Who is Maikel Pérez, the man Beneil Dariush asked the UFC to give a chance?

Maikel Perez has his hand raised in the LFA cage. Credit: LFA.

After his decision victory over Diego Ferreira at UFC Fight Night: Overeem vs. Volkov last weekend, Beneil Dariush had a rather unique callout.

The callout wasn’t of an opponent, but rather a teammate he felt deserved time in the UFC, former LFA flyweight champion Maikel Pérez (7-2). It says a lot about Dariush that he took the opportunity to give a helping hand to one of his stablemates, but it says more about Pérez that Dariush felt he deserves some time in the UFC.

Upon watching some footage of Perez’s fights, it’s hard to disagree with him.

Olympic Pedigree

Pérez, 37, comes from a freestyle wrestling background; the flyweight represented Cuba at the 2008 Olympics. While Pérez was eliminated from the tournament, it says something about the caliber of wrestler he is that he was chosen for such a significant wrestling country as Cuba.

Pérez would take gold in the Pan-Ams the next year, proving his world-class talent.

Pérez’s wrestling is a double-edged sword of a background: on one hand, he is someone with speed, strength, and explosivity. That athleticism has been honed by his training to produce strong takedowns and takedown defense. As an MMA fighter, Pérez is capable of setting up his takedowns with his striking. He also sometimes feints a level change before going into the clinch for a takedown from there instead.

If all else fails, he has the physicality to enforce them if needed. His takedowns are by far his best skill.

However, a lack of a background in folkstyle wrestling or BJJ means that a freestyle wrestler’s top control is often not as impressive as their takedowns.  Hence why someone from a similar background as Pérez, fellow Cuban Olympian Yoel Romero, made his name as a terrifying striker who was nigh impossible to take down, not an offensive wrestler in the MMA sense.

In addition, because of the square-cube law, controlling flyweights in scrambles is often even more complex and unpredictable than scrambling at other divisions of MMA.

Pérez himself has solid but not amazing top control. Early on, he tends to often attack submissions very aggressively if he secures a takedown, which can often compromise his position further while simultaneously providing fans with excitement.

As the fight goes longer Pérez compensates for this usually by seeking to get back mount before committing to ground and pound, a very stable position.

Mortal Striking

On the feet, Pérez certainly isn’t a complete product — he covers up under fire and therefore his responses to pressure can be shaky. He is hittable as he retreats; he covers up with the forearm guard, leaving his body exposed.

However, Pérez has shown quite a few interesting ideas. In particular, he usually adopts a more crouched stance before jabbing, which allows him to hide his swift and dangerous level changes very easily. He mixes this in with other level change punches, like uppercuts and overhands. This habit carries with it several vulnerabilities, though. The head is lower to the ground, which opens him up to knees and uppercuts.

Pérez is also a big fan of converting failed takedowns into clinch positions, usually with a single underhook. From here, he will immediately fire a knee to the body. Failed takedowns can eat up energy quickly, so hammering his opponent’s body makes sure he doesn’t fall behind too far in terms of the pace he can set.

From the clinch, Pérez can also threaten with his best takedown weapon, his knee tap.

Career to Date

Pérez has spent most of his career in the LFA, the sport’s leading developmental promotion, and has faced a generally decent if not stellar tier of opposition. This is particularly useful since it allows fans and media to judge Pérez’s full range of abilities.

He achieved several good wins in the promotion, including against the then 11-2 Charlie Alaniz and then 8-1 Sid Bice. Alaniz’s only loss in the preceding four years was because of a cut inflicted at the start of a fight, and Bice’s only career loss until then was a split decision loss in Titan FC; clearly, Pérez fought tough names on the regional scene.

But if it’s against the top caliber of competition that we can get the best measure of a fighter, Pérez actually does have such a fight. In fact, it was against the man who would become the UFC’s current #1 contender in the flyweight division, Brandon Moreno.

Moreno’s style massively improved after his first stint in the UFC. While he wasn’t as impressive as he is today when Pérez fought him, he wasn’t far off at all, making the fight a good gauge of Pérez’s skill and potential.

The Moreno Fight

Pérez struggled with Moreno’s superior scrambling and better boxing, especially Moreno’s active lead hand, which is by far his most dangerous tool. Moreno would also use uppercuts frequently, forcing Pérez to stand much more upright than he prefers and eliminating his effective level change punches.

Pérez had his moments, though, especially at the end of the second, where he picked Moreno up in a bodylock with pure strength, slammed him on his face, and then started raining down ground and pound. But any momentum Pérez gained was swiftly dispelled when at the beginning of the third, Moreno caught him with a tight left hook as Pérez threw an overhand.

From top position, Moreno was able to swiftly transition to the back. Pérez fought off his submission attempts and eventually managed to break free after an extended sequence, but he was met with a solid flurry of strikes from Moreno.

At the beginning of the fourth, Pérez tried applying his own pressure to back Moreno off. He seemed to find some success with this, but the action was stopped when he eyepoked Moreno. After the fight restarted, Moreno found another counter left hook that hurt Pérez badly and swarmed for the finish.

While he was soundly beaten by Moreno, Pérez was by no means run over. He did hold his own for long sections of the fight; this is a good sign against someone of Moreno’s caliber.

Maikel Pérez: Conclusion

There is certainly room for improvement in Pérez’s game, but the fundamentals of his wrestling attack are world-class. He occasionally throws out a few fancy kicks, like the back kick, but he doesn’t seem to have a concerted way to tie them into the rest of his game.

However, Pérez’s base athleticism and wrestling credentials make him an intriguing fighter to watch. The way he has implemented striking into his game shows his creativity, if also his limits.

Pérez would likely benefit from deciding what his main game is. He doesn’t always have a strong sense of how he wants to approach a fight, which becomes especially true if his early takedowns fail. This means that he doesn’t push the pace nearly as much as he needs to as a flyweight and also exacerbates his vulnerability to the pressure of his opponents.

Fortunately, Beneil Dariush consistently shows just how a fighter can form a strong identity and use a set of tools to set the pace and enforce pressure rather than being pressured. If Pérez successfully emulates the man who gave him his shoutout, he could not only live up to how Dariush described him, but exceed his high praise.