John Moraga knew it would be taken the wrong way right after he said it. UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson was “boring.” The words flew out of his mouth with conviction. They were his honest feelings. As stated, that’s not exactly a nuanced criticism but an indictment.
But there is more to it than that. He never intended to mean that Johnson is bad, or that he’s undeserving of holding his belt. It’s nothing like that. It’s just that Moraga is an action fighter, with equal emphasis on both words, and well, he feels that Johnson is not. He feels that in the nascent stages of the division, its standard bearer should be someone who seizes the spotlight with memorable performances, but that Johnson doesn’t do that.
The way Moraga sees it, as a mixed martial artist, Johnson is great. As a fighter, he leaves something to be desired.
“He just bounces around. He runs around too much. He don’t fight,” Moraga said during a recent interview. “He don’t put on exciting fights. He’s got a lot of technique and skill, but he doesn’t go in there and try to finish people, I don’t feel.”
That criticism is now his problem to solve. The 29-year-old is locked into a UFC on FOX 8 matchup with Johnson in July, after their original April date was pushed back due to an injury to the champion.
It is an opportunity that came from the ether. Moraga was little-known when he entered the UFC, and truth be told, his Q rating has only minimally increased since then, despite two straight finishes in the octagon. He acknowledged this himself when he noted that a stint doing interviews during UFC 160 weekend was really the first time he’s seriously interacted with the media.
So if he’s a surprise contender, he’s in on the shock as well.
“I was a bit surprised that it came so quick, but I was the only one who had two finishes in the division,” he said. “I felt like I beat two decently ranked opponents so I felt it was possible, but I was a little bit surprised that it came so quick.”
Helping his comfort level is his inside knowledge on Johnson. He’s been friends with bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz since high school, and he was part of Cruz’s camp when he successfully defended the belt against “Mighty Mouse” in October 2011.
In that camp, Moraga was one of Cruz’s main wrestling partners. Since they’re still close, Moraga said that the injured champion has given him some words of wisdom on facing Johnson.
Though he wouldn’t divulge the nature of that information, it’s clear that Moraga has ideas on what it will take to win, as well as what Johnson brings to the table.
For example, while many believe Johnson to be the fastest fighter in the UFC, Moraga disputes that notion, saying, “I don’t think he’s that fast. I think he has good timing.” He also doesn’t think Johnson is a great wrestler, and he certainly doesn’t think the champion can throw hands with him.
While Moraga himself comes from a wrestling base, he defines himself as a standup fighter, once telling a reporter he was skilled in the art of “Chingasos,” a slang term for throwing bombs.
Though he comes with that gritty edge, Moraga is in his personal life a family man, crediting his two sons for the motivation to achieve success. Moraga’s story is somewhat similar to that of light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones. He went to college but didn’t graduate, and started training after learning that he was about to become a father.
Moraga was immediately successful, winning his first six fights. Even after losing for the first time to future UFC flyweight John Dodson, Moraga rebounded, ripping off five straight wins, a streak that punched his ticket to the UFC.
Beating Ulysses Gomez and Chris Cariaso back-to-back then gave him his biggest break yet. As it turns out, Moraga was fresh off his most recent win when the promotion first offered him a different fight. His 16-year-old cousin had just passed away and so Moraga didn’t feel like jumping back into the gym yet. So he declined. Then, something better came up.
“When they told me about the title fight, it kind of changed things,” he said. “It kind of gave me some motivation to hurry up and get back in the gym. So it kind of helped me out. Once [Johnson] got hurt, it was kind of good for me because I was able to just focus on getting back in the gym and just giving me some extra preparation for the biggest fight of my life.”
Moraga will probably be a sizable underdog on fight night. Due to his lack of visibility until now — he’s appeared on the opening fight on both UFC cards in which he’s fought — he will be far lesser known than the champ as well. But that’s not a problem. The challenge is figuring out Johnson, who always seems so tantalizingly close, yet out of reach. So beatable, yet untouchable.
“I’m going to have to do things a little bit differently for this fight,” he said. “I’m definitely going to have to do things things a little differently than I want to, but it’s all good.
“My main thing is I don’t want to go out there and put on boring fights. For this fight, who knows how it’s going to play out? Once we get in there, we’ll adapt to whatever we need to. I know I’m going to have be a little bit patient because he moves around so much and doesn’t get the fight going right away as far as big, heavy exchanges or anything like that.”
Especially after criticizing the champ, Moraga has work to do, and he knows just what it is. He has to draw Johnson into his gravitational pull. He has to make it less of a mixed martial arts match, and more of a fight.
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