Erik Perez was known for wearing a lucha mask to the cage before his UFC fights. Last month, he entered a ring with the mask still on.
“Goyito,” who now fights for Combate Americas, made his lucha libre (Mexican pro wrestling) debut in Tijuana on Dec. 15. He teamed with former Combate Americas president and lucha legend Alberto El Patron in an event put on by MAXILAR Promotions at the Auditorio in Tijuana, one of the world’s classic pro-wrestling venues.
“It was a dream come true for me,” Perez told MMA Fighting. “Everybody here in Mexico when we were kids, we grew up watching lucha libre. It was a dream for me. It was so fun.”
It all came together very quickly for Perez, who lives in San Diego and trains out of Alliance MMA. One of his friends asked him if he wanted to go see the lucha show in Tijuana and he quickly said yes. Then, Perez found out El Patron (whose real name is Jose Rodriguez) would be performing.
So, Perez called El Patron and told him he’d be coming to watch him wrestle. The former WWE champion and PRIDE fighter told Perez no — he wasn’t going to be watching, he’d be wrestling, too.
“Alberto invited me to go inside the ring two days before,” Perez said. “I called him Wednesday and Friday I was wrestling over there.”
Perez said the biggest difference between MMA and lucha was that he mostly knew what he was in for when he entered the ring last week.
“The difference was obviously everything was coordinated and staged,” Perez said. “It was staged to give a good performance and so people could get a good show and to entertain the people there. That was the difference. I had a chance to prepare and know what was going to go on out there.”
One thing he couldn’t quite prepare for, though, was foreign objects. Those don’t come into play in MMA. But Perez said during the match he got hit with a chair across the back. Wrestling might be scripted, but the pain, Perez said, was very real.
“It obviously did hurt a lot,” Perez said “Plus, it was very cold, so the chair was cold when it hit me. So it was even worse. It was like getting hit with a belt, like a leather belt.”
Perez, 28, said he would consider doing more lucha libre in the future, if the money was right. He said he doesn’t follow the matches and luchadores like he did as a kid growing up in Monterrey, but he has attended shows in Mexico and tapings of the U.S. promotion Lucha Underground in Los Angeles.
“Sometimes when I was 17, 18 years old, I would go to the lucha libre to scream at the wrestlers, to take out all the stress,” Perez said. “You go and you’re drinking and you’re screaming to the wrestlers. It’s so funny. Lucha libre, everything there, I love it. It’s fun.”
Coincidentally, a luchador named Octagon was his favorite growing up, Perez said. Octagon, whose real name is Juan Escalera, was a real-life black belt in Shotokan Karate. Perez said he loved how he added martial arts to his wrestling matches.
There was a time, Perez said, when he considered lucha libre as a career for himself. But MMA was his greatest passion.
“I love MMA,” Perez said. “I love all the things about it — the boxing, the kicks. I love punching people. I love real fights.”
Perez (17-6) will be starting a new chapter in his MMA career in 2018. He signed with Combate Americas earlier this year after fighting out his UFC contract. Perez, unlike some fighters who depart the UFC, is on a three-fight winning streak and still in the prime of his career. It all comes down to money, Perez said. He understands what he does is prize fighting.
“My plan is to fight in whatever company is gonna pay me more,” Perez said. “The fight business, you can fight for only a little years. My plan is whatever company gives me more money, I’ll fight for that.”
“Goyito” said he expects to return the cage — “La Jaula” in Combate Americas — in February or March. He’s not sure who the opponent will be yet. But he knows it will be tough, no matter what. Perez is very aware that he’s the most famous fighter currently on the Latin America-focused promotion’s roster.
“I don’t feel like I’m the face of the company, but I do feel like I have a target on my back, being that I’m the most famous name in the company at the moment,” Perez said. “Every fighter I’m going against is going to be a dangerous fight, because if I lose, I lose to fighters who don’t have a name out there yet.”
Win or lose, Perez said he will continue to wear his lucha mask on his walk to the fighting surface. Whether or not he ever performs in lucha libre again, the mask will stay with him.
“It’s part of my culture and it’s part of my fighting image,” Perez said, “the essence of who I am.”