Over the short history of the sport, MMA has served as an outlet for several high-level Cuban athletes looking to start a new life in the U.S.
Maikel Perez â€” a former Olympian and Cuban national wrestling team member â€” recently joined the selected group of world-class Cuban combat sports competitors taking up professional fighting. Fighters such as Yoel Romero, Hector Lombard, Alexis Vila and Michel Batista are some of the names that make the list.
Perez was born on 1983 in Cienfuegos â€“ a small city located in southern coast of Cuba. He started wrestling at the age of 7 and quickly grappled his way into the big leagues of the sport in Cuba.
â€œAt 13 years of age, I was already on the national teamâ€™s juvenile division,â€� Perez told MMA Fighting. â€œAnd when I was 16, I went on the menâ€™s national team, and my first international tournament, representing the menâ€™s national team, was when I was 17.â€�
During his wrestling career, Perez was able to achieve quite a bit. He represented Cuba in many international events including the 2006 and 2009 Pan American Championships, the 2009 World Championships, and the 2008 Olympics. At the 2009 Pan American Championships, Perez took the gold medal at 60 kg.
But all that came to an end in 2015, when the Cuban wrestler participated in the 2015 Wrestling World Cup in Los Angeles, Calif. The actual competition went down over the course of two days: April 11 and 12. On the first day of the tournament, Perez won his first match against Scott Coleman from the U.S., but then went on to lose to Mongoliaâ€™s Nemekhbayar Batsaikhan. The following day, Perez lost to Russiaâ€™s Murshid Mutalimov. It was a loss by forfeit, since the Cuban wrestler never showed up to the mat.
â€œFinishing up the fights, the next day we had to return to Cuba,â€� Perez said regarding his absence from the tournament. â€œSo if I competed the next day â€“ I had one more match left against someone from Russia â€“ I wouldnâ€™t have been able to leave (defect). It wouldnâ€™t have given me enough time to leave.
â€œSo when I had the first thought of leaving that day, I left in the early morning, like around 5 a.m. I took a taxi and I told the driver to get me as far as he could with the $20 I had. I contacted my friends and they helped me make my way to Miami.â€�
Many Cubans have fled to the U.S to escape the political and economical issues in their country. For many years, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996 allowed Cubans to become American residents if they reached U.S. soil. However, that policy came to an end in January 2017.
Being in the U.S., Perez was determined to start a career in MMA. His desire to chase his dream was partly fueled by learning that his former wrestling teammate, Romero, had great success in MMA and shared a similar background with him.
â€œYes of course, my decision was definitely influenced by that,â€� Perez said. â€œYoel Romero was with me in the menâ€™s national team, and we shared the same room. I lived with him, so yeah, that did influence me, but I was already a fan of MMA.â€�
During his years wrestling in Cuba, Perez had become a fan of MMA, but perhaps not in the same way many did here in the U.S. Perez watched UFC events through pirated copies, but never got a chance to practice the sport since there werenâ€™t any places to train.
â€œIn Cuba, itâ€™s hard to tell (when I became a fan), but in Cuba there is the â€˜packageâ€™ â€“ itâ€™s like something when people record through the internet piratically and then they would burn the discs in and rent the discs from their rooms,â€� he said. â€œSo thatâ€™s how I started to become a fan of the UFC.â€�
Apart from the watching pirated MMA events, Perez also had a peculiar encounter in the late 90s with one biggest names in the sportâ€™s history.
In 1997, when Perez was on Cubaâ€™s juvenile national team, Vitor Belfort â€” who was in the beginning stages of his MMA career â€” traveled to Cuba to train wrestling with the national team. Belfort would come back again in 1998, but this time with a UFC heavyweight world title and some MMA magazines.
â€œAt that time he was already a world champion, so thatâ€™s how I started learning about MMA,â€� Perez said.
So being a fan of the sport and wanting to compete in it, Perez began MMA training at American Top Team Kendall â€” a hotbed for Latin American fighters. Perez trained there for a few months, but then made his way to Kings MMA in California. Turns out, his friends were able to get him a manager, which prompted his move to â€œThe Golden State.â€�
Today, the 34-year-old Perez is a year and a half into his professional MMA career and has competed five times, picking up a record of 4-1 with three submission wins. Perez will be looking to improve that record to 5-1 on Friday night. The Kings MMA product takes on Charlie Alaniz in his flyweight debut at LFA 30 in Costa Mesa, Calif. Alaniz is a 13-fight veteran and was a cast member of season 24 of the UFCâ€™s reality T. show The Ultimate Fighter. On the show, Alaniz was eliminated by Tim Elliott, who went on to win the tournament and challenge UFC flyweight king Demetrious Johnson.
With this big leap in opposition, Perez hopes to get closer to his dream of fighting in the worldâ€™s biggest MMA promotion. Perez believes itâ€™s possible that he can make it to the UFC as soon as this year, which would be a very meaningful experience for him.
â€œFor me, making it to the UFC is like another World Cup,â€� Perez said. â€œThat all the sacrifice, everything Iâ€™ve done wasnâ€™t in vain. And to show the people that nothing is impossible, that itâ€™s all about will. Anything can be done if you have the will. But itâ€™s not just making it to the UFC, itâ€™s also staying there, becoming one of the best and eventually fighting for the belt.â€�