to be seen—the dividends will continue to pay off for years to come. It’s not hard to imagine that he did have that effect. It wasn’t just that he won the biggest fight of his career or even the way that he won it; it was the way he represented himself and the people who believed in him. That’s what builds lasting emotional bonds and keep fans coming back to see a fighter perform.