UFC flyweight contender John Moraga's title quest forged by personal tragedy

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

The mother of John Moraga's best friend, Gilbert "Tito" Fuentes, didn't care much for Moraga, and she wasn't shy about letting him know it.

Often, when Moraga knocked on the front door looking for his buddy, Fuentes' mom would frequently fib and tell Moraga her son wasn't home.

Moraga, of course, knew better. This had happened plenty of times before, and the friends had talked about it and worked out a plan in advance.

He knew exactly where Fuentes was, and when Fuentes' mom closed the door, saying her son wasn't home, Moraga just strolled around the side and tapped on Tito's window. Fuentes would open the window and help Moraga crawl through.

On July 27, 2003, she again answered the door when Moraga knocked. Yet again, she told him her son wasn't home.

This time, though, she wasn't fibbing. He really wasn't home.

And no amount of pounding would ever get Fuentes to open that window and allow Moraga to slip through.

Getting no answer to his taps on the bedroom window, Moraga left the Fuentes home, pulled out his phone and called Tito, hoping they'd get together for the night.

Fuentes, though, had left earlier to go to what Moraga called "a house party." Someone at that party stabbed Fuentes in the side, killing him.

That murder had a profound impact upon Moraga, a UFC contender who will face champion Demetrious Johnson on Saturday at Key Arena in Seattle for the flyweight title in the main event of UFC on Fox 8.

"That pretty much killed me, man," Moraga said of Fuentes' death. "It changed me. It changed my life. That was my first big loss, of someone close to me. I got a really bad attitude when that happened."

[Related: Days before championship fight, Demetrious Johnson becomes ‘Mighty Dad’]

Moraga comes from one of the roughest areas in Phoenix, where gang violence and crime is commonplace.

He didn't really know his father for his first eight years or so. Even after they became acquainted, their relationship wasn't exactly textbook.

"He was around, but he wasn't really around, if you know what I mean," Moraga said.

When Fuentes died, little mattered to Moraga, who acted out in anger and frustration.

"It made me more wild because I felt if I died, I'd just be chilling with my homie," Moraga said. "That's how I felt. I really didn't care about much. I got very reckless after that. I had just gotten into college, and I'd been a pretty good kid as far as school. I did everything I had to do, man. I grew up where I grew up, but I was still focused, because I knew what I had to do.

"I was disciplined and then, the thing with Tito happened and it all changed. I just wondered, 'Why should I work so hard?' when stuff like this could happen. I felt like I'd never have fun again. My whole attitude changed and I started to do whatever I wanted. I didn't listen to nobody. I did all the wrong things."

Even though there was plenty more tragedy to come in his young life, Moraga turned out to be lucky. He said his high school wrestling coaches helped save him.

He'd developed a close bond with Richard Fimbres, a part-time security guard and college student who was working as an assistant wrestling coach at Maryvale High School in Phoenix, where Moraga attended school.

The men were six years apart and had a lot of shared interests.

"We just communicated well with each other right from the start," Fimbres said. "We were interested in a lot of the same things, music, a lot of the same stuff. I was his coach, but I was close to his age and I wasn't an older person he couldn't relate to. We both grew up the same way, in the same kind of difficult environment. There were a lot of similarities."

Fimbres also coached club wrestling teams and would encourage Moraga to come along.

"When you spend time in that [wrestling] room together, you grow a bond with these kids," Fimbres said. "We were very close. We became family, all of us. When we would go on a trip to a tournament, we only had money for three rooms, and we only had one van that held eight passengers, but we'd fit 10 or 12 kids in there. We did what we had to do."

Just those simple acts of kindness registered in a big way with Moraga. He'd never had a stable family life and frequently lacked a strong male figure.

Suddenly, here was a stranger who was doing the kinds of things with him that a father would do with his son.

"It was like nothing that crazy, but it would be on a Sunday, and he'd call us [wrestlers] and get us together and we'd all run together," Moraga said. "Then, maybe we would go get something to eat and watch a movie. I like that stuff. I never had that before.

"After what had happened to Gilbert, I stopped caring about school. I only went to school so I could wrestle and I was in a bad mind state."

Moraga went on to a successful wrestling at Arizona State, though he said his collegiate experience was largely shaped by his friend's murder "and wasn't nearly what I wanted it to be."

But he got interested in fighting MMA – "I had a vision and I knew I could do things in that sport," Moraga said – and began practicing a bit with his young cousin, Jesse Rocha.

Rocha was considerably younger than Moraga, but was interested in martial arts. "He was a blue belt in karate, and he went to Vegas and won a lot of tournaments," Moraga said.

Even when Rocha was 12 and Moraga would playfully get into a slapping contest with him, Rocha was no pushover.

Moraga had this sense that Rocha, whom he referred to as Jay, would make it in MMA.

Rocha would brag endlessly about Moraga to his friends. He'd tell them about his cousin's MMA feats and predict that one day, he'd win a world championship.

Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close. But earlier this year, on Feb. 1 in Phoenix, Rocha was shot in the chest and killed.

Yet again, Moraga's life was shattered.

On Feb. 10, the day that Rocha was to be buried at the Resthaven Park Mortuary & Cemetery in Phoenix, Moraga received a call from a UFC official offering him a title fight against Johnson.

Normally, this would have been an occasion for a grand celebration. This time, though, there would be no celebration.

"I didn't care about fighting, I didn't care about life, I didn't care about anything," Moraga said. "They offered me the title fight on the day we were burying Jesse, and there was no emotion, no nothing. My heart was torn out."

Moraga has a son, John, who is nearly 5. He used to call his son, Jay, but changed that after Rocha's murder. He usually calls him Champ now, and sometimes John, but never Jay.

Saying that word would be too painful.

"It's not like I'm an old guy, but I've been through so much," Moraga said. "I guess that is what happens when you come from where I come from, but it takes a lot from you."

Moraga is going to spend much of the early part of his day on Saturday thinking about Rocha and remembering Fuentes.

Fimbres, the guy who helped save him from who knows what, will be there to add support, and also as an unofficial good luck charm. Moraga is 13-1, with only a 2010 loss to John Dodson marring his record.

Fimbres, who says, "I'm just along for the ride," has been in Moraga's corner for 13 of Moraga's 14 fights. The only one he missed was the loss to Dodson.

But as he prepares to fight for an MMA world title, Moraga concedes he wouldn't be where he is now without wrestling. Wrestling, he said, helped save his life and put him on the right path.

"I was out and about a lot and I was in trouble and around trouble a lot," Moraga said. "But I found wrestling, and a couple of good coaches, and they helped save me."

And now, he is on the verge of a crowning professional achievement. The title fight with Johnson gives him the opportunity to fulfill those dreams he's had and to make all the hours of work in the gym worth it.

Family, though, won't be far from his mind. He insisted that the anniversary of his friend's death, and the freshness of his cousin's murder, won't distract him on Saturday.

But when the bell rings and the verdict is announced and he is the new champion, he says, there is no question what he'll think about first.

"Jay," he said, quickly. "No question. I'll think about Jay. This would be something I wanted to share with him. I'll still share it with him, but it's going to be in a more quiet, more personal way."

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