LAS VEGAS – By definition, a luchador is Spanish for a masked professional wrestler. But to Erik Perez, the first 100 percent Mexican fighter in the UFC, it is so much more.
It's why he was crushed when he not allowed to wear a mask to the weigh-in or for the walk to the cage for his first UFC fight, on June 1 in Las Vegas at 'The Ultimate Fighter: Live Finale'.
For years, UFC president Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta have sought to create a distance between their company and professional wrestling, so they Perez's request to wear a traditional Mexican luchador mask.
The masks are a large part of Mexican culture, though, and represent far more than just a professional wrestler's desire for anonymity, Perez said. The use of the masks among Mexican warriors dates back more than 800 years, he said. They've been worn by all sorts of Mexican stars, including El Santo, a wrestler and actor who was considered the John Wayne of Mexico.
"When I was a child, the masked warriors were people who never gave up, never stopped fighting no matter the odds, and fought with pride and warrior spirit," Perez said. "I think all Latinos are luchadors, maybe not in the Octagon, but in life, and by putting on the mask, I become each and every one of them and they become me."
After pleading his case with White, Perez finally got permission to wear a mask before his three-round bantamweight fight Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden against Byron Bloodworth. Members of the UFC marketing team came up with a rough outline, but it was finalized by Victor Martinez.
Martinez is arguably the most notable luchador mask maker in the world. His father, Don Antonio Martinez, made masks for numerous legendary Mexican figures.
"Maybe this will have some magic," Perez said, laughing. "The guy who made this mask is super famous. His father did the masks for El Santo and Blue Demon and I think that will make some magic it in for me."
The move to allow Perez to wear the luchador mask is a wise one by UFC management, because it is another step toward reaching the fight-crazed Mexican fan base.
Boxing is arguably the top sport in Mexico, and at worst, it is on the same level as baseball and soccer. It gets massive television ratings in Mexico – the highest-rated show in Mexico in 2011 was Juan Manuel Marquez-Manny Pacquiao III, and the 2012 Canelo Alvarez-Shane Mosley fight outdrew the Olympic soccer finale (which Mexico played in) on Televisa, Mexico's largest network – and the UFC is hoping to cash in on fighting's popularity.
Hispanic fans have helped to keep boxing alive in the U.S., so it's a market the UFC is eager to embrace.
It worked to a degree when the UFC pushed then-heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez extremely hard to Mexican and Mexican-American fans prior to his title defense on Nov. 12, 2011, in Anaheim, Calif., against Junior dos Santos. Velasquez received a hero's welcome as he walked to the cage that night.
A Mexican-born and bred star would be a huge step business-wise for the UFC, and so embracing part of the Mexican fighting culture is simply smart business.
Perez, 23, who trains at Jackson's MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., believes that mixed martial arts will eventually become as popular as boxing in his country.
"Boxing is so different," he said. "Boxing is just hands and that's it. In MMA, the guys are super athletes and they do more than just [throw] hands. They're super strong guys who are very athletic and who give more excitement. Pretty soon, MMA is going to be more important [than boxing] in Mexico."
The mask that Perez will wear Friday at the weigh-in and Saturday on his way to the cage to fight Bloodworth will be available for sale. Martinez designed the eyes to resemble the eagle and the mouth to resemble the snake, both of which are on the coat of arms on the Mexican flag.
Perez is so excited that he finally received permission to wear the mask, and that Victor Martinez made it for him, that he could barely contain himself when he first heard the news.
When he was a boy in Mexico, Perez would attend professional wrestling (lucha libre) matches and cheer for a wrestler known as Octagon, whose gimmick was that he was a martial artist. Octagon is still active in Mexico.
Wearing the mask is a time-honored tradition he said, and far more significant than simply embracing Mexican-style pro wrestling.
"For me, the tradition of the Mexican warrior started a long time ago with our ancestors," Perez said. "The Mayan warriors, the Aztecs would wear masks, an eagle mask, a jaguar mask when they went to go to war. To be a masked warrior to me is a huge honor. I grew up at a young age watching lucha libre. My Dad would take me to see all the heroes of lucha libre as a boy. I grew up watching the old movies with El Santo, or watching the Blue Demon wrestle.
"Octagon was my favorite Luchador. He was a martial artist and would use kicks and punches against the bad guys. I wanted to be Octagon when I grew up. I wanted to be a martial artist and fight with honor and Mexican pride when I grew up. I would wear his mask and pretend I was brave and strong like he always was. He was like Spider-Man or Captain America to American kids. ... I grew up always wanting to be a luchador. I think that all Mexicans are luchadores. All Latinos fight, maybe not in the ring, but in life. Fighters in life! That is what a luchador represents to me, somebody that never gives in or gives up, somebody that is always there, somebody that gives their all."
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