Marlon Moraes bullied his way to the front of the line of bantamweight contenders Saturday night, crushing Raphael Assuncao with a big right hand, then finishing him with a guillotine choke in the first round of their UFC Fight Night main event in Fortaleza, Brazil.
It is unclear, however, if there will be a title fight waiting for the presumed No. 1 contender.
Though the UFC did not officially proclaim this bout at the Northeast Olympic Training Center to be an eliminator for the right to challenge 135-pound champion TJ Dillashaw, it has been widely assumed -- given that Moraes came in having won three consecutive fights, Assuncao four in a row -- that the winner would be first in line to face the 135-pound champion. However, Dillashaw has been angling to instead fight flyweight titleholder Henry Cejudo, who two weeks ago knocked him out in 32 seconds in Dillashaw's bid to add the 125-pound belt to his trophy case.
After beating Assuncao, Moraes mocked Dillashaw for dabbling in that potential scenario.
"Hey, TJ, I don't know if you deserve to fight with me," he said in an interview inside the Octagon. "After your last performance, my friend, I'm sorry, I may have to take somebody else and let you go down and hunt for the little boys."
Moraes (22-5-1), 30, got Assuncao to tap at the 3-minute, 17-second mark to earn his third straight first-round finish. He has won 17 of his past 18 bouts, the lone defeat during that run being a split-decision loss to Assuncao in their first meeting in 2017. That was the UFC debut for Moraes, a former World Series of Fighting champion.
The rematch started slowly and ended explosively. After the two Brazilians each had landed a few strikes, Moraes connected with an overhand right and, before Assuncao could gather himself, landed another big right that dropped him. Moraes swarmed, at first with punches, but then latched onto the guillotine. He ended up on top of Assuncao, the choke secured, and the tapout came quickly.
Assuncao (27-6), 36, had won 11 of 12 fights since 2011, the only loss coming in 2016 against Dillashaw. He also owns a 2013 victory over the champ.
The bantamweight title picture now would be crystal clear if not for the presence of the flyweight champion. Assuncao is No. 4 in ESPN's 135-pound rankings, Moraes No. 5. But the two contenders situated between them and the champ are Dominick Cruz, who is out with an injury, and Cody Garbrandt, who has lost to Dillashaw twice and is unlikely to get a third shot anytime soon.
Moraes would be the clear-cut next challenger if the champ were not fixated on Cejudo.
"I'm the best in the division, and you know who I deserve," Moraes said. "You know our champion went down a weight class, but I'm ready."