If there was any question as to whether relative newcomer Erik Perez (13-4) is being viewed as a hot prospect who's expected to make serious waves, I'd say being the favorite over Takeya Mizugaki -- a former staple in the bantamweight top-10 and currently in the 15th spot per Bloody Elbow's Meta Rankings -- is a resounding "yes."
The pair face off on the main card of Wednesday's UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann 2 from the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. With an 8:00 p.m. ET liftoff, the event's featured card is headlined by a rematch between welterweight contenders Carlos Condit and Martin Kampmann and marks the UFC's second go on the Fox Sports 1 channel.
There are contrasting arguments for Perez's edge on the betting line: on one hand, he dusted his first three UFC opponents in the 1st round with an armbar and a pair of violent TKO's, one of which earned him the record for the fastest KO in UFC/WEC bantamweight history. On the other hand, Perez was finished by David Fuentes (8-9) in 2010 and ended the year with a mediocre 7-4 career record, two of his three UFC opponents -- Byron Bloodworth and Ken Stone -- hardly embody the division's core of depth and talent, and there was a little bit of controversy associated with his "technical" submission of John Albert, who didn't physically tap but purportedly cried out in pain.
Regardless, there are some certainties about Perez, mainly that he's young (age 23), outrageously explosive on the offensive end, he hails from arguably the best camp in the sport (Jackson/Winklejohn), he's always looking to finish and he wields a wide array of tools to do so. And Perez will be facing an opponent who represents an apex level of competition that he's yet to encounter.
Mizugaki arrived in style. He drew then WEC bantamweight champ and pound-for-pound candidate Miguel Torres and traded furiously in a back-and-forth brawl, becoming the first to extend Torres to a decision in his dominant WEC title reign. In his ten outings since that point in 2009, Mizugaki has alternated sequential wins and losses all the way through until his last turn, in which he narrowly mounted two wins a row by eking out a split-decision over Bryan Caraway.
While leaving such a hot and cold trail is never ideal for a fighter, every one of Mizugaki's contemporary losses was dealt by a concurrent top-10 fighter or former champion: Torres, Urijah Faber, Brian Bowles, Scott Jorgensen and Chris Cariaso. His unanimous decision loss to Cariaso might be one of the most puzzling and anomalous in MMA, as Mizugaki spent much of the fight in top position and, for reasons entirely unknown, Cariaso's guard play still earned him the nod. I might be the biggest proponent of valuing effective guard work, but we've seen technicians like Hatsu Hioki exemplify how to effectively attack and control from guard to no avail in the judges' eyes, and Cariaso's performance from the bottom was quite pedestrian by those standards.
Mizugaki is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense brawler, but one who breaks the mold by being devoid of the technical flaws and gaping defensive holes that plague most other ultra-aggressive fighters. His clinch game is rock solid and the bulk of his offense comes in the form of short-range jackhammers. Since he's light on kicks, Mizugaki should probably be termed a boxer but he's not one in the traditional sense. His handiwork is well tailored to MMA: he keeps a high guard and defends well, unleashes a steady stream of tight and crisp punches, he uses both hands and throws straights, hooks and uppercuts, he often targets the body just as much as the head, and he maintains an excellent semblance of balance and composure while headhunting.
If anything, Mizugaki's style has been so consistent that it might be getting predictable. I understand the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theory, but showing the same look in basically every performance poses some concerns. For example, Mizugaki's sweet spot is smack dab in the middle of the pocket and I can't think of a fight he's won that transpired at any other range. Additionally, while his unique blend of intensified aggression and technical poise is something we don't see enough of, his heavy decision rate (11 of 16 wins) indicates that he might benefit from taking more risks or seeking out a finish rather than being relegated to out-work his opponent for the full 15 minutes.
Having touched on this in my Tete-A-Tete with Jordan Breen, it seems that many match-ups foster the role of the constant, no-surprises guy for one fighter (Mizugaki in this case) and, for the other, the onus to draw from an eclectic bag of tricks and spark enough momentum to disrupt their consistent counterpart (Perez). In plain terms -- Mizugaki will come out like he always does, intending to put his head down and methodically shrink the gap in order to blitz Perez in close quarters, and Perez is tasked with using anything in his multifarious arsenal to stop that from happening.
Mizugaki doesn't just barrel forward recklessly. He uses bobbing and weaving with his upper body from outside, has a good sense of timing on his entries and cuts minor angles on the way in with simple but effective footwork. His motion is somewhat limited to a straight line though -- he doesn't really circle out into open space or engage his foe with any wide or unexpected angles. One can expect a deliberate and forward-moving approach.
While Perez seems well equipped to hold his own if he plays Mizugaki's game, he can make it difficult for Mizugaki to both get in and stay at his preferred distance with a wide range of elusive motion. Since standing in the pocket or locking horns is exactly where he wants to be, Perez can take Mizugaki out of his element by putting him into chase mode, using his motion to cover the entire breadth of the fighting surface and picking his spots to sit down on strikes and pinpoint any openings. I'm not suggesting he adopt this strategy throughout, but at least in random intervals to avoid engaging Mizugaki where he's strongest and the most comfortable.
Perez is a also Muay Thai stylist with the advantage of diversity in strike selection when compared to Mizugaki's short-range boxing. Again, if only to steer clear of Mizugaki's specialty of going tit for tat in the phone booth, Perez has a deep enough toolbox to keep him preoccupied with an ever-changing mixture of strikes, along with a variety of different tempos and a few takedown attempts as well.
Since Mizugaki's propensity for decisions goes for his losses too (one sub/TKO loss apiece), Perez has his work cut out for him here. Mizugaki has tangled with elite wrestlers (Jorgensen), elite strikers (Torres, Bowles) and just plain elite MMA fighters (Faber), so "El Goyita" has to conduct himself with equal prestige in at least one category to emerge victorious.
Personally, though I'm excited about Perez as a prospect, I'm not sold that he's on par with the best bantamweights on earth, namely because Bloodworth and Stone were not setting the UFC afire. Being more of a show-me analyst, I rarely bank on unquestionable potential in the face of a consistently performing fighter who's spent years battling to the top against upper-echelon competition.
My Prediction: Takeya Mizugaki by decision.