Top Flyweight contender, John Moraga, is set to take on inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Flyweight kingpin, Demetrious Johnson, this Saturday (July 27, 2013) night at KeyArena in Seattle, Wash., in the main event of UFC on Fox 8.
With two finishes against top competition, Moraga has earned his 125-pound title shot. Unfortunately, most of the UFC fan base is asking the same question:
Who the hell is John Moraga?
Moraga is a relative newcomer to both mixed martial arts (MMA) and the UFC. He made his professional debut in 2009 and entered the Octagon about two years later, bringing an impressive record (11-1) along with him. Originally matched up against Ian McCall, Moraga ended up in the cage with Ulysses Gomez at UFC on Fox 4 after "Uncle Creepy" was forced out because of an injury in training.
The MMA Lab-trained product quickly brutalized Gomez, knocking out the well-regarded Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter in less than one round. Next, Moraga was paired with former Bantamweight scrapper Chris Cariaso, a very tough veteran who had been fighting -- and beating -- heavier fighters for years. After two close rounds, Moraga finished the fight with a tight anaconda choke against the fence.
Does this unknown sleeper have a chance against the intense speed, cardio and well-rounded game of "Mighty Mouse?"
Let's take a closer look:
Despite entering the sport with a grappling background, Moraga has quickly become a devastating Muay Thai style striker. Utilizing tight combinations with real power, Moraga is a dangerous man to test standing.
Moraga is a tall, rangy fighter, at least for the Flyweight division. From a distance, he throws hard kicks, often to his opponents' legs. For instance, Moraga quickly hampered Gomez's takedown attempts by ramming his leg repeatedly with thudding kicks. In addition, he has a decent jab that he hides well with his feints.
One of Moraga's favorite punches is his left hook. Moraga likes to stalk his opponents, wait for them to throw punches, then slip and counter with his left hook. He is very good at forcing his opponents into his left hook by preceding it with a straight. As his opponents try to avoid the straight, the hook lands.
Moraga's most powerful punch is likely his right cross. On the rare occasion that he is forced to retreat, Moraga likes to respond to his opponents' aggression with his cross. In his most recent fight, Moraga repeatedly punished "Kamikaze's" leg kick attempts by blasting him with a straight right, even dropping him in the first round.
In addition to his excellent range attack, Moraga is especially nasty from the clinch. Once he locks up a Thai plumb, Moraga's control of his opponents' posture is excellent. He's able to whip around his opponents while landing knees, leg kicks and short punches.
"Useless" Gomez found out just how good Moraga's clinch game was the hard way. Seeking a takedown, he repeatedly tried to clinch with Moraga, only to eat hard knees to the body. Once Moraga realized the advantage he had in the clinch, he began seeking it out, eventually rocking Gomez with an elbow and finishing him with punches.
One interesting thing about Moraga's striking game is his dedication to attacking his opponents' bodies. Moraga loves to throw straights to the body and frequently rips a left hook into his opponents' livers after cutting angles. He doesn't just attack with punches, either -- Moraga turned Gomez sluggish by pounding his body with nasty knees and a brutal kick.
Moraga's defense can be hit or miss. When he's pursuing his opponents, his head movement is often very good, and he slips most of their punches. Unfortunately, he seems to occasionally forget about moving his head. At these times, he's vulnerable. Additionally, when his opponents pressure him, he often moves straight backward and throws his right cross rather than slipping punches and circling out.
Moraga is an NCAA Division 1 wrestler from Arizona State University (ASU), which is known for producing outstanding wrestlers who transition well into MMA such as Cain Velasquez, Ryan Bader and C.B. Dollaway, among others. While we haven't seen much of his wrestling game in the UFC, he's been very successful in his few attempts.
Moraga likes to wrestle from the clinch. Complemented by his nasty clinch striking ability, Moraga appears to be very strong from the clinch. While he decided to stand with Cariaso for most of the fight, he did throw him twice from a body lock with shocking ease. Cariaso may not be the biggest or strongest fighter, but he's a crafty veteran and Moraga rag-dolled him.
While Moraga has yet to shoot for a takedown in the UFC, his fights on the regional scene show he is more than capable there, too. Moraga likes to grind his opponents into the cage with a double-leg before lifting them up for slams.
One interesting thing about Moraga's double-leg is that he leaves himself open to guillotines. Whether he is baiting his opponents for a easier takedowns or it's simply a flaw in his game is hard to tell, but Moraga's opponents are often squeezing on his neck as he completes the takedown.
In addition to his takedown ability, Moraga has shown that he's a very gifted scrambler. In a Rage in the Cage fight against Maurice Senters, Moraga repeatedly started scrambles and ended up on top.
While Moraga has yet to face anyone with similar wrestling credentials to his, his takedown defense has looked very good so far. Gomez failed on every single one of his takedown attempts, and while Cariaso managed to surprise Moraga with a trip in their fight, Moraga adjusted in the next round, choking Cariaso out when he tried again.
With six of his 13 victories coming via submission, it's clear that Moraga is a talented grappler. Additionally, Moraga earned his first "Submission of the Night" award when he choked out Cariaso at UFC 155.
Moraga has a very good guard passing game. He excels at pressure passing, and his posture is excellent. His guard passing game is greatly benefited by his aggressive ground and pound, as Moraga refuses to allow his opponent to settle and hold position.
Using his long arms, Moraga likes to threaten with front chokes. When he's on top of his opponent, he constantly tries to counter their underhooks with d'arce attempts, and also has two wins via guillotine choke on his record.
Going into the third round, Moraga and Cariaso had likely split the first two rounds. Cariaso ended the second round well with an unexpected takedown and attempted to get another early. Moraga countered with a guillotine attempt and then snapped his head down. After that, he put his chest on top of Cariaso's neck and switched his grip to an anaconda choke.
To do this, he wrapped his right arm around the front of Cariaso's head and arm, then locked in a rear-naked choke grip with his left. In order to finish, he squeezed while lifting up, forcing the back of Cariaso's head down with his chest, leaving "Kamikaze" with no choice but to tap.
Moraga's victory over Cariaso was very eye opening. He may have smashed Gomez in his debut, but "Useless" was a fellow newcomer whereas Cariaso is an established veteran. Even though Cariaso is a kickboxer, his crafty ground game is not to be underestimated -- he's proven how good he is from his back with sweeps and submission attempts.
In fact, with his anaconda finish, Moraga became just the second person to submit Cariaso, the first being interim Bantamweight champ Renan Barao.
Best chance for success
Moraga's height, reach, and power advantage will be fundamental to his success in this fight. If Moraga can keep Johnson at the end of his punches and kicks, he'll be able to partially nullify Johnson's speed advantage because he'll have to cover more distance than Moraga.
To win, Moraga has to pressure "Mighty Mouse" and prevent Johnson from circling by cutting off the cage. An excellent tool in his arsenal that will aid him in stopping Johnson's movement is his powerful leg kicks. When Johnson circles, Moraga's leg kicks would be especially effective, as Johnson would be moving into the kick. While kicking does leave him vulnerable to takedowns, it's a necessary risk because slowing down Johnson has to be a main priority for Moraga.
To further slow Johnson down, Moraga's body shots will be very useful. Johnson's head movement is excellent, but it's much harder to move his entire body out of the way especially if he's already getting kicked frequently. Johnson's cardio is one of his biggest assets, taking it away from him would be incredibly beneficial for Moraga.
All of this is much easier said than done since not getting hit is one of Johnson's fortes. But, if Moraga can significantly slow down Johnson with body strikes or leg kicks (or both) his chance of victory skyrockets.
Does Moraga have what it takes to prove himself at his first real time under the spotlight or will "Mighty Mouse" continue to reign over the Flyweight division?
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