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Marlon Moraes v Jose Aldo Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Island 5’s Marlon Moraes

High kick machine, Marlon Moraes, will face off with slick kickboxer, Cory Sandhagen, this Saturday (Oct. 10, 2020) at UFC Fight Island 5 inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Moraes’ situation is a weird one. Can a fighter be considered in a rough patch while having won his last bout and being ranked as the division’s top contender? No, certainly not by any reasonable standard. Yet, it kind of feels that way. Moraes rode such an impressive wave of momentum into his title bout with Henry Cejudo that the conclusion almost felt forgone. Instead, “Triple C” was born and proved himself a legendary fighter, leaving “Magic” forgotten in the process. The strangeness continued in Moraes vs. Jose Aldo. This time, Moraes won the close fight, but expectations of an early knockout were there, and the promotion simply acted like Aldo won ... so it kind of felt like he did?

Ultimately, Moraes is in search a definitive win that puts him right back in the title mix. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:


A former Muay Thai champion in Brazil, Moraes is one of Bantamweight’s nastiest knockout threats. To understand Moraes’ kickboxing and success, it’s first important to note that the Brazilian simply kicks harder and faster than the vast majority of his peers. Often times, there’s no technique to analyze, just blink and miss it as Moraes’ shin soars through the air.

Moraes has a ton of ways to land kicks, some of them rather creative. Much of the time, however, it’s as simple as feint-kick. Moraes is a heavy puncher, enough so that his feints have to be respected. Usually, a little movement from Moraes will see his opponent take a step back, setting up a perfect low kick.

In addition, Moraes commonly finds a home for low kicks simply by moving laterally. Whether Moraes is circling to his own left or right, his opponent must continue to turn and face him. If Moraes gets a slight step ahead of his opponent, he can throw the low kick as his opponent shifts to face, meaning his foe is out-of-position to pull the leg back or check.

Moraes also helps himself out by throwing a wide variety of kicks with the same dangerous speed and power. Moraes frequently snaps off kicks to the leg, body, and head from both legs with little warning, making it difficult to properly read and block the strike. Moraes will throw left kicks with a switch or by actually switching to Southpaw for a moment. If a fighter guesses the target wrong rather than simply getting out of range, the result can be disastrous.

Overall, Moraes targets the body fairly often, both with kicks and punches. Before kicking high, Moraes will often squat down a bit, a feint that gives the impression that Moraes is kicking low, punching the body or generally targeting something below the neck.

That impression is false.

In his last two knockout wins, the simple switch high kick has brought an early end to his opponents. There was no brilliant set up, only a single blow thrown with brutal speed and power. Aljamain Sterling happened to duck into the strike (GIF), whereas Rivera’s right hand guarded his chin, but the kick landed to his temple (GIF). That said, the Rivera knockout was also set up with a quick step to Moraes’ left, getting Rivera to turn as he switched his feet and fired the kick.

One of Moraes’ favored kick set ups is the cross-same side kick. Firing a right cross then left kick is more common — and a technique that Moraes does well — but hiding the right kick behind a right cross can allow the kick to sneak around the guard nicely.

Finally, Moraes is very good at kicking the legs of opponents who attempt to kick him. This can happen in a variety of ways, from checking the kick and immediately firing back to kicking the base leg when his opponent goes high. In one neat example, Moraes landed a particularly brutal counter low kick after Assuncao attempted a side kick to the thigh. “Magic” moved his own leg to safety and drilled a kick into Assuncao’s thigh before he could pull his leg back.

The final thing to note on Moraes’ kicking game is his kicking technique itself. The Brazilian’s kicks lead with the knee then unfurl the rest of his leg, which really ensures that a large amount of his weight is carried behind the blow. It also helps guarantee Moraes lands with the shin rather than the foot. When throwing high kicks in this fashion, landing a knee rather than a kick is very possible (it almost happens in the earlier Josh Hill GIF above as well), but that’s hardly a problem for the Brazilian (GIF).

Moraes’ hands are very solid for a fighter who relies so heavily on kicks. Offensively, he’ll jab occasionally — often to cover up that lateral movement — but Moraes does most of his work with flurries of the left hook and cross. That’s pretty classic Muay Thai, as both strikes can be followed with a variety of kicks. He’ll also dart out to a favorable angle behind the cross, a definite sign of his work with Mark Henry.

Over the years, Moraes has grown as a counter puncher, and this is where his work with Henry and that group of fighters — particularly Eddie Alvarez, Edson Barboza, and Frankie Edgar — has its clearest impact. As opponents advance, Moraes will duck down or slip left before returning with a hard left hook, a very common reaction of Barboza, who trained Muay Thai in Brazil with Moraes as well prior to their respective UFC careers. Another counter option, one that Moraes has used quite well in his current run, is to sit back over his right leg, behind his shoulder, and return fire with a three piece (GIF).

In the third round of his bout with Aldo, Moraes really did nice work while fighting from his back foot. He slipped punches, stuck the jab more often, and kicked the inside of the leg often. Whenever Aldo really chased hard, Moraes was able to find a home for his counter punches as well.

Opposite Cejudo, Moraes did reveal a bit of a weakness to the double-collar tie. Now, a great deal of his problems in that fight came from Cejudo’s relentlessness and physical strength, but Moraes simply did not fight out of that position well either. As a result, he absorbed lots of knees to the chest and face, which will definitely hurt the gas tank.

That may sound like a contradictory problem for a Muay Thai specialist, but it’s important to note that Muay Thai taught outside of Thailand rarely emphasizes the clinch all that much.


Moraes doesn’t often turn to his wrestling other than to defend takedowns, but he’ll switch things up on occasion. Recently, Moraes has been attempting the Frankie Edgar running knee pick, though it hasn’t quite worked for him yet.

More realistically, Moraes can sprint into a double-leg. He drove into a shot every once a while in World Series of Fighting (WSOF), but recently, Moraes did score a nice double opposite John Dodson. Dodson is historically an extremely difficult fighter to pin to the mat, so Moraes’ ability to drive him to the fence and slam from there was impressive.

UFC Fight Night: Dodson v Moraes Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Defensively, Moraes is generally a very difficult man to pin down. Distance control and athleticism will go a long way in defending the shot, as will working with excellent wrestlers in Northern New Jersey. Aljamain Sterling was set to be a great challenge to Moraes’ takedown defense, but the Brazilian flattened too quickly for anything to really be learned. Against Cejudo, Moraes had little trouble defending the takedown while fresh. Then, he got clinch kneed into exhaustion, and Cejudo was able to manhandle him on the mat.

MMA: UFC 238-Cejudo vs Moraes Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Still, all in all, Moraes athleticism has shut down a vast majority of takedown attempts.

I talked earlier how Moraes leads his kicks with the knee and sets them up with just feints much of the time, and both of those traits can allow his kicks to be caught. Dodson found success catching kicks and converting them into takedowns, but holding Moraes down is a very difficult task. Furthermore, catching those kicks safely is a major challenge too, as reaching down at the wrong time is likely a mistake that ends the fight.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Moraes is a jiu-jitsu black belt under Ricardo Almeida, and he’s submitted six of his past opponents. Most of his submission victories have come by way of rear-naked choke — including a pair of club-n-sub victories in WSOF — but Moraes reminded fans of his grappling prowess in his rematch opposite Assuncao.

After dropping his fellow jiu-jitsu black belt, Moraes was unable to rip off many strikes from top position, as Assuncao did a good job of wrapping up a guard and controlling posture. When Assuncao moved towards the fence and attempted wall-walk, however, Moraes immediately wrapped up his neck and fell back.

UFC Fight Night: Assuncao v Moraes 2 Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

There are several reasons Moraes was able to submit such a high-level black belt. For one, Moraes did a great job positionally: he fell to the correct angle, and he hooked the leg as Assuncao attempted to roll, which prevented an athletic scrambling. The cage position helped as well, trapping Assuncao and making it easier for Moraes to climb into mount. All the while, Moraes did an excellent job of maintaining hip pressure and applying his squeeze throughout the transitions (GIF).


Marlon Moraes is now 32 years old, likely approaching the end of his fighting prime after three years as a UFC contender and a long, dominant stretch in WSOF. He still has all the skill and athleticism to become champion, but if that’s going to happen, “Magic” likely needs to return to the win column this weekend and get the ball rolling.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Island 5 fight card this weekend right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance at 8 p.m. ET (also on ESPN+).

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Fight Island 5: “Moraes vs. Sandhagen” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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