The end result of a challenge by John Moraga’s high school wrestling coach could end with him seizing the UFC flyweight belt at FOX UFC Saturday.
“Without wrestling, I wouldn’t be here,” Moraga told FOX Sports. “And I don’t just mean in the UFC. I’d have been on the streets. I would have landed up dead or in jail like a lot of my friends. That’s what wrestling gave me. It saved my life.”
Moraga went on to become an All-American wrestler at Arizona State and rides a seven-fight winning streak into his bout against champ Demetrious Johnson atop the FOX card at KeyArena.
The broadcast begins at 8 pm ET.
There’s still a good amount of swagger that Moraga had when he started wrestling as a sophomore in high school. For example, he again called Johnson’s fighting style “boring” at a gathering of reporters on Thursday.
“That’s just me,” Moraga said. “I don’t like to fake it. . . . He is boring, to me. That’s my opinion.”
Moraga said his original words about Johnson — who has had his last seven fights go the distance — were taken out of context.
“It was something that got blown out of proportion,” Moraga said. “They criticized me for saying he’s not a finisher. That’s not true. I said he doesn’t try to finish people. There’s a lack of effort in what he does. That’s the difference between me and him.”
That could be the case, but both fighters come from similarly rough backgrounds. Moraga, like Johnson, was raised largely in a single-family household. Johnson never knew his birth father; Moraga met his at age 8, although the two have been estranged much of his life.
Both found wrestling as source of structure, even if Moraga didn’t take it very seriously at first.
“I was just walking through the school and (part-time coach Richard Fimbres) asked me to come out for the team,” Moraga said. “I wasn’t that interested at first. Then he challenged me. He asked, ‘What? You can’t hang?’ It wasn’t fun at the start. By my senior year, I won state and was a nationally ranked guy.”
Fimbres first met Moraga at North High in Phoenix. Moraga later joined Fimbres when he moved on to coach at Maryvale High.
“He was just a confident kid,” Fimbres told FOX Sports. “He was small, but it was the way he carried himself. As a coach, you look for that kind of confidence.”
On the cusp of a title fight on national broadcast television, Moraga admits he often looks back to see how far he’s come from his harsh upbringing in Arizona.
“All the time,” Moraga said. “It reinforces to me what I was meant to do. It’s destiny. I’ve gone through so much that I feel like it’s been for a reason. Everything is falling into place.”