TEMPE, Ariz. -- John Moraga climbs out of the sparring cage, soaked in sweat but otherwise satisfied with his last-minute homework session. His week is largely spent at Glendale's MMA Lab, but today is Wednesday, which means Jamie Varner barks out orders to a room full of Muay Thai students in the back while Lil Wayne pulsates through the stereo speakers at Tempe's Arizona Combat Sports.
Moraga grabs a faded blue UFC t-shirt and pulls it snugly over his 5-foot-6 frame. He fidgets when he sees a camera branded with a FOX logo waiting for him near the front of the room, but only slightly, and only if you're really paying attention. It's a small improvement, but an important one for a man thrust so abruptly into the spotlight.
Moraga's road is a curious one, particularly in the UFC's name-driven, what-can-you-draw-for-me world. In many ways, he's an unknown man. He's strolled into the Octagon twice and seized two finishes -- an uncommon claim in a division still struggling to find its footing. Yet both of those performances were curtain jerkers, and Moraga's walk was accompanied by near-empty arenas. Now that arena will be packed to the rafters, and millions of people will be learning his name for the first time.
From Rage in the Cage, to Facebook prelims, to UFC on FOX headliner; it's an implausible jump, one that would paralyze many in his stead. "I didn't get into the sport to have my face on cameras. That's why you don't see me on anything, out and about trying to get my face out there," Moraga says.
"It's not that I hate doing it. It's just that I'm out of my comfort zone most of the time while I'm doing it, and I'm not used to it. Like I said, I didn't get into this sport to be a poster boy. I don't like attention on me. I don't like going to places and people recognizing me. But it is what it is. I've heard people say it comes with the territory. This is what I chose."
Moraga is soft-spoken, but when he does speak it seems to carry weight. His sentiment is understandable considering how quickly all of this came to be. He expected greatness, of course. Every athlete does. But for it to potentially happen this fast, a flyweight title shot after just five months in the UFC? Never in his wildest dreams. So he learns on the fly, adapting to an increasingly strange world.
His ascent, while expedited, didn't come easy. His was a hard life filled with moments where the struggle to care was very real, he says, "to care about tomorrow, to even care what happens to yourself, because it ain't like you're losing anything." Moraga's mother landed in a mental ward early, and by the age of six he was wandering the streets of west Phoenix.
Still, Moraga doesn't like to complain. He freely admits, parts of his story aren't the best, but his opportunities were still better than most of the neighborhood. For the most part, those guys are either in prison or dead -- but Moraga, he got lucky.
When Moraga was a sophomore at Maryvale High School, an on-campus security guard named Richard Fimbres saw promise and convinced the troubled kid to join the wrestling team. Fimbres, along with Frank Saenz, also served as the school's wrestling coach, and the two men kept Moraga on a straight path when it would've been easy for him to veer away. That led to college, where Moraga became a two-time University Freestyle All-American wrestler for the Arizona State Sun Devils before turning his attention to a new endeavor.
But life has a way of smacking you in the face, and the murky jungles of regional MMA are often thick with quicksand. For an athlete under 155 pounds, the fight for relevancy is a long one. Moraga doesn't like to admit it, but his dream nearly died more than a few times along the way.
Moraga picked up six quick wins in nine months fighting for Arizona's Rage in the Cage. Then came a fateful trip to the Dominican Republic and the first stumble of his career. Over 15 minutes he still recalls with disdain, John Dodson outworked Moraga to nab a close decision victory. The performance launched Dodson into the cast of the The Ultimate Fighter 14, while Moraga trudged back to obscurity.
His reality grew cold. Barely scraping by, Moraga worked as his own manager. Sponsorships were a myth. Fights were a rarity. He'd handle the phones, talk to a few businesses, try to reach some kind of understanding, but nothing ever took. "We actually never even got around to doing anything. It just seemed like I couldn't get a fight. After Dodson, no one wanted to fight me at the local shows, so it was just hard to even make $500 or $600," Moraga recalls.
By then Moraga already had a young son, John Jr., and the pressures of family were driving him to a crossroads. He hustled, worked sides jobs, construction, "whatever with whoever," as long as it kept a roof over his family's head and still allowed him to stay in the gym.
"It was a struggle like that for a long time. I don't know how long I would've been able to keep that up. I'm not a quitter, so I'd like to believe I would've kept going. But who knows?" Moraga grimly entertains the notion, then shakes his head.
"It was pretty close to the point where I had to make a decision; figure out if it was going to go somewhere or what I was going to do if not, because it wasn't happening and my family needed me to be a little more supportive for them."
The stresses, the long hours, the years of the hard work; it all culminated in one breaking point. Almost overnight, by a minor miracle, Moraga booked three fights back-to-back. Three fights in six weeks. A final hurrah. "I went out on my own, and I was like, ‘I'm going to have to make something happen now," he says.
Moraga never even got the chance to fulfill his contract. He armbarred his first opponent, guillotined his second, and then that life-changing call came. Finally, he was a UFC fighter.
Moraga shifts slightly as the FOX camera zooms and focuses. He picks his words carefully, a lesson he learned in early June when an off-the-cuff comment about Demetrious Johnson being ‘boring' made headlines throughout the MMA community. Though an honesty still remains in his voice. He can't help it -- it's how he was raised. The P.R. coaches haven't yet descended upon him, replacing every colorful remark with a tired march of clichés. It actually kind of refreshing, and it isn't long before any hesitancy about discussing the UFC flyweight champion is all but erased.
"I don't want to disrespect it, but yeah, I think that. And that's why I called him boring when they asked my opinion," Moraga argues. "That was my opinion as a fight fan, just because of that reason. It's a strategic thing that he does. He gets people impatient and frustrated, but it's winning on points. That's what he's worried about. He's worried about winning on points, so I think fight fans, for the most part, probably don't want to see that. And especially when you're trying to build a division that's already kind of getting criticism. So I just take it upon myself, it's my job to go out there and change some opinions."
It's here that Moraga's stoic demeanor is at its most striking. Call it the Diaz in him. While he isn't yet accustomed to the limelight, there's no question Moraga believes that he belongs. The flyweight division, more so than any other in the UFC, is awaiting the emergence of a star. Moraga may be far from it at the present moment, but to him it's just baby steps. Ultimately, Moraga knows he can become that man.
"I just believe that I take risks. I go for it when I see it, and I'm not afraid to get hit," he says.
"You can't really discredit [Johnson] for his style. He's fighting the top guys at the world. I understand that. We're not fighting local guys and beginners. Sometimes it's hard to finish people. But I think fans would really appreciate a little more effort to do so. Just to go for it, to take those risks. I feel like he fights pretty safe."
Moraga pauses, then tilts his head to the side. "At the same time, who knows? He's got to do what he's good at. Like he said, my opinion doesn't really matter. I don't pay his bills, and he's right. That's why we go out there and fight anyways. But that's just my opinion."
Let it be known that Moraga keeps it real, in the realest sense of the phrase. Even in the face of life-changing opportunity, Moraga can't help but consider the reality from his foe's perspective. His rough exterior masks a warmth that shines through every so often, whenever he allows himself to forget about the cameras and the microphones and the nodding reporters waiting to analyze his every word.
Moraga is also relentlessly committed to his hometown, and it shows. He sports a straight-billed, black and grey "Phoenix" cap and his face lights up when the topic turns to his old neighborhood.
One day Moraga hopes to help struggling kids break out from the depths of poverty and thrive; to create a future where there wouldn't otherwise be one, "maybe change some lives, or at least put them in a different direction." Kids like himself, and kids like his cousin, Jay.
Jay was killed this February, a bullet to the chest. He was only 16. Moraga talks about it when asked, but he prefers not to. Jay was special, he says.
Just hours after he buried Jay, the UFC called Moraga with an offer for his next fight. He said no. Moraga eventually reconsidered when a title shot entered the discussion, but there was no joy in it -- no elation of a dream finally being realized. In the ten days between the murder and the funeral, Moraga wasn't in the gym. He really had no intention of coming back so soon. When he eventually did, it was a struggle. His mind wasn't in it. So once Johnson's shoulder injury pushed back the fight date from mid-April to late-July, Moraga saw it a blessing in disguise. "That kind of changed things," Moraga admits.
Now this one is for Jay. Moraga's roller coaster ride here has been both surprisingly short and painstakingly long. He is, by and large, a mystery man; the stranger with a chance to usurp the throne. "I didn't expect it this fast. But when you think about it, man, it just seemed like it took forever for anything to happen," Moraga wryly says.
"It was definitely a long road coming, and I think the timing just, I don't know -- maybe they just say good things happen to good people. I paid my dues."
Moraga tries, but admits that he can't explain this feeling. He says he's unshakeable. That this isn't nervousness, or anxiousness -- not even the famed Octagon jitters. He doesn't understand it, and maybe you just had to grow up where he grew up to get it. So instead let's just say he's in the zone. After all, he's already in a fight. He has been for a while.
"Did you need me to go hit pads?" Moraga looks away and asks the FOX cameraman, who clicks off his rig and offers a slight nod in approval. Less than two weeks out from the biggest moment of his life, the 29-year-old peels off his faded blue UFC t-shirt, hikes back into the main training room, back to Varner's barking and the pumping rhythms of Lil Wayne, sits down and begins wrapping his hands. This is the world he understands. Already a grin creeps across his face.