Juan Puerta: The technique and trajectory of Combate Americas’ “Leadfeather”

Juan Puerta poses with his Titan FC title. Credit: Titan FC (via JiuJ itsu Times).

When you think of a top prospect in MMA, what leaps to mind is usually a young star rocketing through the ranks. Perhaps they might have taken one or two losses, but in general, until they hit the big leagues, their career goes in a single direction: up.

But what’s almost more impressive is not to put together an impressive record starting out; but to have a career seemingly stuck in the doldrums and to suddenly go on a winning streak that causes those in the know to take notice.

That’s exactly what Combate Americas athlete and former Titan FC and CAMMA flyweight champion Juan Puerta has done.

After suffering back-to-back losses in 2016-2017, including one to future CFFC bantamweight champion Jared Scoggins, it seemed as though the career of the man nicknamed “Leadfeather” had taken a major setback. Instead, Puerta has gone on his most impressive run yet, eventually capturing the Titan FC flyweight title and defending it multiple times.

Juan Puerta: Mini-Rockhold

Juan Puerta reminds the watcher of none other than ex-UFC and Strikeforce FC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold.

Puerta is a long, gangly southpaw with a good ranged kicking game, control grappling and GNP, and a fondness for the check hook. Puerta’s check hook is a lead hook thrown as he circles out in order to keep himself as far away from the opponent as possible.

The comparison is not a perfect one, however.

Puerta is particularly fond of the check hook not only because it allows him to keep distance, but because he can convert it into a collar tie and use it to land knees. Indeed, Puerta’s best weapons on the feet are his knees, followed by his kicks.

Rather than Rockhold’s round kicks, Puerta prefers the snapping front kick to the chest. This was a famous favorite of the legendary kickboxer Semmy Schilt.

Lately, Puerta has made increasing use of the stamping lead sidekick to his opponent’s lead knee. In a southpaw-orthodox matchup, this stamping sidekick can be done from a very long range. In addition, this kick is useful for Puerta, in particular, because it discourages opponents approaching forward into the pocket.

While Puerta doesn’t have bad punching offense, his at times detrimental pocket defense (another Rockhold similarity, though this one is unfortunate), with his chin in the air and his hands low, often gets him clipped by opponents who make the effort to bring the fight to him.

Puerta’s chin is clearly excellent, but with his willingness to stand and trade, he at times takes damage he shouldn’t have to before he can start to use his grappling, where he usually holds a clear advantage.

Controlling the Fight

Puerta, thankfully, is far more enthusiastic initiating that grappling than Rockhold ever was.

Puerta has a habit of getting stuck in guillotines when initiating takedowns. However, he’s also excellent at breaking out of them. Some of these moments likely come because Puerta largely ignores the threat of a guillotine when it’s used to defend a takedown, confident in his ability to defend it and willing to take the risk so long as a takedown is secured.

Often, opponents who sense Puerta’s weaknesses in the pocket will burst in with a combination. When they do, Puerta can use that to initiate a shot or a bodylock takedown.

When he finally gets the fight to the ground, Puerta is able to put the leverage generated by his lanky limbs to great effect.

Puerta has an excellent ability to anticipate when submissions or sweeps are going to be attempted. This is what makes him a tremendous double threat from back and mount. If an opponent tries to break out of one, Puerta can often guide them to the other.

Likewise, Puerta’s ground and pound abilities pose another threat to his opponents. Someone so comfortable throwing power GNP from the mount without losing balance is a rare sight, but once Puerta gets there, he is a one-man howitzer.

Even when he isn’t able to consistently get into mount, Puerta’s limpet-esque tenacity from the back and impressive stamina allow him to grind out rounds against opponents who would potentially win them on the feet.

Even if all else fails and his opponent gets a dominant position on him, Puerta has a canny knack for reversals that put him back on top or back on the back.

In Action

Juan Puerta’s Titan FC title defense against Claudio Ledesma was particularly instructive.

Whenever Ledesma was able to close the distance on Puerta, he landed clean punches in the early going. But partway through every round, Puerta took him down and got back control.

Though Ledesma was able to stave off a finish, he lost round after round to Puerta’s back control.

Against Raynaldo Aldofo, Puerta was seriously battered on the feet in the third, including eating a high kick. But again, Puerta controlled virtually all of the ground exchanges, eventually winning with an armbar.

Juan Puerta: Slaying “El Gladiador”

None of his recent fights have shown the resilience of Juan Puerta as well as his battle against the then-undefeated southpaw powerhouse from Cuba, Gustavo Balart.

Though extremely small even by flyweight standards – the Cuban stands only 4’11” – Balart is a former Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler. In addition, Balart’s durability and hand speed were evident moments into the fight.

Puerta would struggle with Balart early on. Seeking to exploit his height advantage to land knees in the clinch, Puerta found himself both outwrestled and outstruck. Balart was able to turn the clinch to his own advantage; controlling Puerta with the underhook with his right hand, Balart pounded in uppercuts with his left.

This caused Puerta to back off and fight from range in later rounds. However,  he then was forced to deal with Balart’s trademark dipping overhand. Puerta’s usual tendencies in boxing range were magnified by the unusual southpaw vs. southpaw matchup.

But the deciding factor wouldn’t be Balart’s durability, speed, or strength, but rather Puerta’s tenacity and fight IQ.

Unable to take the fight to the ground, Puerta seemed to be losing the fight. However, he then spotted a flaw in Balart’s offense.

The short Balart was bowing even closer to the ground when he threw his fastball left overhand. In the dying minutes of the third round, Puerta managed to time Balart as he dipped with an intercepting knee.

The Cuban dropped like a stone. Puerta scored a jaw-dropping KO and punched his ticket to a Titan FC title fight.

What’s Next?

Since his loss to Scoggins, Puerta has rattled off eight straight victories, including the wins over Balart and Ledesma, the latter of which saw him earn the Titan FC belt.

Puerta’s slick grappling chops, paired with an improving striking arsenal, have both come a long way as he continues to hone his craft under the watchful, experienced eyes at American Top Team.

In his most recent fight, a September second-round submission of Nate Williams, Puerta scored the Caged Aggression flyweight title.

Next, Puerta will return to the Titan FC cage against Franklin Mireles at Titan FC 65, which takes place on November 22 in the Dominican Republic.

With another win, Puerta can add to his impressive win streak and continue to stake his claim as one of the top flyweight prospects on the U.S. regional scene.