When John Moraga steps into the cage, he brings the experience and advice of multiple world champions.
The top UFC flyweight contender wrestled alongside UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez at Arizona State, he helped Dominick Cruz prepare to defend his UFC bantamweight title and he currently trains alongside UFC ligthweight titleholder Benson Henderson and Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo.
Needless to say, he's more than seen what it takes to become a world champion first hand.
It hasn't always been easy. Times were tough for Moraga when he began his mixed martial arts career and he faced many difficult points while competing on the local circuit for peanuts, wondering if he'd ever make it.
But after impressing the UFC brass in his first two bouts with the promotion, both finishes of established veterans on the preliminary card, he was granted an opportunity to vie for the UFC flyweight title.
His dream of becoming a champion will potentially become a reality next Saturday night (July 27, 2013) when he battles Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson in the main event of UFC on Fox 8 in Portland, Oregon.
Moraga spoke to MMAmania.com about his humble beginnings in MMA, the influences world champions have had on him and bringing excitement to the UFC 125-pound division in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You're transitioning from opening up two straight Facebook preliminary card fights to competing in the main event for the UFC title. What are expectations heading into this fight considering the drastic jump you're making?
John Moraga: I don't know. I don't know what to expect. I haven't ever headlined like you said but I know this fight is going to have a little more media involved. I'll have a press conference but as far as the fight goes, I don't expect anything different. I really don't think the distractions will matter to me because during the week of the fight I'm in the zone. I'm already in fight mode. When I walk out to the cage, I don't notice how empty the crowd is or how full it is. I don't hear the fans cheering when I'm actually fighting so I don't think it will be too much of a difference as far as the fight goes.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've brought up that having your first child saved your life. What did it safe you from?
John Moraga: Yeah, everything. I was just kind of, I don't know about headed down the wrong path but I didn't care. I was surrounded by stuff. A lot of things can happen. Before had my kid, I was living in the moment. I can't remember what happened the next day. I didn't live for the future. I know that.
So when I had my first son, I had to grow up overnight. I had to start worrying about what's best for him rather than what I wanted to do and whatnot. Aside from that, it gave me focus. It gave me a determination to get something done. Not only because I felt like I had to, I didn't want this kid to grow up without a father. It really made me buckle down and get serious and focus on getting better.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): It definitely wasn't easy at first. I've heard you had to ride a bike across town to the gym because you couldn't afford to fix your car. Can you talk about some of the struggles you faced when you first got started training MMA?
John Moraga: Yeah, the local shows don't pay much. On top of that, it's hard getting fights especially when people started finding out that I was an ASU wrestler. It was really hard to get fights and the fights I did get weren't for much money at all, especially after I fought John Dodson. Even after I lost to Dodson, that was when it was the most difficult.
Not only that but I didn't even get paid to fight John Dodson. I trained for four months out of that year for that training camp because we were actually supposed to fight a month earlier so I trained that camp for four months, put a lot of money into that camp and I didn't even get paid. That was at Christmas-time that year so I didn't have Christmas that year. I didn't have money pretty much that whole next year. It was a rough time not being able to go out to eat, not being able to buy my girlfriend something for Christmas, not being able to buy myself anything. It was frustrating.
The worst part was feeling like you're not able to carry your own weight. Those were rough times and I'm not sure I was second-guessing myself as a fighter but I was really worried whether or not one day I'd be able to make it happen. At the time, it was, "How much longer can I wait to make something happen?" I didn't have enough money to eat properly or eat at all. Sometimes I'd have to run to my mom's house to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I borrowed my cousin's bike to make it to practice.
It was rough but it made me who I am. To me, I didn't let it break me. I'm a professional like that and I got through it and I'm stronger for it.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You had a great history wrestling at Arizona State alongside guys like Ryan Bader, Cain Velasquez, C.B. Dollaway. Did you seek out their advice when you initially made the transition to MMA or did you just follow their lead because you saw the successes they were having?
John Moraga: Yeah, I'm closest to Cain. I know Bader and C.B. but it's not like I have their numbers on speed dial in my phone or something like that. When Cain first went out there to San Jose, we'd talk on the phone every now and then and he'd talk to me about how training was going. Just seeing what his career was like and this was before I decided to get into it. At the time, I didn't feel I had an opportunity to get into MMA. It took me two years after Cain started training before I started training.
I think it was after C.B. and Bader had some success on The Ultimate Fighter. They were training at Arizona Combat Sports at the time and I noticed he was on TV and one of the guys was at ACS was going to be fighting Scott Jorgensen at the time and they needed a wrestler to go in there and kind of give them a wrestler's feel. At the time I'd seen Bader at a wrestling tournament and I asked him about the gym. He said to come down and I ended up helping the guy but he ended up getting hurt and not fighting Jorgensen anyways, but that's what got me in the gym. It just took over from there. Cain told me right away when I decided to fight to learn everything. Learn everything I can and don't rush it so that's what I did. I tried to learn every aspect of the game.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You actually helped prepare Dominick Cruz to fight Demetrious Johnson when he was defending the bantamweight title. Did you learn anything from that which is helping you prepare you for this fight?
John Moraga: I learned so much from that camp. That was kind of an eye-opener camp for me. At the time when I went out there, I was only at Arizona Combat Sports. I hadn't started training at The Lab yet. It was right after I'd got back from that camp that I think I got into The Lab. I learned so much. It was a world class camp. I saw the hard work, I saw the focus he had. Just being a part of it, it was a big part of my career. It was a big step forward.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): It must be pretty wild that three people who have been big influences on your MMA career thus far, Cain Velasquez, Dominick Cruz and now Benson Henderson are all UFC champions.
John Moraga: Yeah, yeah. I was able to learn from a lot of people. Not only that but as far as people that I feel are up there in those categories, I have a friend Henry Cejudo who was an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, the youngest ever. I've known him since junior high. We wrestle until like 9 p.m. and we go hard even when we spar. I see his work ethic and one thing all those guys have in common is their work ethic. They're monsters in the gym, working, working, working, working like nothing I've ever seen before. That's one of the main things they all have that I need to implement in my game. So Demetrious Johnson is not gonna outwork me in this fight.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): With the two excellent finishes you've had in your UFC bouts, do you feel like you're adding that extra level of excitement to the flyweight division?
John Moraga: That's what I plan to do but I don't know if I've done it yet. Not enough people have seen my fights. I think that's my goal. I go out there every time to have an entertaining fight and finish people. I know I have the ability to finish people so that's my goal. I'm trying to implement that into the flyweight division and bring the excitement.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I know visualization is really important at the MMA Lab, so when you picture this fight in your head, how do you visualize success?
John Moraga: Man, one week I visualize it one way, another week I visualize it this way. I feel like I can win it anywhere. I feel like I can knock him out. I feel like I can submit him. I can control the fight. I don't know. I've had a lot of visions but the biggest vision I have is at the end of the fight. There's so many ways it can play out but I'm going in there to get my hand raised. I'm not going in there to just be on posters and be on TV this one time and cash in this one time. I'm in this to be the best so I'm going in there to get my hand raised for sure.
Jon would like to thank his teammates, his coaches, everyone that's helped him in the past, his sponsors Monster Cable and Maryvale Chiropractic. You can follow him on Twitter @ChicanoJohn.