With just around 24 hours until the UFC on FOX 8 show, you may still be wondering who exactly John Moraga is. In a sports context, he is a man of mystery. He is a former Arizona State University wrestler, where he matriculated as John Espinoza. He came on to the UFC scene quietly, won twice in a pair of untelevised fights, and is now fighting for the belt. He is a longtime friend of Dominick Cruz, a training partner of Benson Henderson, and once called Demetrious Johnson's style boring. That is most of what we know of him.
Beyond that, he is a wild card, the most unknown UFC title challenger since the late Justin Eilers was plucked from obscurity to battle Andrei Arlovksi for the interim heavyweight championship in the wake of Frank Mir's motorcycle crash and delayed return.
This is a very different situation. With the flyweight division still in its early stages, the selection of worthy contenders from which to choose is limited. John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez have received opportunities at the belt, and Ian McCall had two cracks at Johnson, leaving UFC matchmakers to look elsewhere.
With 14 pro fights and at the age of 29, Moraga can no longer be classified as a prospect. On the other hand, he has not until now received the exposure necessary to establish himself and his reputation as a legitimate title challenger. His record says he is.
Moraga is 13-1 with his only loss to the aforementioned Dodson in a decision. Since that time, he's won seven straight, including five finishes, making him the rare flyweight to bring that element of danger.
In his two UFC fights, he's stopped Ulysses Gomez on strikes and Chris Cariaso with a standing, modified anaconda choke against the cage. That ability to fight everywhere and be creative in doing so makes him a compelling threat against Johnson.
Moraga's base is his wrestling. But he uses it the same way Chuck Liddell did, in reverse, to stay on his feet. Occasionally he'll sprinkle in a takedown, but so far, it is for show, a reminder that he can if he wants to. For the most part, he wants to keep the fight standing where he can use his relative height -- he's 5-foot-6, in this fight, three inches taller than Johnson -- to his advantage.
Moraga has an interesting striking style. He has a tendency to take the center of the cage and push forward, but he prefers to let his opponent throw first and counter off of their strikes. It is a somewhat patient style, and it will no doubt make for a series of cat-and-mouse battles with the flyweight champ, who can get in and out with the best of them.
There is a major spot for concern in that kind of strategy. If you don't land the big counter strike, you will nearly always be out-struck by your attacking opponent. For example, even though he eventually beat Cariaso, Moraga was out-landed 41-31 during the course of the bout.
That's troublesome not only for the deficit, but for the output. Flyweight is a division of action, and Johnson (17-2-1) is the ringleader. As a comparison of Moraga's 31-strike output for an entire fight that went into the third round, Johnson landed more strikes than that in two individual rounds of his last fight with Dodson; 52 in the fourth and 65 in the fifth.
Can Moraga match that output? Few can. And that will leave him in a hole when rounds go to the judges.
Now, what does he do well? Many things. He is fairly creative with his combinations, though he would probably benefit from throwing more kicks. He is measured and patient. He uses good head movement. He keeps his hips underneath him, leading to strong balance and sharp takedown defense. He commands the cage.
He's also particularly good in the clinch, and against the cage. Both of his UFC finishes came from the position. Against Gomez, it was a left elbow and uppercuts against the fence that closed the show. Against Cariaso, he neatly sunk in the creative choke as Cariaso tried digging in for a takedown.
In Johnson, Moraga has an opponent that is going to come to him. The champion has a lot of diversity to his attack, mixing up strikes and takedowns, frequently changing stances and utilizing his quickness and conditioning as his greatest weapons.
Johnson is always in prime shape, and over the course of a five-round fight, that is a very real consideration. We saw it in play against Dodson, who won the first two rounds of the fight -- and roughed up Johnson in the second -- only to see "Mighty Mouse" roar back over the last three, punishing him in the fifth to put a stamp on his comeback.
This is what Moraga's up against. If there is one type of exchange to look out for, it is Johnson's step-in right hook against Moraga's left hook. Both men show a propensity for those specific techniques, and as it turns out, one is a natural counter for the other. Does Johnson get his off cleanly? Can Moraga land the heavy counter? If Moraga is to win, I see his path to victory coming off something like this, only because he doesn't show much willingness to use his wrestling offensively, and he's conservative with his kicks. That leaves him as a talented but uncomplicated fighter for Johnson to figure out. For Moraga, it's probably knockout or bust.
He has the goods to pull it off. The betting line, with Johnson as a 5-to-1 favorite, is far out of line to the level of danger in play. It will be competitive, but Johnson has been in the cage with big hitters like Dodson, and experienced more complex attacks, like Benavidez. He's survived time and time again, and if you can't finish him, you're probably going to lose on points. Same thing here, Johnson by decision.