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Fistic Dialectics: Johnson, Moraga And The IQ Test

UFC on Fox 8 in Seattle

The UFC on Fox 8 main event fight between Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and John Moraga has implications in both the flyweight title and in the discerning taste of the a portion of MMA fan’s. I use discerning for a reason, most analysis and discussion of the main event begins with commentary questioning both the relevance and need of the flyweight division and the supposed disinterest factor for fans. I contend that these disparaging comments and this opining show a laziness that undermines the beauty of the sport, and a subconscious “Just Bleed” mentality that fails to appreciate these fights for their high speed chess style intricacies. That fight styles are indeed a matter of taste, I understand that some fans prefer certain types of fights. My intention is to show what I find interesting in the lighter weight classes and show how I watch these fights. My claim is fights that commonly last twenty five minutes have questions that are unique to the flyweight division and because of their extended time line, opposing strategies, and variables at play force us fans to consider the long bet, the larger picture. Let’s look at them.

Demetrius Johnson has won all of his UFC fights via decision. Ostensibly, this signifies a boring fighter but boring implies a lack of risk, and Johnson, whose lack of finishing power is evident, is of no shortage in risk taking. Johnson wins by being both smart and unrelenting; two attributes that rarely find a balance and are difficult to train for. Johnson’s fight IQ finds its catalyst in his speed advantage over most opponents. Johnson’s speed allows him to both mount an offensive that is a step ahead of his opponent and make changes, corrections and recover on a dime, allowing chances to capitalize appear and vanish in a blink.

Johnson’s title defense against John Dodson is a great illustration of Johnson’s skill set. Though Dodson matched Johnson in speed, his inability to capitalize on dropping Johnson twice with punches shows the defining variable that is fight IQ. Within seconds of being knocked down, Johnson had recovered, re-established the pace and was landing multi punch combinations and take downs. Making the case for fighter IQ and pace we must look at Johnson’s lone UFC loss against Dominic Cruz. In that match up, not only was Cruz able to match Johnson in speed, striking and pace, he was able to make split second corrections, effectively mitigating Johnson’s take down attempts with whizzers and utilizing footwork and angles to keep Johnson in defensive mode. In that fight, Cruz continually controlled the white chess pieces, allowing him to make the first moves round by round, minute by minute.

John Moraga, Johnson’s challenger, has the power of Dodson and the wrestling to maintain a standing battle. Unlike Johnson, however, Moraga has finished his two UFC opponents, Chris Cariaso and Ulysses Gomez, in the third and first rounds, respectively. Moraga’s finishing power, coupled with his knowledge of Johnson’s lack of punching power will give him a confidence that will see him pushing forward against Johnson, unafraid. How his cardio lasts through the later rounds is an unknown, as he has not fought a 25 minute fight. This championship fight will answer that question and give us an accurate rating of his fight IQ.

The two monumental questions revolve around how Moraga prepares for such an opportunity. To prepare for a 5 round fight is a task in itself, but to simultaneously prepare to fight the fastest fighter in the UFC seems daunting. Moraga trains at The Lab with teammate Benson Henderson under the aegis of John Crouch. Crouch has helped construct effective game plans; Henderson’s leg kick offense against Frankie Edgar in his title winning fight sealed the deal in the judges’ minds, as well as his thrashing of Nate Diaz via grappling/leg kicks. It should be noted however, that these game plans worked to a T because of the stubborn mentality of Henderson’s opponents. Neither Diaz nor Edgar adequately adjusted and therefore Henderson himself was never forced to adjust. Edgar caught the kicks after they landed and Diaz got confrontational. When he did face a fighter who could adjust, Gilbert Melendez, it was through Henderson’s superior cardio and athleticism concurrently with Melendez’s noticeable slowing down in the later rounds that helped him eke out a decision.

Johnson will neither slow down nor fail to adjust in his fight against Moraga. He will recognize the game plan of Moraga immediately and make adjustments accordingly. Will Moraga, then see his bet and raise him? Possibly. Will Moraga be able to do this while simultaneously defending Johnson’s relentless pace over the course of a foreign, 5 round fight? That is the question. In flyweight matches, all these variables occur at high speed, and the chance to change the pace and momentum blinks in and out of existence. We know Johnson has the ability to see and catch these moments multiple times in a fight, we simply do not know whether Moraga has the same ability. What we do know is that Moraga has the capability of finishing the fight, but not whether he will see the chance to do so.

Johnson will use his in-and-out movement to land combinations while trying to angle out before Moraga can counter. Moraga will have to preemptively strike to catch Johnson, and in the process keep on the lookout for Johnson’s lightning level changes and take downs. Moraga will stifle some take downs, but these will not frustrate Johnson as we saw in Johnson’s match with Dominic Cruz. He will continue his level changes regardless, eventually landing a take down. Johnson was able to take down Dodson, who had never been taken down before and did so with this strategy. It was also because of this strategy that allowed Dodson to land significant strikes. Moraga will be aware of this strategy, but it will be how he adjusts to Johnson’s rhythmic offense through rounds 3, 4 and 5 that will determine the decision should Moraga not be able to stop Johnson.

The momentum of this fight will hyperventilate through the first three rounds with Moraga pushing back at Johnson, attempting to punctuate his game plan while Johnson auto-corrects. Johnson has been rocked, but never finished in his career and his ability to resume his pace almost immediately means that Moraga will have to, like Cruz, dance with him for five rounds, or stop the show.

This returns us to the previously asked question of how Moraga is preparing. Is he preparing for the fastest fighter or is he preparing for a five round fight? This is where flyweight fights differ from the heavier weight classes and where fan prognostications are forced to address the bigger picture, the longer time line. To appreciate this fight, one has to consider both these questions, consider the long bet. This is a Championship fight and will be likely decided in the Championship Rounds. This is also an IQ test.

Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson by split decision.