SCOTTSDALE, Ariz., and TIJUANA, Mexico -- Brandon Moreno was prone on his knees and elbows, his head resting on the Octagon canvas. It's Aug. 31, 2016, in Las Vegas, and Moreno's potential run in the UFC was not off to the best start. He had just lost his opening bout on The Ultimate Fighter 24 reality series.
Henry Cejudo, Moreno's then-mentor and close friend, went over to the emotional Moreno and put a hand on his back in an effort to console him.
"Good work, my king," Cejudo told his young protégé in Spanish. "I love you very much."
Despite the gesture, their previously tight relationship had already begun to fray. Three days prior to that scene, Cejudo, then a UFC flyweight contender coaching on that season of the show, did not choose Moreno with his team's first selection. Instead, Cejudo's pick, Alexandre Pantoja, triggered a corresponding move that sent Moreno to future opponent Joseph Benavidez's team.
"Look how my life f---ing works," a crushed Moreno said at the time. "Can you believe this happened to me?"
That was the first domino to fall in what has become an increasingly bitter feud between Moreno and Cejudo. It's a story of a close bond between great fighters, and perceived betrayal on both sides. In the nearly six years since TUF 24, Cejudo has won the UFC flyweight and bantamweight titles, retired and become a coach. Moreno struggled and was cut by the UFC in late 2018. By the end of 2019, he fought his way back, and now he's the UFC flyweight champion.
On Saturday, the former "brothers," as Cejudo once called them, will be on opposite ends of the cage. Moreno will defend his belt against his rival Deiveson Figueiredo in the co-main event of UFC 270 in Anaheim, California -- the third fight in an epic trilogy that's already seen a thrilling majority draw and a career-defining submission for Moreno. In Figueiredo's corner will be Cejudo, the man who once took Moreno and his family into his Arizona home.
And while Moreno felt lingering betrayal because Cejudo didn't pick him first for his Ultimate Fighter team, what Moreno did in the aftermath felt personal to Cejudo.
"Am I the enemy here, dude?" Cejudo told ESPN last week. "It was an accident, what happened at TUF. It wasn't meant to be like that. But what he did? OK. The gloves come off."
MORENO AND CEJUDO first met in 2014. Moreno was competing for the World Fighting Federation (WFF) promotion in Arizona and had just beaten Alex Contreras by third-round submission. Cejudo was at the fight and was impressed. Contreras was a fighter who Cejudo, an Olympic wrestling gold medalist, had grown up with. Cejudo went over afterward and shook the 20-year-old Moreno's hand.
A year later, Cejudo was preparing for a UFC fight with Jussier Formiga, another top flyweight, and his coach Tommy Ortiz suggested he bring in Moreno as a training partner. Formiga was a grappling specialist, and Moreno, still just a prospect, had great Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Moreno stayed on as part of Cejudo's training camp ahead of Cejudo's flyweight title challenge against Demetrious Johnson in April 2016. Cejudo let Moreno stay at his home, and even helped Moreno bring his wife, Shirley, and their daughter Maddie from Mexico to live there temporarily.
"He was really kind to my daughter and all," Moreno told ESPN. "I told you, I'll never stop being grateful with him for that, despite what happens now."
After Cejudo lost to Johnson, he was chosen along with Benavidez to coach the 24th season of the Ultimate Fighter reality show. The season would be different. The UFC would gather flyweight champions from all over the world for a tournament, the winner of which would fight Johnson for the flyweight title.
Moreno was not initially considered for the show, according to Cejudo's coach Eric Albarracin, but Cejudo and his team pulled some strings to get Moreno, who was then the WFF champion, a spot.
The fighter selection process was different, too. UFC matchmakers had already seeded all of the 16 competitors, so when the coaches chose a fighter, that fighter's first-round seeded opponent would be sent to the other team. The twist was that neither of the coaches knew how the fighters were seeded, until they were picked. With the first pick, Benavidez took Tim Elliott. He was the No. 3 seed. Cejudo's team was automatically given the No. 14 seed, Charlie Alaniz.
Albarracin said he knew Moreno would be a lower seed, because he wasn't as heralded as some of the other fighters on the show. But there was no way, Albarracin thought, that Moreno was the worst of the lot -- no way he could be the No. 16 seed. Albarracin said he advised Cejudo to take Alexandre Pantoja, who was considered perhaps the best fighter in the tournament.
"We'll pick Brandon next, but let's get for sure the [best] seed with the best chance to win," Albarracin said he told Cejudo.
Cejudo listened and took Pantoja. He was indeed the No. 1 seed. And then White revealed Pantoja's first-round opponent, the No. 16 seed -- and it was Moreno, who was now part of Benavidez's team. As UFC president Dana White announced that on the show, Cejudo screamed "f---!" and slammed his notepad with his hand.
"Brandon is like a brother to me," Cejudo said on the show. "You guys have no idea how close I am with him, with his family, with his kid."
Cejudo told Pantoja that he could not coach him against Moreno. Pantoja ended up winning by second-round submission, eliminating Moreno from the tournament. Afterward, Cejudo said he wished Moreno had won, even though Pantoja was on his team.
Despite Cejudo's contrition, the situation still eats at Moreno. He said he doesn't think Cejudo betrayed him, but described their relationship as "a little broken" after that. Moreno cited Conor McGregor as an example of what Cejudo could have done.
On The Ultimate Fighter 22 in 2015, when McGregor coached against Urijah Faber, McGregor took his longtime training partner Artem Lobov with his first pick. Few at that time thought Lobov was one of the top fighters on the show. But for McGregor, it didn't matter. He was loyal to his friend.
"[McGregor] didn't care about anything, he chose his friend," Moreno said. "[He said], 'I'm choosing you because you're my friend, and we've trained together, we've sweat together and shared a lot of things together, you're coming with me.' I mean, Henry chose someone else when he was on The Ultimate Fighter, and that's when our relationship started to grow apart."
Moreno and Cejudo had a conversation before the show wrapped. Cejudo felt as though the fences had been mended at that time. He said Moreno informed him he wouldn't be training with Cejudo for Cejudo's bout with Benavidez. Moreno and Benavidez had become friends, Moreno told Cejudo. That was completely understandable, Cejudo said. Cejudo vs. Benavidez was scheduled for December 2016.
What Cejudo didn't anticipate was that Moreno would sign on to be a part of Benavidez's training camp ahead of that fight.
"I opened my house to his family," Cejudo said of Moreno. "Like everybody. He met my mom, my sister, my brothers. Everybody liked him. And then he ended up kind of pulling that. I wouldn't have been so upset if he would've maybe even just told me."
Moreno said he went to train with Benavidez with the hope of taking his career to the next level. He said he already learned a lot training with Cejudo and his team, but became close with Benavidez and his coaches during the show and wanted to continue that learning process.
Benavidez beat Cejudo via split decision in a fight many thought Cejudo won. Cejudo said afterward that Moreno came up to him and said he felt Cejudo had won. Cejudo said he shook Moreno's hand, but what he really wanted was to fight him next. He even asked the UFC to set the bout up -- Cejudo vs. Moreno, mentor vs. protégé.
"This dude owes me one," Cejudo said. "You know what I'm saying? Cause there was bad blood, but at the same time, there was like, I still had love for the dude. I just wanted to beat him up as a big brother."
Cejudo said he approached Moreno at a fighter retreat in Las Vegas back in 2017 with intentions of booking the grudge match. Cejudo said Moreno declined, telling Cejudo in Spanish that he liked him too much to fight him. Moreno said he would consider fighting Cejudo now, but doesn't think Cejudo would ever come down to flyweight again.
"I think he's using Deiveson somehow to create more expectation for a future fight," Moreno said. "He may want to come back. But, I mean, the guy is huge -- he's really heavy. I don't think there's a way for him to come back to 125 pounds, but that's not my problem."
Cejudo beat Johnson for the flyweight title in 2018 and then stopped Marlon Moraes to win the bantamweight belt a year later. He retired in 2020 after retaining the bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz. Meanwhile, Moreno is unbeaten in seven straight fights, winning the title from Figueiredo at UFC 263 last June in Phoenix.
Interestingly enough, Cejudo warmly congratulated Moreno after his flyweight championship win, and posted the video on Instagram. But shortly thereafter, Cejudo decided to return the favor for Moreno's decision to train with Benavidez.
CEJUDO RAN INTO Figueiredo at a restaurant in Arizona after he lost his title to Moreno, and told him he thought he could take Figueiredo's game up a notch. Albarracin contacted Figueiredo's manager, and a deal was brokered. Figueiredo, a Brazilian knockout artist, would come to Fight Ready in Arizona to train ahead of the trilogy fight with Moreno.
"[Moreno] left the team and acted like a traitor to Cejudo, and Henry is training me to rip Moreno's head off," Figueiredo told ESPN, translated from Portuguese. "And I am going to do that, because I am more motivated than ever to get my belt back."
Cejudo said he's not training Figueiredo with a vindictive motivation. He just wants to help Figueiredo achieve his dreams and regain the title. It's the same thing for other new faces at Fight Ready, Cejudo said -- names like Jon Jones, Zhang Weili and Kelvin Gastelum.
"I decided to leave my comfort zone," Figueiredo said. "We made a lot of mistakes leading up to the second fight with Brandon Moreno. The decision to leave my team and come to Arizona looking for a better option for me was the biggest decision of my life. I am sure I chose right. I was very welcomed by Henry Cejudo and Eric Albarracin here. Today I am 100% ready to get my belt back."
But Moreno's team feels there is an element of vengeance. In October, Moreno's coach Raul Arvizu of Entram Gym in Tijuana posted on Instagram an illustration of Cejudo with the painted text "Ce-Judas."
Moreno, for his part, said he's not taking it personally. He believes Cejudo is just trash-talking as part of a persona -- the sometimes over-the-top Cejudo calls himself "Triple C" and "The King of Cringe" -- and said it would be "very sad" if Cejudo was using Figueiredo as a way to promote a future fight between Cejudo and Moreno.
"He's a humble person, a good person," Moreno said of Cejudo. "During the last years, he had to dip into a character to try and sell himself and get money, because he can't even sell water in the middle of the desert, the poor guy."
Cejudo said his persona is not fake -- it's his own personality "amplified." And he believes he's doing Moreno a favor by promoting the fight. Moreno is a UFC champion and gets a share of the pay-per-view revenue from UFC 270.
"Of course, I'm helping Brandon," Cejudo said. "Of course, I'm helping the flyweight division. Because I'm building a storyline. If not, it would just be Mexico versus Brazil. Now there's a third party involved. There's a story here. And then I'm gonna be in the corner with Deiveson."
The idea that Cejudo has the expertise about Moreno to give Figueiredo the key to beating him? Moreno scoffs at that, saying Cejudo knows the "2015 Brandon," but not who he is now.
"Our realities at that time were completely different, so, yeah, there were some tough patches there," Moreno said. "I was tired, this guy was gonna fight for the title and of course he beat me up, and that's part of my development. And to be honest I'm not ashamed. I take pride to say I went through all that and to see where I am now."
Cejudo said he and Moreno might talk after the Figueiredo fight, maybe make up and go back to being friends. But Cejudo also said that he expects Figueiredo to leave Moreno in a similar state to where he was moments after that Ultimate Fighter loss to Pantoja.
"[Figueiredo's] mind is there, his recovery is there, his weight is there, his love, his determination, his passion is there," Cejudo said. "I mean, he's gonna go out there and he's gonna feast."
And while Cejudo said there's nothing personal about coaching Figueiredo and cornering him for this fight, those around him do so see another side to this telenovela-like tale.
"Revenge is a dish best served cold," Albarracin said. "What better way to get back at Moreno than to snatch that belt off [from] around his waist? And that's what we're gonna do Jan. 22. The countdown is on."