MEXICO CITY -- For the most part, Alejandro Perez and Jose Quinonez agree on what happened in their first fight. It was three years ago, in an unsanctioned Mexico brawl that slipped through the Fight Finder cracks, and "El Diablito," as Perez is known, was a few weeks removed from suffering a nasty cut in another fight. He definitely wasn't ready, and perhaps was more than a little overconfident, but Quinonez was new to the game and Perez needed money, so hey, what the hell? He figured it'd be an easy night.
That was all well and good until "Teco," as Quinonez affectionately goes by, split Perez's cut open with an elbow and submitted his foe with a quickness.
The second time wasn't as easy, and that's where the two stories start to differ. It was two years later, at a good-sized show in Aguascalientes, Mexico. As Perez tells it, the fight immediately before his own featured his brother. It ended in a controversial referee stoppage due to what may have amounted to nothing more than a bloody nose, and Perez stormed the cage in a frenzy. It didn't matter though. Five minutes later, he and "Teco" were tangling once again, and a distracted Perez was still seething.
"Teco" laughs at the memory of that wild back-and-forth scrap now, mainly because he was able to push his unofficial record over Perez to 2-0, albeit with a contentious decision. Perez to this day insists that he was robbed in that fight, even after losing his focus, which only sends "Teco" into heartier fits of laughter through his bushy Zapata moustache whenever the topic arises.
Fortunately, Perez will soon get his chance to prove his point.
For the third time in four years, "Teco" (3-1) and "El Diablito" (14-5) are scheduled to dance, but now things are a bit different. Both men were pivotal cogs in Team Velasquez's dominance over Team Werdum in the UFC's inaugural edition of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, and as a result, both are the last two bantamweights still standing from the show's eight-man tournament, with their trilogy fight set to determine who will grab the UFC's guaranteed grand prize contract at UFC 180.
It's an opportunity the two native Mexicans once hardly dared to dream of from their humble beginnings -- Perez fought his first professional fight for free at age 16, but only after forging his own father's signature on the release -- and it's made even more curious by the fact that both Perez and Quinonez formed a bond so strong over the past three years that they now consider themselves as close as brothers.
"It's like a family bond," says Quinonez. "We have a link. This sport, people think that it's violent. But outside of the cage, it's amazing, because you make more friends and more brothers. We connected."
Indeed, Quinonez and Perez were rarely found apart throughout the filming of the show, laughing through the night and helping lift each other's spirits when either was frustrated or homesick.
In a real way, the relationship was simply a continuation of the friendship the two first formed as members of the UFC's Mexican sponsorship program with Greg Jackson's, where a small group of lucky Mexican prospects were shacked up at the famous Albuquerque academy and awarded a full year of all expenses paid training before being shipped off to film TUF.
"I lived with ‘Teco' for more than a year," Perez says. "In Tijuana, in Albuquerque, and then in the reality show.
"We're basically twins. I think of it as if I was fighting with my brothers, you know? When you're little and at home, you fight your brothers, right? We hit one another, we fall on the floor, and then we hug each other."
Once filming ended, both Quinonez and Perez knew they would be fighting each other yet again in the finale, so the two split to different camps within California to make the transition from friend to foe a little easier. Quinonez scooted off to Alliance, while Perez followed Team Velasquez coach Javier Mendez to San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy.
But even with the high stakes of a UFC career staring them down, the bantamweights still couldn't help but smile and laugh at the sight of each other sitting across the room, holding court among the throngs of Latin American media that flocked to UFC 180's media day to snag a quote from the new Mexican stars of The Ultimate Fighter.
"This is something magical," says Quinonez. "Being part of the story, the history of the first Ultimate Fighter in Latin America, the two of us being the finalists, it's just magic.
"We promised each other that we're going to give everything to this to be a war. And then outside the Octagon, peace."