Renato Moicano is not a fighter who presents a single, stand-out problem. No one is writing home about his thunderous right hand, his blindingly fast jab, or his unstoppable double leg takedown. The Brazilian brings a fairly mundane toolkit to his fights but can eye up an opponent and tell you exactly what is needed within a few minutes of sparring. And when Moicano has assessed his man and hit on what is working, it is ruthlessly exploited until his opponent can no longer keep pace. No, Moicano has no standout technique or tactic to set the featherweights of the world quivering in their boots, but he has something much more useful: he has answers.
Even if you are a fairly committed follower of the UFC, Renato Moicano’s surge to prominence in the featherweight division might have caught you by surprise. Moicano arrived in the UFC in December 2014, beating Tom Niinimaki fairly impressively on the undercard of a Fight Night event. Unfortunately, Moicano was taken out of action by injuries and missed the entirety of 2015, and only managed one mundane decision victory in May 2016.
After another year out, Moicano returned to the cage on April 15, 2017 to face the No. 5 ranked featherweight, Jeremy Stephens. It was an opportunity that seemingly came out of nowhere and yet Mociano made good on it. The Brazilian made Stephens look foolish, clipping off crisp jabs, low kicks and combinations before circling away from Stephens’s straight-armed swings. Since then, Moicano has managed to stay healthy and looked impressive boxing up Brian Ortega (before falling into a guillotine choke), and outclassed Calvin Kattar and Cub Swanson in 2018.
There isn’t a lot about Moicano that you can grab onto: none of his weapons are the fastest or the hardest or the crispest in the division, and that might account somewhat for his almost sneaking up on the featherweight top ten. We are touting him as a brilliant striker, yet he hasn’t scored a single knockout. But when you have access to the footage and you can watch one fight after another, the changes Moicano makes from fight to fight are a more exciting indicator of potential than any Zabit Magomedsharipov or Yair Rodriguez jumping spin kick.
Stephens – Lateral Movement, Straight Hitting
Jeremy Stephens’s game is well known. He is going to walk forward and attempt to kick your lead leg very hard, or take your head off by swinging his hands. The problem is that he’s extremely tough and has a pretty good gas tank for someone swinging all their being into every shot. Even the very best fighters in the world have to show they are capable of adapting in order to beat him.
One of the key weaknesses in Stephens’s game is his footwork. He can cut the cage for a while, but tends to get frustrated by direction changes, and when he gets frustrated his ring cutting gets even worse. So Moicano set to work floating around the cage with his feet almost parallel. This was a stark contrast to his usual long, low stance. With his feet level Moicano could side step more effectively. Each time Stephens stepped in he ate Moicano’s jab, then Moicano would circle off into space and Stephens would have to cut the ring all over again.
Of course no one can be perfect all the time, so Moicano did end up at the fence from time to time. But the Brazilian kept his head (and remembered to move it) and then cut tighter angles out to the side. He often did this by stepping across himself, allowing a tight pivot around to face the opponent or permitting him to run straight through into a sprint in the style of Alexander Gustafsson if he felt particularly troubled.
When the judges’ decision was announced, one judge saw it—bizarrely—for Stephens, perhaps because he had been advancing the entire time. The problem is that moving forward while getting lanced by jabs is really only dictating the pace at which you get your ass kicked. But to everyone else it was quite a coup, Moicano was basically unknown and Stephens had just fought a far closer fight against the great Frankie Edgar who was being lined up for a title shot.
Ortega – Catch and Pitch
Unfortunately, Moicano’s path to the top was hindered slightly in his next match where he made the first misstep of his UFC career, against Brian Ortega. The fight started out well for Moicano as he abandoned the mobile style and opted to play catch and pitch with Ortega. Ortega likes to throw hard and one or two at a time, he also likes to attempt to shoulder roll off his opponent’s right hand but does it pretty poorly, leaving his chin up and his shoulder low. So Moicano carried his left forearm upright, ready to catch Ortega’s right hand and immediately return with his own.
Moicano had success returning on Ortega’s right hands but was caught by surprise at just how durable Ortega was. Moicano put over a hundred blows onto Orega’s head but there was very little to show for it, where Ortega had opened up Moicano’s nose pretty badly in one of the opening trades.
It got pretty heated as Moicano forced more and more trades.
Moreover, for all his technical shortcomings, Ortega often shows a talent for the science of striking. By the second round Ortega was sneaking in body punches while Moicano teed off on his head. By the third round, Moicano was breathing hard. A reactive takedown late in the second round had scored Moicano some points and won him some breathing room, but an attempt at the same in round three saw him dragged into the vaunted Ortega guillotine and he was quickly submitted.
The Ortega fight stands as an example of Moicano doing his reconnaissance and not adapting appropriately because he was too invested in his first plan. Moicano found good success with low kicks as Ortega stepped in. He also found Ortega’s body easily when he shot for it in his punching combinations. But he rarely returned to these targets and instead stuck to his guns in swinging for Ortega’s head.
Kattar – Killing the Jab
Calvin Kattar met Moicano coming off a tremendous knockout over Shane Burgos. Kattar was known as a kickboxer but did much of his work floating in behind a jab in order to score a good right hand. Moicano’s task in this fight seemed to be cutting down Kattar’s mobility while mitigating Kattar’s straight hitting. For the early going it was all the usual Moicano check hooks and the odd kick, but Moicano really found his stride when he timed Kattar with low kicks as Kattar stepped in.
The traditional in and out style of boxing cannot be performed without one leg leading the entire body into the opponent’s range, so as that leg stepped, Moicano punted it—either moving his head off line or checking Kattar’s hands with his own as he did so.
Here Moicano demonstrates one of the prettiest techniques in counter kicking—slipping inside of the jab and countering with the right low kick to buckle the opponent’s planting leg.
A few jarring connections as Kattar stepped in and suddenly Kattar wasn’t so mobile. Kattar would follow Moicano around the cage and then Moicano would stop and start checking Kattar’s hands, showing him feinted jabs and straights, and then as Moicano threw a kick from this close range you could almost see in Kattar’s face the disappointment that he had been suckered once again.
A common feature of Moicano fights is distance control. If he is not doing his own hitting, he simply isn’t there. It hardly seems sporting but that is the way good striking is done. So if Moicano stands still in front of his opponent, you can be pretty much assured there is a trap being set.
Moicano’s movement and distance work against Kattar was broken up by periods where he would stand in front of Kattar, heavy on the front foot in his long stance, and extend his right hand to either check Kattar’s lead hand or obstruct the path of the jab. Obstructing the path of the jab is a great trick that you will see all the time in MMA—it looks like the fighter is open for the left hook behind his extended right hand, but the entire point is to stifle the quickest punch the opponent has, and being ready to react to the slower one that is being offered up.
After eating a couple of those low kicks as he stepped in, Kattar became more cautious in these little pawing exchanges, and then Moicano was free to skip up and hack away with the inside low kick.
When obstructing a jabber’s best weapon, a fighter has to know that the moment his checking hand slips from that path, the moment his opponent’s lead fist is shown a glimmer of sunlight, that jab is going to fly out of its own accord. So rather than simply shutting down an opponent’s jab, a fighter might do even more damage to his opponent’s confidence through carefully choosing when he is going to allow his opponent to jab. Moicano’s right hand was rarely off of the line of Kattar’s jab, but when it was, Kattar’s jab would come like clockwork and Moicano would immediately slip to the elbow side of it and return with a counter right hand.
A final crafty look was Moicano’s work from southpaw. He would occasionally switch stances and then lead with a right uppercut. This served to raise the head of Kattar and stand him upright. Following with a body kick, a leg kick, or a high kick, Moicano was able to score good connections on Kattar throughout the fight. This use of the southpaw right uppercut to both close the distance and stand the opponent up was a staple of the great Nak Muay, Yodsanklai.
Of course there are features of Moicano’s game which are constant from fight to fight. As we remarked earlier, what he does best is adjust the ratios to suit his opponent. On Saturday night, Moicano faces Jose Aldo—the most accomplished featherweight in MMA history and while Moicano deserves this opportunity he has by no means been flawless. Moicano’s check hooks are a double edged sword—he scores many of his best connections by leaning back and whipping out the left hook as his opponent chases him, but he also exposes himself horribly when he does so.
Moicano’s bad habit is the same that Francis Ngannou had when he first came to the UFC. He has his timing down on the check hook and has good success on it, but rather than slide back with his feet or drop his right foot back and lean back into his stance, he will often come up out of his stance and lean back only at the waist. This means that there are many, many awkward occasions in Moicano fights where the opponent is almost on top of him and he is swinging with his hands low and performing a limbo. (It is worth noting that Ngannou fixed this habit and you can see him perform the same technique with much neater mechanics and while maintaining his stance against Andrei Arlovski.)
Like Ngannou, Moicano will pair his check hook with a right uppercut. It’s a good combination because if the opponent senses the hook he will normally drop his head and crunch down to protect himself, then the bus driver uppercut clacks his teeth together.
In the above example, Moicano actually shifts off to his left side as he throws the check hook, taking him into a southpaw stance to land a right hook/uppercut. We all recall this sneaky southpaw hook from the ninety degree angle as Mike Tyson’s favorite punch, but it is hardly a modern invention. Here is Georges Carpentier (world light heavyweight champion from 1920 to 1922) demonstrating the exact same shift to line up the right hand.
Moicano’s back-leaning check hooks are the most worrying because should Moicano go into a lean like this and his opponent instead show him a double jab and commit to covering ground before letting go the right hand, Moicano will have nowhere to go when that right hand comes.
And even those shifts into southpaw out to the side have their problems. Brian Ortega caught Moicano with clotheslines every time he stepped out to the right in this manner with his head up in the air and that is how Moicano got bloodied up in that fight in the first place.
While the counter hooks work wonderfully when Moicano can get opponents reaching for his head, his Achilles heel in the Ortega fight turned out to be his body. You can’t lean your gut out of reach. Moicano is a gangly guy for the weight class and drives a hard pace to begin with, a bit of body work could slow his feet and cause him all kinds of trouble. Jose Aldo’s commitment to bodywork has been sporadic, but after he handed Jeremy Stephens a very rare knockout loss with a liver shot, you have to think he’ll be coming into this fight with a new appreciation for hitting the midriff.
We have only really hit the main points of Moicano’s striking, and there is a lot of clever stuff he does that we just don’t have time to cover in depth (marching double kick combinations like an old school American kickboxer, upward elbows and so on) but it is worth noting just how smooth Moicano has looked on the ground in his UFC fights. He hasn’t scored a single career knockout, but that statistic hides the fact that he has hurt a lot of opponents and then methodically finished them on the ground. You will remember this as B.J. Penn’s typical gameplan, but there’s a touch of Penn in Moicano’s top game as well. When met with butterfly guard, Moicano will clear one knee, drop to a hip and then simply step over the other hook straight into mount.
In his most recent fight, against Cub Swanson, Moicano set to work establishing the jab and frustrating Swanson who was forced to leap to close the distance. A stiff jab sent Swanson to the mat and Moicano quickly found himself in the mount. As a Swanson fan it is sometimes more fun to watch him work hurt because his ground game is something quite wily—constantly working back to half butterfly guard and hitting stand ups and sweep attempts from there. As Moicano postured up to strike, Swanson sat straight up into him, scooting back on his hands and sneaking a knee in to accomplish butterfly half-guard. But even against a guard player as slick as Swanson, Moicano sat to his hip again and swept the leg over to mount once more. Eventually Moicano was able to subdue Swanson with a rear naked choke.
UFC on ESPN+ 2 is an absolutely stacked card of fights for the educated fight fan. From Moraes vs. Assuncao to Oliveira vs. Teymur to Alves vs. Griffin, there are some seriously compelling match ups between high level technicians scheduled. It should tell you something that instead of covering all of those we chose to focus entirely on one fighter today and on his style rather than the specifics of his upcoming bout.
Renato Moicano has shown the ability to spot openings and ruthlessly exploit them, changing his game on the fly without instruction, and even among the elite that remains a rare skill. He has the makings of something very special and it is important that you know that, and in turn that you know just how good Jose Aldo is if he can, at this advanced stage in his career, beat such a prospect.
Jack Slack wrote the biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor and hosts the Fights Gone By podcast.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.