MEXICO CITY – The faces of two fighters crisscrossed this city of 9 million people for weeks, plastered on the sides of public buses. They weren’t megastars like Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Conor McGregor, who made news with their unusual boxing match earlier this summer.
But in the small but growing universe of mixed martial arts fans in Mexico, these fighters – Mexico’s Brandon Moreno and Mexican-American Sergio Pettis – are a big deal. The Ultimate Fighting Championship wants to make them household names.
After years of explosive growth in the United States and Europe, the mixed martial arts’ promoter has its sights set on Latin America.
“It’s time to expand the brand,” Joe Carr, UFC’s former senior vice president and head of international and content, said after a recent Moreno-Pettis fight. Latin America, he said, is its most “strategically important” market.
In May, UFC signed a contract with Fox to air fights for free throughout most of Latin America, a deal the company projects will bring the sport to some 44 million households. It plans to host fights in Chile or Argentina – or both – for the first time within the year. And it is aggressively promoting a budding cache of up-and-coming Latino fighters.
“In any market around the world where we have really grown, we haven’t done it without a local star,” Carr said.
When the UFC first debuted in Mexico in 2014, the closest thing the sport had to a Mexican star was Californian Cain Velasquez, a two-time champion in the heavyweight division – reserved for fighters 206 pounds and up. The son of Mexican immigrants, Velasquez, 35, often promotes himself as a Mexican first and American second, and enters his bouts with the Mexican flag wrapped around his shoulders. Many Mexicans say they began following the sport because of him.
Just three years later, Mexico has several well-known fighters. The most prominent of them is 24-year-old Yair Rodriguez, who is ranked seventh in the featherweight division and has movie-star good looks. There’s also Moreno, ranked seventh in the flyweight division – the lightest division – and Alexa Grasso, a 24-year-old unranked fighter in the strawweight division who, in addition to Moreno, was a main draw at the Aug. 5 event in Mexico City.
In all, eight of the 12 bouts that night featured a Mexico-born fighter. They all drew booming chants of “Mexico!” from the 10,000-person crowd.
Adahara Rosales came from Chino, California for the night. “I love the fights in Mexico. They’re nothing like the ones in the United States,” she said. “Here, we are the people – we are equals.” Rosales added that the audience is a lot livelier in Mexico – before yelling out “We want to see blood!”
“The reality is we have become fanatics,” said Jose de la Cruz, who came with his 16-year-old daughter, Diana, who is training in mixed martial arts. “When we look at a Mexican that is fighting – or of Mexican origin – we start following them.”
In the end, it wasn’t a good night for the Mexican fighters, as just three won their bouts and one of those victories – Grasso over Randa Markos, in one of the most entertaining fights of the night – came via a controversial split decision. Moreno, the crowd favorite, also lost the title fight.
But the losses didn’t appear to damper the audience’s enthusiasm.
“I get excited when a fighter gets knocked out and then comes back even stronger – it’s thrilling,” said Isal Garcia, 19.
As the UFC attempts to grow the sport worldwide, UFC executives see countries like Chile and Argentina as big potential markets. Yet Mexico and Brazil are “the linchpins” to the company’s Latin America strategy, Carr said.
Brazil is already a huge market for UFC, in part because many of the fighters are experts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a popular self-defense martial art in Brazil that emphasizes the use of chokeholds and leg locks to use an opponent’s size and strength to one’s advantage.
Mexico's boxing fans
But it remains to be seen whether Mexico will embrace mixed martial arts en masse. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans remain a dedicated fan base of boxing, even though the sport has waned in popularity over the last 20 years – coinciding with the rise of mixed-martial arts.
The country’s boxing stars extend from Julio César Chávez González – considered one of the greatest boxers of all time – to Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a three-time world champion who is Mexico’s biggest star today.
Boxing also has a crucial structural advantage over mixed martial arts in Mexico: Bouts are broadcast live on open television every weekend. Because UFC requires a paid subscription to watch, its fans are largely those with money.
UFC hopes to change that with the Fox deal. But while its fights have already begun broadcasting throughout South America, the deal won’t take effect in Mexico until 2019 because of an existing agreement with Televisa, the country’s powerful television broadcaster.
Carr predicted that would be a game-changer. “I really think that having it every weekend on basic cable will change the trajectory of the sport here,” he said.
For now, the sport seems to be gaining recognition. Packed bars throughout Mexico City aired the hyped boxing match between McGregor and Mayweather on Aug. 26.
Many Mexicans watching the game said they were rooting for McGregor, the Irish UFC star who was fighting in his first-ever boxing match. But despite their affinity for the mixed martial arts’ fighter, they dismissed the notion that UFC would surpass boxing in popularity.
“Never!” proclaimed Joel Rodriguez. “Boxing has more sponsors. It has more fighters. And you can watch boxing for free on television.”
Yet Moreno, the baby-faced UFC star who lost the title fight on Aug. 5, said he foresees a day when Mexican fighters will dominate both sports – and mixed martial arts will rival boxing.
A Tijuana native who still lives and trains there, Moreno stepped into a mixed martial arts gym when he was 12 purely by happenstance. Before that moment, he had never heard of UFC or mixed martial arts.
“Para nada,” he said. “The only thing that I wanted was to practice a sport and take advantage of my free time. But I started doing it and I fell in love.”
Up until a year ago, almost nobody recognized him in the street, he said. Now, every time he leaves his house he is stopped at least three times by people wanting to take a picture with him. After his loss to Pettis, he went to get his oil changed, and fans came up to him encouraging him to bounce back.
“I think in four to five years UFC is going to have more shows, more fighters in the top 10,” he said. “It’s only a question of time.”