Perez wants to carry the UFC torch in Mexico. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Fearlessness aside, there was a tangible ceiling on how far Perez could go if he continued to develop his skills exclusively in his home country. According to Valle, it is not that Mexico lacks good coaching but that so few trainers are able to seamlessly blend together the various elements of MMA; and while those capable of teaching standup are plentiful, good wrestling instruction is hard to come by. In a fight against an American opponent early in his career, Perez quickly became aware of his own deficiencies on the ground. That path to improvement would ultimately lead him to Albuquerque.
While Perez had been holding his fight camps with Valle in South Texas for some time, making a full-time move across the border to a strange town to train with a group of teammates who, by and large, spoke only English was a drastic change. In many ways, the then 18-year-old Perez’s plight mirrored that of a homesick college student, only the lack of funds and feeling of displacement was exacerbated by the language barrier.
Every night, the fighter would call Valle in tears, asking to come home. The man whom Perez refers to as his second father told him something to this effect: Grow some balls. The trial-by-fire Perez would endure at Jackson’s would be a valuable foundation for a future spot on the UFC roster, and Valle knew it. The coach also had a pretty strong premonition that his pupil would eventually persevere through the trying times.
“He has a lot of heart and he doesn’t quit,” Valle said. “He doesn’t let the outside world distract him that much. He’s very concentrated in his career, and that’s the way he’s always been since the start -- always wanting to learn.”
If Perez was hurting on the inside, that did not stop him from making a strong impression on the cast of characters at the gym.
“He couldn’t speak a lick of English, but he was tough as s---. That’s what I remember about him,” Australian-born UFC welterweight Kyle Noke said. “I liked him as soon as I met him. I just remember him always smiling and just wanting to get in there and throw down.”
Perez recalls skipping English class as a student back home -- “I’m not very good at school,” he admitted -- but his constant immersion in American culture, whether though interaction with teammates or watching movies, allowed him to gradually achieve a working grasp of the language without any formal tutoring. Thanks to Noke, Perez’s vernacular also includes the occasional Aussie-ism, such as “mate” or “G’day.”
Now, Perez displays a social media savvy beyond his years, alternating Twitter posts between English and Spanish in order to reach a broader fan base. Eventually, he wants to take English classes to further improve.
When Perez first came to New Mexico, he lived on the Edgewood ranch owned by Donald Cerrone. The hour-long drive to the gym, coupled with Cerrone’s affinity for the nightlife, eventually prompted Perez to seek arrangements better suited to his focus, which he describes as about a 90-10 split between training and watching movies. “Goyito” now shares an apartment with Noke, located approximately five minutes away from Jackson’s and much farther from the possibility of distraction.
“Over there, it’s too crazy. ‘Cowboy’ is too crazy. He’s like, ‘Let’s go party.’ I like to be focused,” Perez said. “For me, fun is in training.”
That statement is less of an indictment of Cerrone, whom Perez holds in high regard, and more of a credit to a still-developing fighter’s singular drive. Valle likes to recall the time when he and Perez were in Texas as Hurricane Alex approached. The storm barely registered with “Goyito,” who wanted to put in work regardless of the conditions.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, there’s a hurricane outside,’” Valle said. “He just doesn’t think of the outside world -- just about his training.”
Noke finds Perez’s drive invigorating.
“He’s just a hard working kid,” he said. “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.”
The current climate at Jackson’s would seem to indicate MMA’s infiltration into Mexico is gathering momentum. A few months ago, the dojo opened its doors to an influx of foreign talent, and on any given day, as many as 11 fighters from Mexico and other Latin American nations develop under the tutelage of Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. On Aug. 10, four of those fighters -- three from Mexico and one from Argentina -- competed on a Jackson’s MMA Series card in Albuquerque. While the results were mixed -- the quartet went 2-2 at the event -- the potential ramifications were undeniable. Those who fought that night are not that much unlike the baby-faced, smiling assassin who showed up at the famed MMA stronghold some six years ago. The difference: these newcomers have an example to follow, someone who makes their dreams of fighting in the UFC feel like a few short steps away from reality.
To get where he is today, Perez took his share of lumps, both in the cage and out, while navigating a steep learning curve, but he emerged better for it. Now, he cannot stop smiling. Then again, he rarely ever did.
“He’s the guy who did it,” Jackson said. “He’s in [the UFC] and doing well. If he can do it, other people can do it. I think that he’s a big inspiration for [Mexican fighters] because they know it can be done now. It’s not an impossible dream.”