The half-made piñata would sit on the bottom of Pinatas Moreno in Tijuana, Mexico, and the shop owner Alfredo Moreno wouldn’t be happy.
The job wasn’t done, and his son’s other interest was probably to blame.
Brandon Moreno began his mixed martial arts training when he was 12 years old while also working part-time in his family’s company. One was a job. The other was a passion. But both have helped shape the athlete who will be the first Mexico-born fighter to fight for a UFC title on Saturday when he challenges flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo in the main UFC 256 event.
The piñata business exposed Brandon to his parents’ work ethic, which served him well in his unlikely rise to the UFC rankings. The business also served as a financial liferaft after it was cut by the UFC in 2018 and had surgery on his newborn daughter. Although Brandon was never that good at making pinatas, his efforts in the family business helped him figure out what he wanted in life.
“Every day I saw my parents work so hard to give us the best opportunities and the best possible lives,” said Moreno.
When Moreno started MMA training in 2005 at the age of 12, he was a “shabby” kid, he said. Chubby. When he was younger, his main hobbies after school were video games and junk food. At first, MMA was just a way to get the exercise you need.
In the same year Moreno started working part-time at Piñatas Moreno. Some of the work was done from home and the other part in a small warehouse nearby. Moreno’s day consisted of school, making piñatas, and then running to practice.
The more Moreno trained, the more he fell in love with fighting – the physicality and the competition. The original plan was for Moreno to go to college and then law school. But it quickly became clear that fighting wasn’t a random interest.
“At first I thought [MMA] was a distraction for him, a hobby, “said Moreno’s mother Cecilia Carrillo.” I always wanted him to study, go to college. It was very important to me that he do it so that he can have a good life.
“But he never wavered, he always trained and he really liked it. Since he was little he started setting goals for himself. He would always tell me that he would be the best whatever he was in life “I’ll be a lawyer – the best,” he said to me.
Moreno’s parents supported his decision to fight rather than study. But there was a requirement. In order to cover the costs of the training and to make ends meet, Moreno had to work full time in the family business.
It was a busy schedule. Moreno woke up in the morning, exercised for two hours, and then came home for five or six hours to make piñatas. After dinner, he went to the gym for two hours before finishing the night in the warehouse and putting the finishing touches on the piñatas.
“I could make my own schedule because I wanted to train,” said Moreno. “That’s why my parents helped me so much. … I started making money myself. I grew up and started to know hard work.”
Things didn’t always go smoothly. Admittedly, Moreno was never a very good piñata maker. The process, he said, starts with cardboard glued together with homemade glue – a combination of hot water and flour. Moreno said it would take him about 30 minutes to build a piñata. Alfredo became impatient at times.
“In the end, he’d run Brandon out of the room because he couldn’t,” Carrillo said with a laugh.
“I never had the right skill to make the piñatas, but it’s been a fun part of my life. I’m a better fighter than a piñata maker.”
The Morenos founded the small company in 1997. Their Colonia Guerrero neighborhood had many families making piñatas, said Carrillo, who also grew up making piñatas. The business started a few years later when the family began selling piñatas across the border in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Alfredo, Moreno’s brother, and another worker made the shells for the piñatas. Then Carrillo came in and decorated them. The piñatas come in different shapes and sizes – like stars, animals and numbers. While building the piñatas wasn’t his forte, Moreno eventually found his niche.
“He would come home and help put on the piñata sticks, and he was very good at it,” said Carrillo. “And he kept on doing it, even though at that point he was 100% committed to the sport.”
The 26-year-old Moreno worked full time at Piñatas Moreno for four years until he got a place on the UFC reality show “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2016. It was a great achievement – and a relief – for Moreno.
“I never had the right skill to make the piñatas,” Moreno said with a laugh. “But it’s been a fun part of my life. I’m a better fighter than a piñata maker.”
The Ultimate Fighter 24 was a tournament to decide who would be the next challenger to UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. To say Moreno is an unannounced prospect would be an understatement. It was last sown among the 16 participants.
Moreno lost his first fight by filing in the second round to Alexandre Pantoja, but Moreno was impressive enough to land a UFC contract. No other first-round loser received an offer.
If he steps into the octagon against Figueiredo, many will again expect Moreno to lose. Figureido is a 3: 1 betting favorite.
“I was – and always am – the outsider,” said Moreno. “I think I’m the underdog in life. But I always win. I always win [in the end]. For me, that’s the most important thing. “
After losing to Pantoja, Moreno won his first three official UFC bouts. But then he lost two fights and uncertainty about the future of the flyweight division prompted the UFC to release him.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Eight months after his release, in September 2018, Moreno’s second child, Megan, was born with health problems. The family does not want to elaborate on their illness, but at some point they feared they had a tumor on their stomach. She had to be operated on. And at that time it was hard to get hold of money. Moreno’s parents came to help Megan with money from the piñata business.
“When we knew it was Friday and the doctor told them they could operate as soon as possible [my son] I didn’t have the money, “said Alfredo.” I told him if he needed it I would give it to him so they could operate on Monday. And so it went and everything worked out. Thank you God. We were concerned, but it went well.
“She’s strong. She’s like Brandon, he’s a fighter. He’s got a lot of energy. He never takes a step back.”
Moreno, who lives with his wife Shirley and their three daughters, said Megan is now healthy and “amazing”.
And Moreno is excellent at what he does.
In June 2019, Moreno fought in the Legacy Fighting Alliance and won the flyweight title in that promotion. He was back in the UFC three months later – and hasn’t lost since.
Now he will make history and represent a country that is not alien to martial arts. Mexico has produced some of the greatest boxers such as Julio Cesar Chavez and Salvador Sanchez, as well as current superstar Canelo Alvarez. There have been Mexican-American UFC champions like Cain Velasquez, but never one born in Mexico.
“It means everything to me,” said Moreno. “We have a lot of the future of martial arts in Tijuana and Mexico in general. … But mixed martial arts is a relatively new sport in my country.
“I know I can change the game in my country when they have the first 100% Mexican champion in the UFC.”
From dreams of law school to pinatas in Tijuana to dropping out of the UFC and headlining a pay-per-view, Moreno’s trip has been a unique testament to his work ethic and perseverance.
“My life is a roller coaster,” said Moreno. “Lots of good moments, lots of bad moments too.
“At the end of the day, it’s all part of my experience.”