YAIR RODRIGUEZ AND Brandon Moreno stood barefoot on the mat, each with one arm around the other. Their sweaty, wet hair stuck to their baby faces and the wrinkled Brazilian jiu-jitsu gis they wore hung from their shoulders haphazardly.
Moreno posted the grainy photo on Instagram two years ago. It looked like the image of a bygone era. And in many ways, it was.
In 2013, Rodriguez was the youngest fighter accepted to a UFC-sponsored MMA developmental program for Latin American fighters at Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A few months later, Moreno joined the program, usurping the just-turned-21-year-old Rodriguez as the youngest athlete there at age 20. It was the first time the two, barely out of their teens, had ever been away from their families in Mexico.
Rodriguez and Moreno trained together and with the much older fighters all day and then shared a dorm room with Mexican MMA veteran Henry Briones on the gym’s second floor at night. Together, they discussed having some imposter syndrome. Did they really fit in with all of these veterans in one of the best camps in the world?
“I remember [Rodriguez] talking to me, I was in my 30s,” Briones said. “He would say, ‘I’m so afraid.’ He didn’t say, ‘I don’t belong here.’ But he would say, ‘I’m very raw, very young.'”
Ten years later, those youngsters who were the future of Mexican MMA are now the present — and at the forefront of a boom that is making their country one of the sport’s newest, biggest powerhouses.
Rodriguez and Moreno are UFC champions, headlining fights at UFC 290 on Saturday in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV) during the promotion’s annual International Fight Week. Rodriguez, the interim featherweight champion, will look to become undisputed champion against Alexander Volkanovski. Moreno is defending his UFC flyweight title against Alexandre Pantoja.
In the eyes of some onlookers, the Mexican MMA revolution has happened overnight. Rodriguez, Moreno and UFC women’s flyweight champion Alexa Grasso all won UFC titles within the first three months of 2023, Moreno for a second time.
But before this generation, the scene was built by the fists of traditional martial artists, boxers, Tijuana toughs, anarcho-punks from Mexico City, a former UFC heavyweight champ with a Virgin of Guadalupe tattoo and masked luchadors, including a future WWE star.
It was only at Jackson’s gym, a decade ago, where MMA fighters from Mexico, a country known more for soccer or boxing or lucha libre, had to first parse with whether or not they belonged.
“Every single night after my training sessions, I was always thinking, ‘Man, this is my life? Do I deserve this? I’m not really sure,'” Moreno said.
AUGUSTO “DODGER” MONTAÑO grew up in Iztapalapa, one of the most densely populated and violent crime-ridden areas of Mexico City. It’s a place where many battle extreme poverty and even more don’t have access to clean drinking water.
At 13 years old, Montaño had family issues at home and was kicked out of school, sending him to the streets. After reading “The Teachings of Don Juan” by Carlos Castañeda, Montaño started seeking “extraordinary things.” He found himself at the Tianguis Cultural del Chopo, a weekly flea market that was and still is the hub of the punk-rock, goth and metal scene in Mexico City.
There, among anarchists, communists and plenty of men wearing black leather jackets and Misfits T-shirts, Montaño met Raul “Senk” Salas in 1997. Montaño told the older Salas about the issues in his life and how he was seeking more. Salas told Montaño that he had been studying and training in kung fu, a by-product of the popularity of Bruce Lee-type movies in Mexico in the 1970s. Salas said Montaño could come and work out with him and his group. Montaño agreed and brought along his younger brother Erick.
“Then, I discovered this incredible world of martial arts,” Montaño said. “And the rest is history.”
Salas traveled to California and learned the Galvan Combat System of martial arts, which he brought back to Mexico City. He then started Bonebreakers, the area’s first MMA gym. With Salas as their head coach, both Montaño brothers became among the earliest Mexican-born fighters in the UFC. Salas and his two younger brothers, Daniel and Fernando, fought MMA professionally. Juan Puig, another Bonebreakers fighter, was one of the first Mexican-born-and-based fighters to sign with the UFC. Salas later founded Mexico’s Federación de Artes Marciales Mixtas (FAMM), the country’s current national MMA regulatory body.
The UFC was founded in 1993 and was available on satellite television in Mexico, but had yet to catch on. That same year, Julio Cesar Chavez packed out Estadio Azteca in Mexico City with 132,247 fans for his boxing match with Greg Haugen. Other than the more-entertainment-than-sport lucha libre, Mexico’s culturally evocative form of professional wrestling, there was no competition when it came to combat.
MMA caught on quicker in Tijuana due to its proximity to the United States. Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts in America were essentially born out of Gracie family dojos in Southern California, less than two hours from the border. One of the first Mexican MMA events listed by the database Sherdog was Retro Extremo 1 in 1997 in Monterrey, not far from the Texas border. That show featured a tournament won by Tijuana boxer and Muay Thai fighter Miguel Reyes, who would go on to be the boxing coach for UFC champion Dominick Cruz, as well as influential boxing star Jackie Nava and now top Mexican MMA prospect Yazmin Jauregui, among others.
One of the earliest MMA events in Tijuana, Reto Maximo 1, was held Sept. 8, 2002, at the Señor Frogs nightclub and featured the professional debuts of two essential names in the history of the sport in the country: Raul Arvizu and Akbarh Arreola. Arvizu, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under San Diego grappling ace Dean Lister, would become Tijuana’s top MMA coach and promoter, mentoring the likes of Moreno. Arreola, an Arvizu student, was one of the earlier Mexican-born fighters to compete in the UFC and the first from Tijuana.
In 2006, former Univision television host Charlie Bravo started promoting MMA Extreme, better known as MMAX or Max Fights. It was Mexico’s first successful touring MMA company, rather than just a local one, though it was United States-based with American investors. Inspired more by Japan’s spectacle-heavy Pride Fighting Championships than the UFC, Max Fights held bouts in a ring. They featured an eclectic mix of fighters — from Mexican MMA pioneers Rene Diosdado and Edwin “El Tigre” Aguilar to future UFC fighters like “Dodger” Montaño, Arreola and Alejandro Perez to luchadors like El Solar and Electroshock, who fought in their masks. Several Max Fights cards were headlined by Dos Caras Jr., a famous masked luchador who went on to fame in WWE as Alberto Del Rio.
“We were actually the first guys to do an event at not just a bar,” Bravo said. “We were doing events in real places. There was no MMA federation, obviously. So, we worked closely with the boxing federation and lucha libre [commission].”
Max Fights held 31 events, was televised on cable, had attendance figures above 10,000 for some shows, had a reality show and even went public on U.S. stock exchanges, Bravo said. But the 2008 stock-market crash hit him and his investors hard and the promotion was never able to thrive after that. Max Fights ran as recently as 2017 in Colombia. Bravo said his events were constantly in danger of getting shut down by local governments and other authorities, not unlike early UFC events in the United States.
“We opened up that avenue for a lot of people,” Bravo said. “It was a country with a very popular sport in boxing that was not open to a new combat sport. They made it very, very difficult for us in the beginning. But that was the fun of it.”
ERIK “GOYITO” PEREZ first saw Georges St-Pierre fight in 2008 and was immediately captivated by the then-UFC welterweight champion. Perez was 19 years old and training in the Chinese martial art of Sanda not far from where he grew up near Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.
That was a dangerous time in Monterrey, during a notorious crime wave in Northern Mexico. Perez said once someone put a gun to his head on the street and he was nearly killed. Then, Perez’s Sanda coach, Daniel Benavidez, went missing, which Perez blames on a cartel kidnapping.
“I never saw my coach anymore,” Perez said. “It was a f—ed up thing.”
Perez wanted out and looked up where St-Pierre trained. It wasn’t all that far away, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at Jackson’s MMA. So, Goyito quit school, bought a plane ticket and never looked back.
When Perez got there, he reconnected with a coach he knew from Texas, a striking specialist named Mike Valle, who was born right on the border in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Valle became a fixture at Jackson’s gym, coaching the likes of women’s MMA pioneer Gina Carano and UFC veterans Carlos Condit and Leonard Garcia. Around that same time, Carano had become the MMA inspiration for a 15-year-old girl named Alexa Grasso from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, who had just started training in boxing and Muay Thai under her uncle Francisco.
In 2010, Mexicans got a high-profile inspiration all their own. Cain Velasquez, the California-born son of Mexican immigrants, knocked out Brock Lesnar to win the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 121. Velasquez’s accomplishment had several meanings for Mexican MMA fans. Lesnar was a big star in Mexico due to his prominence in WWE, which was on free-to-air television in the country during Lesnar’s run. Mexico also never had a heavyweight champion in any combat sport before, not even in boxing.
“To have a [heavyweight] Mexican being the world champion, Cain became a lot bigger than what the UFC could be or MMA could be,” said journalist C. Contreras Legaspi, who currently works for ESPN Deportes and has been covering MMA for more than a decade. “He was this guy who beat Brock Lesnar. Even if you didn’t know what UFC was or MMA or what the rules were, you knew that a Mexican beat Brock Lesnar.”
The UFC then put on the full-court press with marketing, sending Velasquez to Mexico for a media tour and hiring a public relations firm in the country. Velasquez did his part, as well. While the UFC had brought Mexican-American fighters to do media in Mexico prior, Legaspi said Velasquez was the first one who willingly tried to speak Spanish and improve his skills in the language.
Velasquez embraced his Mexican heritage. Helped by then-UFC Latin American strategy liaison JD Rodriguez, Velasquez started carrying the Mexican flag out for his entrances and adopted the iconic Vicente Fernandez mariachi song “Los Mandados” as his walkout theme. He wore his culture on his body, quite literally. Velasquez has a tattoo that says “Brown Pride” across his chest. His right side is adorned with a tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important religious imagery.
“The Virgin of Guadalupe is probably bigger than the flag in terms of Mexican identity,” Contreras Legaspi said.
Moreno is the first Mexican-born UFC champion. But he said he feels “kind of bad” when people describe him as such.
“Every single time when I was watching Cain talking about Mexico, you can feel the pride of his roots,” Moreno said. “I think Cain was the main thing that started all this, the amazing project of the UFC here in Mexico and Latin America.”
So was June 1, 2012, when Perez made his UFC debut. He wore a lucha mask adorned with Mexico’s colors and carried a Mexican flag for his entrance to the Octagon. There were other fighters born in Mexico to compete for the world’s biggest MMA promotion before him, like Efrain Escudero, Alex Soto and Will Campuzano. But Perez is considered the first of this generation who spent most of his formative years in Mexico to get his foot in the door.
“In my times, it was impossible to be in the UFC [for a Mexican],” Perez said. “It was almost impossible.”
PEREZ AND VALLE being in Albuquerque was a critical part of the next steps of the evolution of Mexican MMA.
In January 2013, the UFC hosted a tryout for Latin American fighters at Renzo Gracie Academy in Mexico City. Legaspi said it wasn’t well-advertised — it spread via word of mouth — but more than 100 athletes showed up, including some from as far away as Argentina. UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby was there scouting talent, as was gym owner Mario Delgado, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu pioneer in Mexico who has long been one of the UFC’s broadcast voices in Spanish.
The UFC selected 12 fighters from the tryouts to be part of its developmental program and were sent to train with Valle at Jackson’s MMA in April 2013. That first group included Mexican fighters like Montaño, Rodriguez, Briones and Gabriel “Moggly” Benitez, who came out of Arvizu’s Entram Gym in Tijuana. After six months, Valle said six of the fighters were sent home and six more came in, including Moreno and Ecuador’s Marlon “Chito” Vera, currently one of the top bantamweight fighters in the world.
The Mexican fighters there weren’t just training with each other. They were learning from established coaches like Valle, Greg Jackson, Mike Winkeljohn and wrestling coach Izzy Martinez. They were sparring with then-UFC contenders Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, Diego Sanchez and John Dodson. Jon Jones, who became the most successful UFC fighter of all time, was around, too.
“That was the turning point,” Valle said.
Jackson said it was a “joyful time” to be around the gym, because of how all of the Latin American fighters were hungry to learn. He said while they had not yet completely integrated full MMA skills into their games, everyone had talent and there wasn’t a single athlete there that he thought should not have been selected. Jackson, who has coached some of the best fighters in the sport’s history, said he could see then how bright the future was for Mexican MMA.
“It was just such a privilege to be at that time in that place, at the kind of beginning of the rise of Mexican MMA and to, in my very small way, assist that happening,” Jackson said. “To look back at it is even more special than it even did for me at the time.”
Rodriguez, for many, was a standout at just 20 years old when he arrived. He had trained in taekwondo since he was 5 and was viewed as gifted athletically.
“Since the first day we saw him, we knew his capability,” Valle said. “We knew his talent and we knew how good he was.”
Moreno came in confident, especially in his ground game, Montaño said. The Latin American fighters were mostly strikers, but Moreno had been training under Arvizu in Tijuana. At one point, Montaño said, Moreno challenged him to a grappling match. Never mind that Moreno fights at 125 pounds and Montaño is a 185-pounder.
“[Rodriguez and Moreno] were kids at the time,” Montaño said. “They wanted to move fast through this business, through this industry. It was very fun to see them grow up.”
In December 2013, when Rodriguez and Moreno were bunking in Albuquerque, a women’s bantamweight fighter from Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, named Irene Aldana traveled to Brazil to challenge for the Jungle Fight title. There weren’t many opportunities to compete in Mexico for men at the time, outside of the Xtreme Combat promotion. For women, things were even more limited.
Aldana, who was training out of Guadalajara under Francisco “Pancho” Grasso, lost to Brazilian champion Larissa Pacheco via third-round TKO. Julie Kedzie, a women’s MMA pioneer and then-matchmaker for all-women’s MMA promotion Invicta FC, watched the fight to scout Pacheco, a top prospect who went on to sign with the UFC and is currently the Professional Fighters League’s lightweight champion. She came away impressed with Aldana, so she called Grasso’s Lobo Gym and was told there was another fighter here — the coach’s niece — who is pretty good, too. Invicta signed both Aldana and Alexa Grasso.
With the foundation for the future starting to come together and the developmental process simmering, the UFC returned to its old marketing formula: The Ultimate Fighter. The reality show is what got the UFC on cable television in the United States for the first time in the mid-2000s. Why not try it in Mexico?
“The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” started filming in 2014, using many fighters from Jackson’s MMA developmental program, including Rodriguez, Briones, Benitez, Alejandro Perez and Jose Alberto “Teco” Quiñonez. Montaño was deemed to be too experienced and the UFC signed him outright. Moreno, who had just turned 20, was too young to be on the show.
The concept was Mexico vs. Latin America, with fighters like Vera, Argentina’s Guido Cannetti and Chile’s Diego Rivas on the latter side. The coach for Team Mexico was a no-brainer: Velasquez, who was already the most popular UFC star in the country. Fabricio Werdum, the heavyweight legend from Brazil who was fluent in Spanish, headed up Team Latin America. Werdum brought along coach Victor Davila, a longtime Mexican MMA fighter, promoter, coach and broadcaster who has helped spread Brazilian jiu-jitsu through the country.
TUF: Latin America was a massive hit. The show aired on Televisa’s Canal 5, one of the biggest free-to-air networks in Mexico. The premiere episode peaked at 7.2 million viewers, per the network, and the first five shows reached 23 million unique Mexican viewers. Velasquez vs. Werdum for the UFC heavyweight title was announced for UFC 180 on Nov. 15, 2014, the UFC’s debut in Mexico City. TUF: Latin America fighters would compete on the card, too. Tickets sold out, more than 20,000, in less than a day.
“Mexicans love telenovelas — and TUF was like a telenovela,” Salas said.
After the show, the UFC flew the fighters down to Mexico City and they appeared on all the major Televisa shows, gaining near-celebrity status. Fans flocked to where they were, looking for autographs and photos. The connection with those fans changed the perception of MMA, Rodriguez said. The athletes were no longer just nameless, faceless highlights on a screen competing in a mysterious, brutal struggle.
“The people were having feelings for us, because they saw we were like humans,” Rodriguez said. “We were trying to do our best to get something good out of life and fight for our families and our country. It taught people about the sport, because not too many people knew about the sport.”
MORENO BECAME THE first Mexican-born fighter to win a UFC championship when he beat Deiveson Figueiredo to capture the flyweight title at UFC 263 on June 12, 2021, in Glendale, Arizona.
Brandon Moreno wins flyweight belt after doctor’s stoppage
After Deiveson Figueiredo can’t open his right eye, the fight is called and Brandon Moreno wins the UFC flyweight championship.
In January, Moreno won the title back from Figueiredo, setting off a chain of events that has led to 2023 becoming the Year of the Mexican in MMA. Rodriguez beat Josh Emmett to win the UFC interim featherweight title in February. Three weeks after that, in March, Alexa Grasso shocked Valentina Shevchenko to win the UFC women’s flyweight title, becoming the first Mexican-born woman to hold UFC gold. Aldana fought women’s MMA legend Amanda Nunes for the UFC women’s bantamweight title last month in a pay-per-view-headlining, but in a losing effort.
There are now around 20 Mexican-born fighters in the UFC, including six women. Since the beginning of 2022, according to ESPN Statistics & Information, fighters representing Mexico have won 25 times in the UFC, nearly a quarter of the total number of wins for Mexican athletes in the promotion.
On Saturday at UFC 290, Moreno and Rodriguez are the main eventers. Jauregui from Arvizu’s Entram Gym in Tijuana, one of the top women’s MMA prospects in the world, will fight Denise Gomes. Mexicans Jesus Aguilar and Edgar Chairez are also on the card.
THE VETERANS FROM Jackson’s MMA developmental program and The Ultimate Fighter have started imparting their knowledge on the next generation. Briones is a matchmaker for Mexican promotion Lux Fight League. Perez is starting his own developmental program in Monterrey and works as a broadcaster for the promotion Naciones MMA. Montaño is teaching students at Bonebreakers, including Combate Global’s David Martinez, who, like Jauregui, was one of ESPN’s top 25 MMA fighters under 25 years old in 2022.
“In general, that is exactly what is growing the sport,” Contreras Legaspi said. “When these guys started going to train in elite camps, they learned how to do a lot of stuff. How things were being done at Jackson’s, how they were doing things at American Top Team, what they were doing at [American Kickboxing Academy, Velasquez’s gym].”
And they have brought all that information back to Mexican gyms. Arvizu was a frequent guest at Jackson’s in the early 2010s and now he has helped produce some of the best fighters coming out of Mexico into the UFC, the most recent standout being Manuel “El Loco” Torres. Rodriguez is still training with Valle and Martinez, who now coach out of the Chicago area. Francisco Grasso teamed up with Brazilian grapplers Diego Lopes and Alessandro Costa, who moved to Guadalajara. With their groundwork and the Grasso striking system, they are in the UFC now, too, and Alexa Grasso, whose background was stand-up, used a submission to beat Shevchenko.
“Enormous sense of pride when it comes to it,” Valle said. “I’m just so fortunate to be a part of it. I think we’re living in the golden age, the golden era right now [of Mexican MMA]. … Us as trainers, like me, ‘Pancho’ Grasso, Raul Arvizu, we all have the same characteristics. We’re all passionate and we do what’s best for our fighters. We’re kind of showing the young generation of coaches coming up how to do it, how to develop guys. How to stay positive.”
Things have exploded on the regional MMA scene in Mexico, too. Combate Global, a U.S.-based promotion, has focused on bringing in Latin American talent since 2011. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the UFC has signed several Mexican promotions to content deals for the UFC Fight Pass streaming service, including Lux Fight League, Mexico City’s Budo Sento Championship and Tijuana’s UWC. Montaño said when he first started training for MMA, there was maybe one event in Mexico — for the entire year. Just last weekend, Lux, Budo, UWC and Naciones all ran shows. The promotions signed with UFC Fight Pass and hold events now just about every month.
“The local Mexican promotions, they were probably doing 10 to 12 events per year [combined] before Fight Pass,” Contreras Legaspi said. “Right now, we have almost 50 [per year] just in the last four years. … So, the fact that you’re having 500 quality fights a year that will go to [the MMA database] Sherdog, that will help them in terms of the rankings, that’s a huge difference for younger kids.”
The grassroots level is also thriving. At the amateur International MMA Federation (IMMAF) Pan American championships last year, Mexico won 23 medals, including six golds, more than any other country. The United States was second with nine medals and five golds.
Things only figure to trend upward even more when the UFC opens its third Performance Institute later this year in Mexico City. On Sept. 16, the UFC will also celebrate Mexican Independence Day with a card from Las Vegas filled with Mexican fighters and headlined by Alexa Grasso’s first title defense, a rematch with Shevchenko.
“In the next five years, we’re going to have a lot of Mexicans in the rankings and more belts for Mexico,” Alexa Grasso said. “I am pretty sure about that. We are warriors. I love my country.”
For Moreno, it’s all a bit surreal. Ten years ago, he was a kid barely out of his teens in a small dorm room in Albuquerque with Rodriguez, sharing doubts with his “paisano” about whether or not they belonged.
On Saturday, Rodriguez and Moreno won’t just arrive. They — and Mexican MMA — will be the stars of the show, one of the UFC’s biggest weekends of the year.
“Man, that is insane,” Moreno said. “I can’t lie to anybody, man. If anybody told me that, in 10 years you’ll be with Yair Rodriguez in the main and co-main event and there will be four Mexican fighters on International Fight Week, I’m not really sure.
“This movement is magical.”