At this time last year, John Moraga was close to done.
The one-time flyweight title challenger was caught in the midst of a career-worst slump, disillusioned after a grim series of injuries and personal issues, and effectively had one foot out the door. Ahead of his short-notice loss to Sergio Pettis at UFC Phoenix — which served as Moraga’s third consecutive loss under the UFC umbrella — the 33-year-old admitted that if the promotion cut him loose, he would probably walk away from mixed martial arts for good. In an unforgiving game, Moraga had been chewed up and spit out without remorse.
What a difference a year can make.
Today, Moraga is almost unrecognizable to his post-UFC Phoenix form, a “night and day” swing that he admits is both “surreal and overwhelming.” That turnaround began in June when Moraga warded off his pink slip with a much-needed win over Ashkan Mokhtarian halfway across the world in New Zealand. Moraga then doubled-down on his momentum with a momentous 98-second knockout of highly-touted prospect Magomed Bibulatov in October. Faced with some of the longest underdog odds of his career, Moraga shone through with the single best performance of his six-year Octagon run.
Now Moraga is readying to make his case for a return to the top five of the flyweight ranks with a hometown showdown against Wilson Reis at UFC on FOX 29. And somehow, after years of struggle, he is enjoying himself again in the sport that nearly swallowed him whole.
“It feels good, man. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to stay consistent in the gym because I was injured for a few years, just certain injuries that kept having me out for months at a time,” Moraga told MMA Fighting. “I’m consistent, I’m feeling good and excited.
“I think you gain levels as you go, and I think I’ve stepped up a few levels everywhere. My striking, I’ve been working with a new boxing coach for about a year that I think has taken my game to another level. I’ve really put some focus in my jiu-jitsu, where I continue to see myself just making a lot of growth. And I think just the overall experience of being in UFC fights helped me a lot too. I pretty much had to learn how to fight in the UFC. I didn’t have a whole lot of fight experience, or a lot of tough fights, before I got into the UFC, so a lot of my learning has been done in there. So now I’m ready.”
The change in Moraga was palpable after his knockout of Bibulatov.
While many fighters in his place would have celebrated the moment as the joyous reversal of fortunes it proved to be, Moraga’s response was striking in its subduedness. Rather than making a boisterous show of himself, he spoke on the verge of tears, his voice barely registering above a silent whisper, as if a weight of immeasurable size had been lifted from his shoulders.
Even months after the fact, the memory seems almost as if it was lifted out of a dream.
“I really couldn’t have asked for a better camp, a better fight, a better scouting of the guy. It just seemed like everything fell into place that night,” Moraga said. “I don’t know if it was just happened like that. I feel like it was our good work, our skills, our fight IQ and everything. And it’s just that, I knew the guy was tough. I knew he was going to be really tough. I think he’s one of the toughest in the division maybe. But I just knew it was a fight that my career needed to win. I needed that, for sure, because I’m at that point where, like, what am I doing right here?
“I’m trying to get back to the top, so it was kinda like, hey, I already had a couple slips, so it’s like we can’t afford those anymore for what I’m trying to do.”
Now that his ship has been righted, it’s strange for Moraga to look back on how bad things truly got — how close he was to reaching the end, and how one impromptu decision, made mostly out of circumstance, became an unexpected catalyst to his revival.
Last summer, before his fight against Mokhtarian, Moraga attended the UFC’s annual Athlete Retreat in Las Vegas. He was, self-admittedly, a broken down fighter. His ankles were bruised and swollen, nagging injuries riddled both of his shins, one of his hands was hurt, he was unable to bend another one of his elbows, and top it all off, back issues were wreaking havoc on his day-to-day. So, desperate and flush out of options, Moraga decided to stay an extra few weeks in the desert to see if the trainers at the UFC’s much celebrated Performance Institute could help him in any way.
The decision ended up being one of the best of his career.
“The UFC PI saved me,” Moraga said. “Saved me. Because it was May 19th or whatever, we did the Athlete Retreat, I made my decision there that I was staying that week because I was so banged up. I couldn’t — there’s no way I could fight like this. Everything was messed up. And I went into that fight feeling like 100 percent. I stayed there for two weeks, the last two weeks of the rest of the camp, and then I left to New Zealand and I just was able to physically feel like: ‘I could fight now.’
“So from going to that point — almost feeling kinda like the world is against you — to then after beating the Russian, just to prove to myself that all of the hard work that I’ve been doing has been paying off, I know what my setbacks were, I know what my obstacles were, I know where I messed up... I don’t like to make excuses, but that was almost like that win kinda solidified what I already knew to myself, that I’m up there.”
Always more of a do-it-yourself type of athlete, Moraga admits he became a believer after his initial stay at the UFC PI. He returned for a second stint ahead of UFC 216 and did so again for UFC on FOX 29. After a lifetime of building up little bumps and bruises, the “tune-ups” from the UFC’s world-class facilities have left him feeling better than he has in years.
Moraga says he’s now eyeing a busy 2018 campaign that he hopes will include two more fights after Reis and lead him back into title contention.
It’s remarkable turnaround from where he was compared to last year, when the flyweight contender was despondent and fighting simply to keep his job. But today Moraga’s fire is burning hotter than ever before, and he’s confident his best years have yet to come.
“There’s no secret about this fight. His best chance is to take me down and to keep controlling me on top and to do what he can do on top,” Moraga said of Reis.
“I really just feel like I’m well-rounded enough now to where, don’t be surprised if I take Wilson down and beat him up. Don’t be surprised if I hurt him on the feet. Don’t be surprised if he does take me down, if I get up real quick. So I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I know I’m going to be ready for everything and I’m going to be on-point.”