John Moraga didn’t get into mixed martial arts for fame and quite frankly, he really didn’t get into it to satisfy any real hunger for competition, either.
Moraga started training to fight in 2009 with one thing in mind: Money.
“I didn’t get into this sport to be on posters or be a household name,” Moraga told ESPN.com. “Money. Let my kids grow up with everything I didn’t have.”
That’s not to say Moraga (13-1), who faces Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight title this weekend at a UFC on Fox event in Seattle, doesn’t enjoy what he does. A former collegiate wrestler, Moraga is a lifetime competitor.
But the reason he trains multiple times a day and makes sacrifices in his lifestyle so he can weigh 125 pounds before a fight is to provide for his two sons.
“When my girlfriend got pregnant, that’s when I decided to get in the gym and see what I could make of it," he said. "There wasn’t much opportunity when I started, but I had faith that I would have an opportunity to make a living out of it. It’s worked out.”
Money has been a major talking point in the UFC in 2013, with several former and current fighters publicly criticizing the promotion’s current pay structure.
Moraga is an interesting case study in the discussion. Since signing with the UFC in mid-2012, the 29-year-old has fought twice, both times on the undercard.
His most recent performance, a submission win over Chris Cariaso at UFC 155 in December, was the opening fight of the event. Most of the Las Vegas crowd didn’t show up to see it. The UFC paid Moraga a salary of $22,000, according to Nevada.
Had Moraga lost, he would have made just $11,000. Half of the salary came from a win bonus, which is included in the majority of UFC contracts. Also, he would have been 1-1 in the UFC. Fighters who fall to 1-2 are routinely cut from the UFC roster.
That may seem, in Moraga’s word, “cutthroat” -- but so far, he has made the UFC pay system work for him. Shortly after his first UFC win, a first-round knockout over Ulysses Gomez, the company sent him a discretionary bonus in the mail.
When he submitted Cariaso at UFC 155, Moraga also was the recipient of a $65,000 “Submission of the Night” bonus. Just two fights into his deal, he’s in a position to win a UFC belt and possibly headline a pay-per-view event in the future.
Moraga’s view on UFC pay is that the company forces him to earn his money. If he performs to its expectations, they take care of him.
“I feel the UFC wants exciting fighters. If you go out and put on an exciting fight, if you put enough effort out there, then they’ll take care of you," he said. "I think they let their fighters earn their money, and I’m cool with that.”
Moraga is in a terrific spot now, but acknowledges things could have gone south just as easily.
In that UFC debut, the one where he knocked out Gomez and was awarded an extra check, Moraga was originally scheduled to fight Ian McCall. McCall, ranked the No. 3 flyweight in the world at the time, withdrew with injury.
Moraga’s guaranteed paycheck for that debut was only $9,000, with a $9,000 win bonus. Obviously, he would have gone into the bout against McCall with confidence, but it clearly would have been a much tougher fight than the one he ended up with.
Prior to McCall’s injury, Moraga was looking at a situation in which he was scheduled to face the No. 3 fighter in his division, potentially for a mere $9,000 -- and on top of that, a potential loss in his promotional debut.
“It’s definitely a gamble,” Moraga said of being an undercard fighter. “That’s what we sign up for. But that’s how I saw it. I saw [my undercard fights] as a little amount of money to get me on my feet and I saw it as an opportunity.
“I was supposed to fight Ian McCall. That’s a little different than your average UFC debut. At the same time, I knew I just had to prove myself.”
Moraga admits to not knowing “what the UFC makes” per event or “how much it costs to keep business going.”
Those two issues have long been arguing points in the UFC fighter pay discussion. Disgruntled fighters have complained about UFC revenue split, as the company refuses to release figures to the media on the subject. The UFC responds that it absorbs its own production costs and spends millions of dollars on advertising and promoting the sport, which opens sponsorship opportunities for its fighters.
From a personal sense, Moraga doesn’t have the time to inmmerse himself in that discussion. In his mind, if he continues to perform and fight in an entertaining style, the money will come.
That’s far more than he can say regarding other times in his career. When Moraga first started off, he says his pay was based on the number of tickets he was able to sell to friends and family, many of whom didn’t have the funds to help him out.
“I made like, ticket-sale money,” Moraga said. “Selling tickets was hard. Everyone I know is from the hood. They were like, '30 dollars? Tell me how it went, player.'
“I think the most I was ever paid for one of my fights [before the UFC] was $1,000, maybe $1,200. Before that, it was $400 here, $600 there.”
Moraga was also involved in the well-known Nemesis Fighting MMA promotion, which produced bounced checks to fighters after an event in 2010.
Moraga suffered the only loss of his pro career at that event to fellow UFC flyweight John Dodson, but was supposed to collect his largest payday. He collected nothing.
“I didn’t get paid for that fight,” Moraga said. “It was supposed to be online PPV. It ended up being a total scam of a show.”
Of course, Moraga has no concern of that happening in the UFC and now, as was the case when he first started training, he’s optimistic regarding his financial future.
Regarding his upcoming fight against Johnson, Moraga says he views it as life and death. In his mind, it may be his only chance ever at real, life-changing money.
In the current UFC pay structure, that mindset probably has a lot to do with Moraga’s success so far.
“I take it as survival,” Moraga said. “I see it as my one chance. That’s how I have to see it. Who knows what can happen? I might never get this chance again if I don’t make the most of it.”