Why hast thou forsaken yon flyweights?
Yes, the UFC on Fox 8 co-main event that pits Rory MacDonald vs. Jake Ellenberger is a salivating match up for too many reasons to list, and has understandably stolen a piece of the spotlight from the show's featured attraction. But there's more to it than that. Some just aren't diggin' the UFC's recently unveiled flyweight division. Or maybe it's the miniature-class monarch himself, Demetrious Johnson (17-2), or his aversion to exciting stoppages and propensity to win by decision (last seven fights went the distance).
Hopefully you're not awaiting an answer with baited breath. I have none to offer. What I do have is a pile of reasons why I love the UFC's decision to vault into the flyweight business.
First, it's a legit class that has and always will be a part of MMA. Before the UFC made room for the 125-pounders, the world's oldest promotion -- Japan's Shooto league -- pretty much had a lock on the world's flyweight talent until Tachi Palace Fights began to bolster their lineup with elite flyweights like Ian McCall, Jussier da Silva (both of whom are now with the UFC), Mamoru Yamaguchi and Darrell Montague (paging Sean Shelby and Joe Silva on those last two?).
Beyond the mere sensibility of encompassing all the sport's relevant weight classes and fighters, there is a trusty rule of thumb that goes something like this: as the size and weight of the competitors decrease, the speed, action, and overall completeness of the fighters increases. That rule of thumb echoed when the WEC featherweights and bantamweights were folded into the UFC and, in my opinion, still applies to the flyweights. And a lower rate of stoppages is just a natural result of pitting fighters that have less physical strength and punching power but are, in turn, quicker, smaller and more dynamic.
Now, here's the best part -- even if you receive all that rah-rah talk as complete horse puckey, you're still in luck. John Moraga (13-1), who will challenge Johnson for the strap in tonight's main event, is one of the meanest ass-kickers in the entire division.
Transitioning to MMA in 2009 with a wrestling background, half of Moraga's first six wins were decisions. However, after incurring his only career blemish to former top contender and TUF winner John Dodson (unanimous decision), Moraga adjusted that ratio nicely by finishing five opponents in the seven-fight streak he's currently riding, and the last two were against top-level opposition in UFC'ers Ulysses Gomez (1st-round TKO) and Chris Cariaso (3rd-round guillotine).
Beyond the unsettling brutality of his highlight-reel stoppages, there are a few other elements that differentiate the 29-year-old challenger. From a credential standpoint, Moraga, a former Division 1 wrestler, is the most accredited collegiate wrestler that Johnson will ever have faced -- at both bantamweight and flyweight. Additionally, Moraga started out as a featherweight and gradually descended down to flyweight, so he'll be a bit bigger and stronger than the typical 125'er and quite accustomed to tangling with foes fitting that description.
However, the most salient aspect of Moraga's style is the atypical way he's embraced striking and submission grappling, both of which are foreign territory to wrestling-bred fighters and, traditionally, cumbersome for them to adopt. Though exacted against drastically inferior competition than what awaits him in the Octagon, Moraga has shown a fluent grasp of passing guard to advance position and a strong command of submission offense, and also poses a considerable threat on the feet by unleashing a nasty toolbox of punches, knees and close-range elbows.
Johnson has never encountered a more successful collegiate wrestler -- that's a resounding factor alone. And while Moraga can't replicate the cryptic footwork and angles of a Dominick Cruz nor the blinding speed of a John Dodson, I can't think of anyone Johnson's faced that has the devastating in-fighting ensemble that Moraga's known for.
As always, there are many balancing counterpoints that favor the champ as well. Johnson has been immersed with the elite echelon of bantamweight and flyweight talent since he came over from the WEC and, barring the head-scratching draw result in his first tango with McCall, has been flawless against all save longstanding bantamweight champ Cruz. Finally, the Matt Hume product has a habit of ricocheting around the cage at light speed like he's been fired out of a cannon, and his complex footwork and attack patterns are not easy to prepare for.
Allow me to cite Bloody Elbow's wrestling guru, Mike Riordan, who's already examined, translated and summarized the wrestling backgrounds of Johnson and Moraga in his latest "Factgrinder" series:
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.
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 ...
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.
With their non-MMA accolades behind us, let's contrast what they've shown us in the cage.
Further to the opening diatribe about the unparalleled diversity of flyweights, this category needs to be further defined to accurately portray the polarizing differences of their striking tendencies.
In the Free-Movement realm, in which a fighter is out in open space and moving around of his/her own accord, there is no flyweight better than "Mighty Mouse." His ability to blast in and out of range is on par with Frankie Edgar, though Johnson has a wider array of feints and angles on the way in, and, really, a deeper bag of striking tricks, as Edgar relies mostly on his hands. It's worth noting that Johnson's uncanny cage motion was much more of a factor at bantamweight, where his quickness was unrivaled and he wreaked havoc on foes with his dazzling entries. On occasion, Johnson's feints and jumbled angles alone nearly caused opponents to lose their balance.
But there are more striking ranges than one. Johnson dominates open-space and outer-fringe striking, yet normally seeks to escape when he's trapped in the confines of phone-booth range. I believe the reason for this is two-fold: the sizzle of his striking is speed, not power, and his smaller stature also carries the risk of being physically manhandled at close quarters (as Cruz did to nullify his movement and turn the tide).
Moraga entirely embodies those two concerns. Not only does his wrestling background pose the threat of takedowns at close range, but the man is a massacre waiting to happen at toe-to-toe range with his thorny stockpile of dirty boxing, wicked clinch knees and cleaving whirlwind of elbows. The Arizona native is at his best in close quarters and generally endeavors to force the fight into that range at all times.
Considering these divergent characteristics, I'm not comfortable awarding the edge to either, but will establish their clout based on range instead: Johnson has the advantage from a distance and Moraga has an equal advantage at phone-booth range.
This is a bit tougher to assess. In most of his outings, the clinch presented somewhat of a danger zone to Johnson, which can be attributed to the physical size of certain adversaries (Cruz) or their more fearsome wrestling prowess (Joseph Benavidez, Ian McCall). The wrench gets thrown in the mix with Dodson: while most expected "The Magician" to be the stronger and more powerful of the two, with Johnson anticipated to be the faster fighter, the outcome was the exact opposite -- Dodson's speed caused problems early and Johnson amazingly overtook the momentum by burying Dodson on the cage and overpowering him with strikes and control.
Moraga's deadly duo of wrestling and explosive in-fighting endows him with the choice of pursuing takedowns or staying upright and unloading close-range strikes. Considering Moraga's wrestling background, his history fighting at a higher weight and his voracity with in-your-face striking, my guess is that Johnson will be strongly influenced to stay outside where he's most comfortable rather than engage Moraga at contact range where he's most comfortable.
Whether Johnson can avoid a close-range brawl is secondary to who has the advantage there, and it's clearly Moraga.
There is no way to evaluate this category objectively. The closest we can get is to compare their one common opponent (Dodson), but loading one single bullet in the MMA Math chamber is far from tangible. Moraga would seem to have the wrestling advantage, yet few -- at this point in time -- would consider him a superior wrestler to Cruz, Benavidez, and McCall; perhaps even to Brad Pickett, the featherweight responsible for Johnson's other career defeat.
Moraga has shown a rather astounding affinity for submission grappling, especially for a wrestler, but that particular instance was against an opponent with exactly one other outing in pro MMA. We've seen prospects who've dominated lesser competition outside the Octagon do the same inside it and also fail miserably against the world's best. Moraga's pair of UFC wins were highly encouraging, but neither Gomez nor Cariaso can be proportionally compared to Johnson.
Surmising how they stack up in this category is entirely up to you. Moraga would seem to have the edge because of his wrestling and sub-grappling medley, but Johnson's established himself against the cream of the crop and has never been finished, and is rarely put in a precarious position.
This analysis is a bit plagued with unknowns. Based on past performances, Moraga has several perceivable advantages ... but can he exact those against the earth's alpha-flyweight with the same efficacy?
There's no question that Moraga is a serious threat to boot Johnson off his throne. If one of those rocket-fueled elbows comes streaking into any human's head, of any size or weight class, it's gonna hurt, and possibly inflict fight-ending damage. Thus far, Johnson's built his career on avoiding such unfavorable outcomes, and done so against more reputable opponents. His defense is also phenomenal, even in his weaker areas, and Moraga can undergo serious lapses in striking defense, especially when he's out in open space or barreling in to shrink the gap. Add in the level of pristine competition Johnson's surpassed, his familiarity with headlining an event and battling for five grueling rounds, and the champ has my vote to retain his belt.
My Prediction: Demetrious Johnson by decision.