When discussing the more underrated fighters in the world, former UFC flyweight John Moraga (19-7) deserves a mention. In a promotional stint lasting more than six years, Moraga amassed a record of 8-6, battling the division’s very best time and time again. In fact, four of these six defeats came at the hands of title contenders or champions, giving him the status of a high-level gatekeeper.
In 2013, Moraga challenged divisional GOAT Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight throne, ultimately losing via submission in the final round. Despite the bitter loss, the 38-year-old learned plenty, giving a good showing of himself in the process. Unfortunately, he would never quite make it back to the summit, losing critical bouts to John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez, two of the weight classes’ greatest athletes. Moraga instead floated within the top 12 for the remainder of his UFC tenure.
In 2019, he was in the loss column and it was revealed that he had been cut by the UFC. The decision was an odd one. He may have lost his most recent bout via knockout, yet that was against the then-undefeated Deiveson Figueiredo, flyweight’s future King. Not only this, but before running into Figueiredo he was riding a three-fight win streak. One which included victories over Wilson Reis and Magomed Bibulatov.
The promotion was looking to cut the maximum amount of flyweights possible, hence why they found any excuse to quickly shun Moraga’s existence.
More recently, the veteran has focused his attention on Boxing, where he holds a record of 1-3. This doesn’t mean the end of his MMA career, though. In 2020, he signed a deal with rising organization ARES FC. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled his inaugural fight with ARES twice. It is now unsure when or if he will make his debut.
For today’s article, we’ll go back in time to the year 2017 when the aforementioned Demetrious Johnson ruled the weight class. Flyweight was seemingly struggling for contenders and, due to this, many were focused on the up-and-comers who had shown only hints of potential.
Moraga was scheduled to face rising prospect Magomed Bibulatov at UFC 216, a card headlined by Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee.
Magomed Bibulatov entered the UFC with heaps of hype, successfully winning his debut to extend his record to an impressive 14-0. As he was entering the prime of his career, matchmakers were eager to fast-track the Russian as quickly as possible, thus aligning him with Moraga.
Heading into their October 7 bout, Moraga opened as a hefty underdog (+435 to be exact)… Whereas Bibulatov sat around the -600 range. It was clear that Bibulatov was not only expected to win, but blow his opponent out of the water; a finish was almost a guarantee.
Moraga opened the contest with multiple calf kicks, aiming to reduce the mobility and overall movement of his opponent. As Bibulatov enjoys his kicking, taking away this strength early was a smart plan.
Bibulatov was keeping the fight at kicking range early on, threatening with lead leg attacks and counters. As well as this, his feint’s consistently pulled out reactions, often prompting Moraga to shift backwards and reset. Although his fakes were spot on and he was winning the lead hand battle, Bibulatov was refusing to acknowledge the action coming his way.
John too was attempting to feint his way into success.
While Bibulatov was now offering some reaction to his opponents false attacks, it was too late. Moraga shifted into range with a throwaway jab, using it to mask an overhand right. This punch had the Russian on ice as he tried to hide his stunned sense of reality.
The beginning of the end was near.
Moraga follows up his overhand by shifting forward, forcing Magomed closer to the cage. A question mark kick narrowly misses the mark, but it’s the left hook that causes the most amount of damage. Moraga sits down on this punch to unleash its full potential, wrapping up a kick with punches is a fine way to find an opponents chin.
Just as the flyweight figures cut before and after him, is was clear John Moraga deserved a place in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. His ability to hang with the upper echelon while fending off newcomers made him an enjoyable watch, and in flyweight’s current landscape, would doubtlessly challenge a number of athletes.
Now at the age of 38 and under contract with ARES FC, we’ll likely never see Moraga return to the UFC. But don’t let this distract you from one thing – he should never have lost his space on the roster.