Cuban Olympian Maikel Perez could be a much needed shot in the arm for MMA’s 125-pound landscape.
The UFC‘s Flyweight division is in a hard place right now with no viable contenders for its champion, Demetrious Johnson. It’s been several years since a compelling opponent was offered to Johnson, aside from a scrapped super fight with Bantamweight champion, T.J. Dillashaw.
For the past two years, Flyweight has been the place where still-green up-and-comers are thrown to Johnson for a smacking in between title shots for over-matched, undeserving veterans. To add to the matter, none of the fighters on the outskirts of the top five seem poised to make a convincing run at the belt.
The Future of Flyweight
Though the situation at the top of the division looks grim, there exists a lively prospect scene. One only need look at the fantastic Askar Askarov tearing up legitimate competition in ACB, or Jose “Shorty” Torres winning and successfully defending both Titan FC‘s Flyweight and Bantamweight titles to tell that there are plenty of young fighters currently gaining experience who will soon be ready to step up to the plate. Today we’ll focus on one who is young in experience, if not in age.
Prospect Watch: Maikel Perez
Cuba’s Mikael Perez entered MMA after an amateur wrestling career that saw him win a gold medal in the 2009 Pan American Championships at 60 kg and compete in the 2008 Olympics, though he was eliminated in the first round. Perez is the current LFA Flyweight champion. He defeated Sid Bice for the title that was vacated by Roberto Sanchez upon his signing with the UFC. Though Perez is 34 years old, he’s still very athletic for his age with only two years of professional MMA competition under his belt. Given his inexperience, Perez is still in the stage of his career where vast improvements can be expected from fight-to-fight.
On the Feet
Perez’s striking game is currently rather limited, which is to be expected from a wrestler so young in the sport. His boxing is the weakest part of his game. His hands are limited to one-off potshots, often thrown from too far away. If he has a particular strength on the feet, it lies in his kicks. Perez is a willing if not exceptionally skilled kicker, using active kicks to the leg and body to score from the outside.
His active use of kicks and preference for fighting outside the pocket place him firmly within the “wrestle-kicker” archetype. The mold arose after the success of Jon Jones, which is characterized by a volume-kicking game on the outside, an avoidance of the pocket, and a controlling clinch game. Top level “wrestle-kickers” such as Aljamain Sterling and Darrion Caldwell provide a glimpse of what someone like Perez may look like if he continues improving on his current track. Perez trains at Kings MMA, home of Rafael Cordeiro, who is known for turning talented grapplers into kick-heavy pressure machines, so he’s at the right place to ensure a smooth development curve.
As you may have guessed, Perez’s wrestling skill makes up the brunt of his offense in MMA. Perez works primarily off an incredibly strong right-side underhook, using it to control opponents against the cage and drive into takedowns in the open. He also makes excellent use of collar ties to land strikes in the clinch.
The knee tap is Perez’s bread and butter and he hits it out of the clinch better than perhaps anyone in MMA. His underhooking arm drives his opponent’s weight onto their rear leg, which he blocks with his far hand to take them over. Pay attention to how high Perez’s underhooking arm gets. As soon as he starts the knee tap, he drives that underhook up into the armpit, which raises their shoulder and prevents them from countering with a strong whizzer. Perez also does a great job at denying his opponent ties that allow them to exert leverage against his drive. He’ll use a collar tie or elbow/bicep control to keep his opponents from obtaining an underhook with which they can resist his forward pressure.
Perez uses a collar tie to land knee taps on the opposite leg, driving his opponent’s weight over the leg with a forearm on their neck.
Perez’s knee tap is reminiscent of Iranian Olympic gold medalist, Hassan Yazdani Cherati, who is known for his use of a strong underhook to drive opponents back. In wrestling, obtaining the underhook is a battle in itself, as you must first bypass an opponent’s grip-fighting and control ties. In MMA however, fighters tend to willingly fall into an over/under position whenever they find themselves in close range due to the threat of strikes preventing extended grip-fighting sequences.
The strength of Perez’s knee tap is reinforced by his incredible chain wrestling. The basic idea behind chain wrestling is the same as that behind combination striking. Against competent opponents, your first attack is likely to fail, but the opponent’s defense leaves openings for further attacks. Perez chains into and out of his knee tap brilliantly, often finishing it by stepping in and blocking the near leg or stepping into an outside trip.
Here Perez’s opponent tries to turn out of the knee tap and Perez finishes with a standing suck back. He keeps his left arm around the waist, keeping his opponent tight to him, and uses his right hand to grip the collar and pull him down, while blocking the near-side leg with his right knee.
Perez will use his failed shots as opportunities to solidify an underhook, before hitting the knee tap as he builds his base up to the feet.
While Perez’s distance striking is largely ineffective, he’s found a way to successfully connect it to his wrestling. He hits most of his shots from outside by throwing a long straight or overhand and stepping through into southpaw on the shot. Often his lead will cause opponents to pull their weight over their rear foot to avoid the punch or return with a counter, both of which leave them in a poor position to defend the takedown. Perez will step his rear leg forward directly outside of his opponent’s lead leg, while his head and body go to the opposite side and force the opponent over their blocked leg.
In the Clinch
Though Perez’s distance striking is rudimentary at best, his strong clinch game allows him to create opportunities to land strikes. Perez works effectively from the collar tie, pulling his opponent’s head down into uppercuts or using a double collar tie to land knees to the body and head.
Perez has a great eye for transitions, flowing between control positions in the clinch and using the transitions between those transient positions to create openings for strikes. There used to be a time in MMA when a double collar tie meant immediate danger of a finish, but as the skill of practitioners has evolved, the meta-game has shifted more toward capitalizing on transitions. A quick look at the fights of Demetrious Johnson or Jon Jones – the most effective clinch fighters in MMA – is all it takes to realize that the ability to flow between control positions and capitalize on openings created in transition is a necessity for success in the clinch at an elite level.
Skill in transitions is often something that comes later in a fighter’s career, after they’ve already developed sound striking and grappling games, as it represents a link between the two distinct phases. It’s uncommon to see a fighter with Perez’s inexperience who is so skilled in blending striking and grappling in transition, while still remaining a relatively unsound striker.
In the first sequence, Perez’s opponent breaks the double collar tie by threading his arm through for the underhook. Perez immediately controls the shoulder while he leans back to create space and sends an elbow through the opening. In the second sequence, his opponent raises his arm and straightens it out before changing levels to slip out of the underhook. As he changes levels, Perez drags him down further to land a knee. His opponent then crossfaces, which creates an opening for Perez to land an uppercut, and finally Perez connects with a clean right as his opponent attempts to circle out.
One detail that makes a frequent appearance in Perez’s fights are his transitions from the back. He’ll often control opponents with a seat-belt grip on the ground and maintain the grip when they use the cage to stand up, transitioning to a double collar tie as they turn into him. Perez’s left arm is placed in the armpit, preventing opponents from quickly turning out by driving their elbow down, while his right hand around the neck leaves him in perfect position to catch a collar tie. Against Trent Meaux, Perez demonstrated a variation of this, locking up an arm triangle and using it to trip Meaux back to the ground.
Perez will use duck-unders off his shot to create a dominant angle, landing strikes as his opponents struggle to regain their footing and turn into him. Perez’s best strikes tend to come in exchanges like these, in which he can create chaos with his grappling to distract his opponent and land strikes while they’re still focused on the grappling.
The most consistent clinch entry in Perez’s arsenal is a feinted shot. Perez will change levels as if shooting in for a takedown, only to pop back up into the clinch with an underhook as his opponent reaches his arms down to defend.
Note also how Perez blocks the opponent’s underhook on his left side. He keeps his left elbow tight to his body as he changes levels so when his opponent attempts to underhook, his forearm blocks it and his hand rests on their tricep. He then pushes the tricep inwards, removing his opponent’s ability to control the tie-up and leaving him free to exert force with his underhook unimpeded.
Here Perez enters in a similar way, feinting the shot and blocking the underhook, but instead of catching an underhook himself, he snaps his opponent down and shucks him to the side, breaking his balance for the takedown.
Perez also uses the shot feint to create opportunities for strikes. Here he changes levels into the clinch, before showing the shot again to lower his opponent’s hands and locking up a double collar tie. Perez lands a knee from the collar tie and switches to an underhook and elbow control to hit a knee tap.
The meta-game at Flyweight is focused heavily around scrambling. With fighters so small, fast, and light, extended control on the ground is made more difficult and the ability to deal with rapid-fire transitions becomes more important. Rather than just holding a man down with a static crossface, control becomes about constantly moving with the opponent to stop escapes before they start or using escape attempts to transition between control positions. Though several Flyweight grapplers such as Jussier Formiga and Alexandre Pantoja have found success in constantly hunting for transitions to the back, where they can solidify the position and exercise more extended control while looking for submissions.
Maikel Perez possesses both a capable scrambling game and an ability to shut down his opponent’s scrambling through addressing escape attempts as or before they begin. Though Perez wrestled in freestyle competition, which de-emphasizes control on the ground in comparison to folkstyle rules, Perez possesses an excellent repertoire of riding tactics most commonly seen in folkstyle.
Perez frequently uses an Iowa ride to control opponents. The Iowa ride is where the rider hooks the leg closest to them with their inside leg, preventing the opponent from sitting on their heels. This keeps the opponent’s weight forward and makes it more difficult for them to build their base to escape.
Perez will use the Iowa ride to control while he lands punches or to expose the opponent’s hips. He’ll lift up on the trapped leg, creating space above their knee to slip in a hook and start working on taking the back.
Perez also makes excellent use of a cross-body ride. Perez hooks the far instep to take weight off his opponent’s heels and disturb his base before hipping out slightly and stretching his chest across his opponent’s back, covering the opponent’s hips with his own. Perez’s near-side instep is laced over his opponent’s, pinning the right leg to the mat. The opponent’s weight is forced on to his hands and he must post to avoid being flattened out, allowing Perez to land free punches. As the opponent attempts to spin out, Perez hips in and crossfaces, blocking the turn and flattening him out into a deep back mount (or parallel leg ride for the wrestlers out there).
Once he has his opponent flattened out, Perez will usually posture up and land strikes or look for the rear naked choke, but he also has another trick up his sleeve:
Perez applies a deep, painful-looking power half nelson to turn his opponent from the back mount. Once his opponent is forced onto his side, Perez postures up into an S-mount and drops punches.
And of course, who doesn’t love anyone willing to attack a spladle in an MMA fight. Note also how Perez hips out and begins attempting to set up a twister off the splade. Gorgeous stuff, even if it was ultimately unsuccessful.
Perez’s most recent fight against Sid Bice at LFA 37 provided a few examples of his ability to kill his opponent’s scrambles as they start:
Bice secures an underhook from half guard and uses it to start building his base to stand up or transition into a takedown. Perez immediately applies a three-quarter nelson, breaking down Bice’s base and forcing him to abandon the underhook. With the underhook cleared, Perez is free to go behind and switch to a seat-belt to start looking for the back.
Here, Bice attacks a switch, looking to put pressure on Perez’s right shoulder and spin to his leg in order to come up on a takedown. Perez grips Bice’s legs and drives into his hips, keeping pressure on the hips to prevent Bice from pulling his legs back. Bice is unable to create enough distance between his hips and Perez to sit out and finish the switch. Perez then grips the near-side ankle and drives up on his toes to elevate it, before hooking it with his left leg to pin it down. As Bice abandons the switch and tries to tripod up to build his base, the hook slows him down, allowing Perez to lock up a claw ride to keep his weight on his hands. As soon as Perez locks up the claw, he circles around Bice, further breaking down his base, and switches to a seat-belt to begin looking to take the back.
While on top, Perez is constantly tying up the wrists of his opponents to prevent escape and create opportunities for strikes. He uses cross-wrists and inside wrist control to isolate an arm while he punches the open side of the face.
Here Perez catches a cross-wrist directly off his takedown. As Bice underhooks and wraps the head for a guillotine, Perez ducks under to the back and forces him down with a body lock. Perez’s body lock traps Bice’s underhook, and he slides his hand back to catch the wrist. The cross-wrist prevents Bice from posting with his right arm to build his base up and leaves him without an option to defend the right side of his face, allowing Perez to land punches with impunity.
The finish in Perez’s most recent fight came largely through his ability to tie up wrists.
First, Perez uses inside wrist control on Bice’s left arm to land elbows to the same side of his head. Bice crosses his right arm over his face in an attempt to defend the shots. Perez then posts on his right arm to get on top and flatten Bice out, as the inside wrist control prevents Bice from posting to resist. Bice is now laying flat on his stomach with his left arm trapped and his right arm crossed over his face. Perez lets go of the inside wrist and quickly switches to a cross-wrist on Bice’s right arm, trapping the arm across his face and essentially immobilizing Bice while he lands punches. The punches are weak and don’t appear to deal much damage, but they are enough to convince the referee to stop the fight.
Perez consistently puts himself in great positions to land ground strikes with his ability to flatten opponents out and tie up wrists, but the strikes themselves don’t seem to have much on them. His finish of Bice came almost solely through his positional control, with the strikes serving mainly to occupy the vision of the referee. As Perez gains more comfort in MMA and his confidence increases, it would be nice to see him commit to posturing up more and delivering powerful strikes.
Areas of Improvement
As previously mentioned, Perez’s striking is a weak point. Not only is his offense limited, but he doesn’t yet have the eyes to see punches coming and react to them individually, instead generally preferring to give ground in response to any offense his opponents show.
His habit of giving ground and lack of rational reactions to strikes often see him running straight backward while opponents charge. Perez pivots and moves laterally well enough at range when he’s given time and space, so there is hope that he’ll develop the ability to break the line of his opponent’s attack as he gains more comfort reacting to strikes.
Although Perez hasn’t yet developed the comfort to react soundly to strikes, he has shown some measure of proactive defense. Perez is frequently able to anticipate his opponent’s likely next move and take measures to deny it. For example, he’ll duck in off his leg kicks, knowing that a straight right hand is likely coming. He’ll even use this tactic to set up takedowns. However, he does it so often that it could become a problem. Any opponent (or corner) willing to watch tape can probably score some free shots just by committing to uppercuts after Perez kicks.
On the ground, Perez has often been over-eager in attacking the neck. He frequently loses position attempting a choke without first controlling his opponent’s hips. Threading the hand across the neck in transition – when the opponent is focused more on denying the move to the back rather than fighting the grip on the neck – is a tried and true method for securing the choke. But catching the choke in transition usually involves quickly solidifying a control position to ensure the choke is finished. As he starts fighting better competition, Perez will need to be more judicious in his submission attempts in order to make the most of his opportunities on top.
Although striking and age are issues for Perez, he has a large number of factors working in his favor. Perez possesses a high level of athleticism and elite wrestling skill. He’s already figured out how to blend his striking and wrestling together, using them in tandem to increase the efficacy of each. His team, Kings MMA, is the perfect place to pick up striking skills and develop his overall game, as Cordeiro is known for taking in grapplers and churning out dangerous strikers.
Yoel Romero, a former teammate of Perez on the Cuban national team, provides a possible analogy to how Perez’s development curve may look, with some key differences. While Perez is a great athlete, he does not possess the otherworldly athleticism and one-shot knockout power of Romero. Perez also fights at Flyweight, where the striking meta-game is concentrated heavily around high-volume offense. A game that relies on long bouts of inactivity interspersed with explosive pot-shots is only possible at Flyweight with a high degree of skill, the likes of which Perez may never develop. However, unlike Romero, Perez has shown a large depth of skill in not only getting the takedown, but controlling his man on top.
The UFC’s Flyweight division is littered with scrambly grapplers who could provide a tough test for Perez’s ability to control opponents on the ground and force him to strike at length. On the other hand, Perez’s excellent riding game could prove a strong counter for some of the fighters who are more willing to give up position in transitions with the expectation that they can scramble out, such as Louis Smolka or Tim Elliott. UFC newcomer, Alex Perez, has begun climbing the ranks at Flyweight largely on the strength of a similar folkstyle-inspired front headlock and riding game.
Strong grapplers with highly developed striking at the top of Flyweight such as Jussier Formiga and John Moraga will likely prove very difficult matchups for Perez at any point in his career. However, there are a number of fighters in the top 15 who appear more susceptible to Perez’s brand of control. Dustin Ortiz and Alexandre Pantoja lack the depth of wrestling skill that Perez possesses and have been out scrambled at times. Strikers with more BJJ-oriented grappling games such as Sergio Pettis, Ben Nguyen, and Brandon Moreno could be exploited by Perez’s wrestling and top game as he sharpens his skillset and further develops his game.
It’s important to keep in mind that Perez only has two years of professional competition under his belt. He still has several years to develop his skillset before he’s near at his best as a fighter, though his age may slow his development curve down somewhat. Given his inexperience and his team, it seems likely that he’ll be able to develop at least a competent striking game, further increase the consistency of his wrestling and top control, and shore up many of the weaknesses in his grappling. Though he likely started MMA too late to compete with the best of the best, the projection is for him to break into the top 15 with the potential to win some top 10 matchups.