UFC on Fox 8 Factgrinder: The Wrestling of Demetrious Johnson and John Moraga

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Saturday night at UFC on Fox 8 , two highly experienced amateur wrestlers, Demetrious Johnson and John Moraga, will face off against one another in the Octagon. Coach Mike's Factgrinder is here to put their amateur wrestling accomplishments into proper perspective.

If you are new to this feature, I strongly advise reading earlier entries in the Factgrinder story stream, in order to see my explanation on the significance of accomplishments at wrestling's various levels.

When I first embarked on my Factgrinding journey, I worried about the reaction to these pieces from the wrestling community. I felt some fear that wrestlers would find it presumptuous that I had taken upon myself the role of arbiter for the achievements of wrestlers who accomplished far more than I did in my competitive career. To my relief, the response from a number of respected voices in the wrestling community has been overwhelming positive, and even laudatory. It turns out that wrestlers, particularly the really good ones, appreciate the idea of wrestling credentials placed in proper context. A friend of mine, himself a Division One All-American, asked that I do a rundown on the wrestling accomplishments of John Moraga. His concern lay in the fact that Moraga's two University Freestyle "All-American" finishes would be confused with NCAA Division One All-American finishes. I will oblige my friend and set the record straight.

Placing in the top eight, and thus earning All-American status, at a University Freestyle National Championship means a great deal, but it does not hold anywhere near the same gravity of a NCAA Division One All-American finish, and thus University All-Americans should never be referred to as "All-Americans" without the qualifier "University Freestyle". These qualifiers serve an invaluable purpose in evaluating wrestling achievements. For instance, you might read somewhere that Cung Le was a high school All-American in wrestling, but you should be quick to note that he was an AAU All-American, which doesn't mean a great deal in this day and age.

[UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that Cung Le was indeed a USA Wrestling Junior Greco-Roman All American. So I was wrong about him, and I will leave this here as a monument to my wrongness. This means that, at least in terms of Greco-Roman, he was a real All-American. Wow, how about that.]

During his competitive amateur wrestling career, John Moraga went by the name John Espinoza . I'm guessing that one surname is his father's and one his mother's; he wouldn't be the first Latin wrestler to swap the use of these names in different competition formats (wrestling heads in the audience will remember Jon Masa of Hofstra and Jon Rodriguez of the Puerto Rican national team, both of whom were the same person).

Moraga did indeed place twice at University Freestyle Nationals, in 2006 and 2007, both at 60kg (132-ish pounds), up from his collegiate weight of 125 pounds. Both times he finished sixth in a weight class packed with elite Division One talent, placing ahead of some very accomplished wrestlers. While Moraga certainly deserves due credit for his performance in these tournaments, it appears that both years he was the beneficiary of a relatively easy draw, advanced to the semi finals, and then dropped his final three matches to finish in sixth place. The fact that he placed above wrestlers like Franklin Gomez and Mike Grey does not tell the whole story, as he never actually beat wrestlers of that caliber on the mat. Take note that the idea of properly seeding international style wrestling tournaments did not enjoy the entertainment of the sport's higher ups, until the IOC executive board issued a bit of a wake-up call by recommending that wrestling not be in the Olympics anymore.

Moraga's collegiate results on the Division One level paint a more faithful picture of his wrestling abilities. John hails from Arizona, where he won a state championship as a high school senior. Arizona, while responsible for producing some standout wrestlers like Anthony Robles, Henry Cejudo, Cain Velasquez and the Gallick brothers, does not occupy the top tier of high school wrestling states (they'd be low on the second tier or high on the third, in some mysterious tier system which I haven't actually formulated), and Moraga did not pair his state championship with much of a national level resume, and thus probably was viewed as a longshot to make it on the Division One level. Nevertheless, he gave it a go, wrestled for Arizona State University, paid his dues, and in his final year of eligibility found himself as the starter at 125 pounds, putting together a very respectable 24-20 record against extremely high level competition. Moraga never found himself besting the top wrestlers in the nation, but he had success against some very solid opponents. In his final collegiate appearance, Moraga placed fourth in the Pac-10 conference tournament, which qualified him for the 32 man bracket at the NCAA tournament, where he, for reasons I cannot uncover, did not compete.

Factgrinder Final Analysis

Moraga presents a weird case. On one hand, the marquee wrestling credentials (2x University All-American) he uses to promote himself do not really accurately portray his wrestling abilities. On the other, at 125 pounds, he really made something of himself on the Division One level, proving to he had the guts to persevere, and the skills to compete successfully on college wrestling's highest level. I wouldn't classify Moraga's wrestling credentials as great, but I would place them in the "very good" category. I'd put him roughly on the same level of wrestling achievement as Stipe Miocic and Dennis Bermudez.

Demetrious Johnson

As impressed as I am with DJ's wrestling, and I'm extremely impressed- the guy is slicker than liquid ball bearings dipped in rendered goose fat, the UFC's Flyweight Champion has no national level amateur wrestling credentials to speak of.

He placed third and second in Washington State's second hardest state championship (it has five) as a high school junior and senior respectively. Over the last decade, this classification in Washington has produced a respectable amount of Division One level talent, but DJ never ran into any such wrestlers in his state bracket. The wrestler who defeated DJ in the state finals never produced a winning record on the NCAA Division Two level.

Additionally, I can find nothing to confirm Johnson's presence at any national level high school tournaments, which would be consistent with the fact that he was a three sport athlete in high school, and never specialized full time as a combat athlete until he started training in MMA.

Factgrinder Final Analysis

While Johnson certainly occupies rarefied air as an MMA wrestler, in terms of amateur wrestling credentials, his success only came on the in-state high school level.

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