The Dream Warrior

Rude Awakening

By Tristen Critchfield Aug 27, 2013
Erik Perez has finished his first three UFC opponents in the first round. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com



ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When it comes to fighting, Erik Perez has always been a bit of a dreamer.

Whether that meant learning under a well-known trainer, competing on the world’s largest mixed martial arts stage or wrapping championship gold around his waist, Perez’s fantasies were often specifically geared toward a realm he entered when most kids were barely learning how to spell their names.

When the time arrived for the only-Mexican born fighter on the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s roster to make his way to the Octagon for the first time, it was only natural that he began to feel a little overwhelmed. After all, it was only days earlier that Perez was overweight, depressed and out of work, the day-to-day grind of training for six-plus months with no visible payoff in sight taking its inevitable toll.

That all changed when longtime trainer and mentor Mike Valle informed Perez that Step 1 of his dream fulfillment plan was in motion. The UFC had called, but there was a catch: the promotion wanted the young bantamweight to face John Albert at “The Ultimate Fighter 15” Finale in a week-and-a-half’s time. The decision, of course, was a no-brainer; Perez could not stop crying and shaking when he received the good news. He then called his parents in Mexico and cried some more on the phone.

“Not too many guys achieve their dreams,” Perez said.

From there, the hard part would seem to have been a frantic weight cut in which Perez rushed to shed some 34 pounds to tip the scales just under the bantamweight limit. The adventure was only beginning, however. On fight night, somewhere between the time it took to admire the UFC logo on his four-ounce gloves and when the mariachi music signaling his walk to the cage hit the loudspeakers at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Perez blacked out.

When he came to his senses, Albert was on the verge of ruining his debut with a deep triangle choke. An altered state of consciousness is not unusual for an athlete during the heat of competition, but it was unfamiliar territory for Perez. Even so, it was hard to argue with the results: “El Goyito” won via armbar with just 42 seconds left in the first round. Where Perez went during those harrowing opening minutes of his UFC debut will forever remain a mystery. The important thing was that his out-of-body experience did not last long enough to derail his dreams. Everything, from holding a UFC belt to fighting in his homeland, remains in play.

“I start punching Albert, and I was about to pass out. He tries for the armbar, I jump in, grab the mount, go for the submission and win the fight,” Perez said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “I was lost for three minutes, and then I won in about 10 seconds.”

In hindsight, it all seems so simple. Since then, Perez has done his best to ingrain himself in the memories of fight fans and UFC brass alike, earning first-round knockout victories over Ken Stone and Byron Bloodworth in his next two Octagon appearances. Perez makes his first main-card appearance at UFC Fight Night 27 on Wednesday in Indianapolis, where he will meet hard-nosed Japanese veteran Takeya Mizugaki in a matchup that represents the most significant step in the Mexican fighter’s career.

Photo: Sherdog.com

Jackson saw potential in Perez.
Of his first three victims in the promotion, only Albert remains listed on UFC.com’s 135-pound roster. Mizugaki, meanwhile, has gone toe-to-toe with some of the division’s best, including Urijah Faber, Scott Jorgensen and Miguel Torres. With a win, the promotional push for Perez could be just beginning.

UFC President Dana White has had Mexico in his sights for some time, and it is no secret that the Las-Vegas based organization would like nothing better than to plant its flag on the soil of the boxing-mad country. Although one man’s progress is but a small piece in the overall puzzle, continued success for Perez would do wonders in paving the way for Zuffa to hold an event South of the Border. Perez is well aware of the burden he faces as a nation’s sole representative in the Octagon.

“Every fight is more pressure because more people know [about me],” he said. “I’m transforming this pressure into motivation.”

According to Perez, the number of MMA fans is increasing rapidly in his home country. Spurring that growth is the recent deal the UFC signed with Televisa Networks to bring its programming to 20 Spanish-speaking countries across Latin America, including Mexico. Later this year, Televisa is expected to launch a 24-hour network solely devoted to UFC content. Already Perez can sense a shift in the interest of the Mexican fight fan. While boxers Juan Manuel Marquez, Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. are as popular as ever, Perez claims Octagon staples like Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez and Carlos Condit are gradually receiving more recognition.

“Every time I go, more people are in training, more people see the fights. MMA is one sport I think that, in a couple years, will be bigger than boxing,” he said. “Now there are more names in MMA than in boxing that people like.”

Perez factors prominently into any big-picture scenario involving Mexico and the UFC, but he is not allowing himself to look past the opponent immediately in front of him. For someone who had to verify his toughness to his siblings and peers by fighting kids in his neighborhood as early as 7 years old, it only makes sense to take life on a fight-by-fight basis.

While Perez has steamrolled the opposition inside the Octagon, he encountered some serious adversity outside of it, as a staph-infection forced him to withdraw from a proposed bout with Johnny Bedford at UFC 159. For a while, the situation was dire, even life threatening, as his body did not properly respond to prescribed antibiotics. In the end, “Goyito” did what he has done so often in his life: he fought through it. After having avoided the initially recommended surgery, Perez expects to suffer no ill effects from the infection in his first action since December.

At his home base of Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts, a smiling Perez appears to be in a perpetual state of bliss -- exactly how one might imagine a man living the dream would look. It was the same sunny demeanor, along with his talent, that first caught the eye of Greg Jackson, who encountered Perez years ago while in Monterrey to attend a seminar. At Valle’s urging, he made it a point to pay special attention to the teenage muay Thai practitioner who had been making the three-hour trek to hone his skills at Valle’s Weslaco, Texas, gym.

“He was kind of a young, wide-eyed kid, really sweet and nice,” Jackson said. “You could tell that he had a lot of potential and was very gifted.”

Perez paints a different picture of his youth, describing himself as a kid with “a lot of energy and anger” who was always involved in a scrap, whether on the streets of Guadalupe or at school. To provide an outlet for that aggression, his father enrolled him in sanda, the Chinese martial art also known as sanshou, which was made famous in MMA circles by UFC middleweight Cung Le. It was the beginning of a love affair with combat arts that continues to this day for Perez, who in addition to practicing sanda, took fights in boxing and muay Thai before focusing on MMA.

“It changed my life. It changed my temper,” he said. “When I’m training, I’ll be more relaxed. I don’t want to [get in fights].”

As it turned out, Perez found plenty of opposition within the confines of the ring and cage, taking his first muay Thai bout at age 16 and his first MMA fight at 17. His youthful features earned him the moniker “Goyito,” as he squared off with men sometimes 15 to 20 years his senior. The age difference was no issue for someone who had already been fighting for nearly a decade himself.

“Every time I fought,” Perez said, “I was never scared of people that were bigger, taller or older.”

Finish Reading » “He’s just a hard working kid. He’s a lot younger than me and he inspires me to train harder, as well. I benefit from him living with me just as much as he does.”

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