When a fighter’s training is their instinct, even in the worst of times, that’s when they’ve become truly dangerous.
This past December at UFC on FOX: Dos Santos vs. Miocic, the times were looking pretty grim for UFC flyweight John Moraga in the first round against Willie Gates. In front of his hometown crowd in Phoenix, Moraga ate a low kick to the cup and tried to get the referee’s attention for a stop in the action. No break would come, but a straight right from Gates would and it dropped Moraga. In a flash, Gates was on Moraga’s back, threatening a rear naked choke and Moraga needed to get his wits about him quick to fight off the huge upset loss.
“My instincts kicked in and I was able to do the right thing,” Moraga said. “I went for that top hand because he already had his arm around my neck. A lot of people fight the arm around their neck, but they need to fight that other hand. Luckily, I did the right thing.”
It wasn’t as much luck as it was a product of the quality work Moraga has put in at two of the best gyms in “The Grand Canyon State”: The MMA Lab and Arizona Combat Sports. After surviving a scare in the first stanza with his defensive skills, Moraga went on the offensive in the following two rounds, including an outright onslaught in the final period, which saw Moraga secure a rear naked choke of his own. The former NCAA Division I wrestler for Arizona State University used a mix of relentless pressure and slick grappling to earn his fourth finish inside the Octagon.
“I had a lot of control with my top game and I think I had just worn him out worrying about a lot of other stuff,” Moraga said. “It’s not just jiu-jitsu, it’s MMA. I’m able to punch, I’m able to elbow, I’m able to put pressure on with my hips. I think that helps me. I don’t even have a striped or a colored belt or whatever they go by in jiu-jitsu (laughs). But I work with one of the best coaches in John Crouch and that whole submission there was all John Crouch. It was very technical, but I can’t give you the keys or the secrets that I set up that choke with. I think at the beginning of the fight guys know I have submissions, but they forget that because in the fight I’m trying to take their head off.”
With that submission, the 31-year-old improved his pro record to 16-3, including five wins in the UFC. While it was a happy moment grabbing an exciting victory in his hometown, it simply kept the status quo for the highly ranked Moraga, defeating a debuting Gates who was taking the bout on short notice for Jussier Formiga. That’s the fight and the win that Moraga wanted. And to get himself another shot at the UFC flyweight belt, Moraga knows he has to pull off these entertaining finishes against the cream of the UFC’s crop.
“I’m still learning against high-caliber opponents,” Moraga said. “I’m able to do what I want to do against lower-tier guys, but against the elite of the division - I’ve had a little bit of success and I have things I need to improve on. Slowly, with each fight, it’s starting to click. I think people will be in trouble real soon.”
At UFC 187, he’s getting a chance to take out an upper-echelon fixture as Moraga is set to tangle with Joseph Benavidez. Owning an impressive 21-4 pro record, Benavidez has been an absolute flyweight force inside the Octagon, with only current champ Demetrious Johnson being able to stop him. Outside of his two title tries, the Team Alpha Male star has earned six wins with four finishes and two bonuses at 125 pounds. Having only lost one non-title tilt in his pro career, a win over Benavidez does not come often or easily, so Moraga will need to be at his best for this clash.
“He’s one of the guys in the division I really respect a lot,” Moraga said. “Him, John Dodson, John Lineker. I have a respect for them because they actually fight. I think he is really well-rounded and good everywhere. I don’t think his striking is very technical, but I think it is very dangerous for MMA because we have these little gloves and he throws wild punches from different angles. I think he understands distance and he has a nice explosive first step. He’s got great submissions and great grappling. And it’s going to be a good win for me.”
In preparation to be his best against Benavidez, Moraga is taking full advantage of all the talent Arizona has to offer. As mentioned, Moraga is a proud standard-bearer for John Crouch’s MMA Lab and the Lally brothers’ Arizona Combat Sports. On top of those two well-respected gyms, Moraga has been traveling to Scottsdale to sharpen up his mat skills against none other than former US Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medalist and undefeated UFC flyweight Henry Cejudo.
“I grew up with Henry Cejudo,” Moraga said. “We go way back. I was picking him up from 8th grade and junior high. That’s my boy, he’s like family to me. I’m always trying to get training in with him and, lately, we’ve been making it more consistent. Henry has been helping me out a lot for this camp. I think he’s a good Benavidez imitation. I actually think he’s better than Benavidez.”
This Saturday at UFC 187 in Las Vegas, two of the best flyweights in the world will collide as Moraga battles Benavidez to see who is one step closer to the top. “It’s going to an exciting fight, a wild fight,” Moraga said. “I think if you watch any of our fights, we’re not sitting back and playing the point game. We’re both really aggressive. It’s definitely a fight that needs to be watched.”