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Erik Perez believes he'll be UFC champion in five years

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Erik Perez understands the value of controlled bursts. On one hand it's how he makes a living, but on a larger scale, glance at his timeline and you'll see a textbook example of growth in five-year spurts.

At age 13, Perez was a bit of a hothead. His fiery antics led to all sorts of trouble around his neighborhood in Monterrey, Mexico. A year later Perez began channeling his energy into the Chinese martial art Sanda. By 16, Perez had already competed in his first amateur MMA fight, and at 18, he embarked on a life-changing move across the border, committing his life fully to the team at Jackson/Winklejohn.

Perez knew early on where his true passion lay. Self-awareness at such a young age is rare, but none who knew him were surprised by the time the neighborhood hothead had completely reshaped his life, swapping friends, ambitions, and countries within a span of five years.

Now five more years have passed since that fateful decision, and at the young age of 23, Perez has positioned himself as one of the UFC bantamweight division's most promising prospects. Perhaps it's all just part of the plan.

"This is like a dream come true," Perez told "I'm so close. 23 years old, the dream has come true, fighting in the UFC, the No. 1 show in the world. I feel great."

That's not to say the road was without its bumps, because that would be a lie. Midway through his first year in New Mexico, Perez had already dropped two split decisions to fall to an 0-2 record -- certainly not the auspicious start to the professional fighting career he'd hoped for. By the end of 2010, Perez's career tally sat at a middling 5-4, plagued by another two-fight losing streak.

"I needed to [wake] up," Perez admitted looking back. "Having lost two times, I think helped me a lot in my training. I [started] training real, real hard. Harder. And I started winning.

"Keep believing. Keep believing in my training. Keep believing in my coaches and training hard. The better fighter isn't always the fighter winning. The better fighter is the fighter [who] gets up. Get up and train more, harder, and [get back to] winning more fights."

And winning more fights is exactly what Perez did; eight straight, to be exact. The first five of those victories earned Perez a call from UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby, who was hunting for a 135-pounder to replace the injured Bryon Bloodworth and fight John Albert on just two weeks notice at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Finale. Perez accepted immediately, then needed just four minutes to defeat Albert via first-round armbar, albeit controversially.

Perez's next two outings would be more decisive, as "Goyito" violently knocked out Ken Stone and, ironically, Bloodworth in a combined four minutes and seven seconds on FX-televised pay-per-view undercards.

It's a remarkable streak, considering Perez hasn't finished three straight foes since 2009, much less doing so in the first round.

"I don't know," Perez chuckled when asked what's come together for him. "I think it's because I'm bigger. I'm 23 years old, so my muscles, I'm stronger. There's more power in one man when the guy is 23 years old than 39. Every year, stronger and stronger, I grow into my body and I work hard in the gym.

"I need to keep going, keep winning. If my body feels good, I'm fighting ‘til I'm 40 years old."

Finishes are a prized commodity in the UFC's lighter weight divisions, so it's no coincidence that promotion officials have begun to take notice. The UFC has long searched for vehicles with which to break into the Latino market, a demographic traditionally dominated by boxing. A proven finisher with the background of Perez could easily evolve into a lucrative box office draw.

The UFC brass understands that better than most. It's, at least partly, the reason Perez is allowed to proudly wear his trademark luchador mask for everything he touches, from pre- and post-fight interviews to weigh-ins, and even his walk to the cage.

"It's not only Mexico. It's all the Latinos," Perez said. "I'm representing all the Latinos and I want to [get] the UFC into Mexico. I want UFC in Argentina. I want UFC in Puerto Rico.

"The mask is for all the Latinos that support me. I'll wear the mask every time."

From day one, Perez embraced his role as a gateway to the Latino audience. Despite knowing little to no English, he insisted on conducting his interviews without the help of a translator from the outset. He works on his second language everyday, and while the English still may be a bit broken, it's improved enough that Perez can power his way through interviews while still wearing a smile.

Yet like all fighters who receive the slow-build treatment, the time has finally come for Perez to prove he belongs in the next tier of the division. He's slated to fight on the main card of UFC Fight Night 27 against Takeya Mizugaki, a tough but grizzled veteran who's riding two straight wins inside the UFC. The victor of the bout will likely receive a big boost in opposition the next time around.

Perez is hesitant to look too far ahead. "I need to beat [Mizugaki] first. I can say nothing [before that]," he explains. Yet he understands what's at stake for the winner.

For Perez, it'd just another step in the same pattern he's followed for a decade. A 13-year-old troublemaker becoming an 18-year-old professional fighter, becoming 23-year-old UFC prospect. Who's to say what comes next?

"My dream is a title. Five years more, I want to [have] won the title," he vowed. "I'm 23. [I'd be] 28? Yeah, I need a title. Five years more, I think I've [won] the title, still [defending] the title -- one mini Anderson Silva."