UFC's Perez trail blazing Mexican presence in MMA
To fully explicate an athlete's significance in his sport -- whether established or still merely projected -- usually requires a lot of ink. But not in the case of Goyo. First of all, reading, he admits, has never been his thing. And, besides, all those words printed in magazines or newspapers can't do his story justice. Not the way just a little bit of ink from the tattoo artist's needle has embedded it across his right shin.
In the quiet hour before a Thursday practice at Jackson/Winklejohn's MMA in Albuquerque, UFC fighter Erik "Goyo" Perez sat on a wooden bench with his right leg extended in front of him, explaining the designs dyed into his skin.
"This is the aguila," he said, pointing to the eagle with its wings stretching across his shin. "It's like the eagle you see on the Mexican flag."
Of the nearly 500 fighters on the UFC roster, few are more important to the promotion's global expansion than Perez, a 23-year-old bantamweight from Guadalupe, Mexico, who will make his fifth appearance in the Octagon on Nov. 16 against Edwin Figueroa. The only UFC fighter born and raised in Mexico, Perez (3-1 in UFC) fights with an aggressive, strike-first, strike-hard approach reminiscent of the classic Mexican boxers. He launched his UFC career in June 2012 by scoring the first of three consecutive first-round victories. His ascension since then has coincided perfectly with the UFC's initiatives to expand its reach into Mexico.
"From the beginning I've wanted to get into Mexico and Great Britain and both of those places have been the hardest," UFC president Dana White told reporters earlier this year.
But this year the promotion moved fist-forward into Mexico with a flurry of initiatives designed to capture the interests of Mexico's 112 million people and $1.76 trillion in purchasing power. In September, the UFC and Latin American broadcast giant Televisa launched a 24/7 UFC pay channel with exclusive Spanish-language content. Televisa will broadcast a Mexican-based version of the reality series The Ultimate Fighter, the show that helped launch MMA into the U.S. mainstream when it debuted in 2005. The UFC plans to crown its Mexican media presence with a fight card in Mexico City in 2014.
It's not just the country's proximity to the United States that makes Mexico a natural MMA market, but also the country's embrace of a combat culture. From its ancient Aztecs to its modern-day warrior boxers, Mexico loves its fighting. And is willing to pay for it. The boxing-loving country bolsters pay-per-view and cable ratings for any card featuring a Mexican pugilist. Take for example, the 1.05 million PPV buys for last November's Manny Pacquiao bout against Mexican hero Juan Manuel Marquez compared to the 900,000 buys for Pacquiao's June 2012 fight with American Tim Bradley. When Floyd Mayweather Jr. took on Mexican Saul Canelo last month, the fight was watched in eight out of 10 households in Mexico -- a television record in the country.
But just as every good movie needs a star, so, too, does the UFC's Mexican outreach need a strong leading man.
"You see the sword," Perez asks as he points to the blade in the eagles' claws. "You usually see a serpent in the claws but I wanted to do something different. I wanted a warrior symbol and anywhere from Japan to England, they use a sword as a symbol."
Perez's presence isn't an affirmative action appointment or a marketing ploy by the UFC. He won his first two fights despite accepting both on short notice. He knocked out his second opponent, Ken Stone, last August in 17 seconds -- a bantamweight record -- and toppled his third, Bryan Bloodworth, with a knockout three minutes and 50 seconds into the first round last December.
"He's ultra-charismatic," UFC director of talent development Ant Evans said in December. "He's in the style of Mexican boxers: You hit me, I'll hit you. Never take a backwards step, attack, attack, attack."
It's a style he learned in a Monterrey martial arts studio specializing in Sanda, Japanese boxing. Perez's parents, Gregorio and Azucena, sent him to the studio at age 14 after he was repeatedly expelled for fighting. Two years later, Perez accepted his first professional fight against an older, bearded UFC veteran... the day before the event. After throwing a few punches and enduring the older man's ground and pound, Perez applied an armbar for his first professional victory. As the referee lifted his arm, Perez said to himself, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
Perez has maintained that power-first approach typical of his boxing countrymen -- even to his detriment when he dropped his first pro fight last August to 10th-ranked Takeya Mizugaki.
"I have to fight like the Mexican boxers. I can't be boring," Perez says in Spanish. "I hope everyone's entertained. But I also want to win fights. In my last fight, I lost, and I think it was because of this -- I want to put on entertaining fights. I lost my head a little bit. Now, I've matured."
Perez points to the last symbol on his leg. "The eagle has the tail of a phoenix," he says, moving his finger down his shinbone towards his ankle. "Rising out of the ashes."
That Perez stumbled shouldn't be any surprise. Just four years into his mixed marital arts career, he's deftly played ambassador to two countries, challenging two different misconceptions. Unlike many of his fellow fighters who show up to press conferences in sponsor's tee shirts and designer jeans, Perez arrives on the dais in a suit and tie.
"I always want to put forth the best image, the best face for my county," he says. "Also I wear the suits to show my countrymen that this is a professional sport. This isn't taking guys and throwing them in a cage to fight. And in the States and in Canada, people expect a Mexican to have the face of a peasant and huaraches [woven leather sandals.]"
But a suit and tie will go only so far in fostering a cross-border relationship. It's a gold-plated title belt, Perez knows, that would engage the largest audience.
"There's a lot of pressure," he says. "But I want that belt."
Perez looks down at the phoenix tail.
"Even if it takes me two, three, four years, I'll still be here," he says. "The true sign of a warrior isn't how many times he's knocked down. It's how many times he gets up to fight again."
It's a promise he'll put in ink.