Erik Perez is a fighter, and a fast-rising one at that. After his victory over Byron Bloodworth at UFC 155 in December, Perez had a lot of momentum.
The UFC was looking for a Hispanic star to market as it expanded its presence into Mexico, and Perez seemed the perfect fit.
He's a quality fighter who puts on entertaining shows, as well as a colorful, charismatic public figure. He wore a luchador mask during his ring walk for the fight against Bloodworth as a tribute to his heritage and the mask quickly became a hot selling item.
The UFC wanted to bring him back quickly to ride the momentum he'd generated, and scheduled him for a fight against Johnny Bedford in New Jersey in April.
Perez, 23, never made it to the post, however.
He developed a staph infection while training in Albuquerque, N.M., and initially tried to ignore it and keep fighting. He had gone to a movie with his teammates, and when he got up out of the theater seat, he noticed that his knee was incredibly swollen and extraordinarily painful.
He had contracted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, a staph infection that resists antibiotics and can, in some cases, be fatal.
Perez took antibiotics to try to fight it off, but when it didn't work, he checked into an Albuquerque hospital. Doctors examined him and immediately wanted to do surgery. He had a bad case and he was at great risk.
There were other considerations, though. Before agreeing to have the surgery performed, which would have saved his life but might have compromised his career, he needed to get more information.
It was a dangerous operation in any event, but particularly for a professional athlete. The surgery involved boring a hole through a bone beneath his left knee. It would have cured the staph infection and saved his life, but very well could have jeopardized his burgeoning fight career.
Perez was stunned.
"You hear them say it could be fatal and you think of everything that is important to you in your life," said Perez, who will return to action for the first time since getting the staph infection when he meets Takeya Mizugaki in a three-round bantamweight bout on Fox Sports 1 on Aug. 28 in Indianapolis.
"I was thinking about death, and maybe about amputation, and I even thought maybe the doctors were saying all that just to scare me," Perez said. "I was insistent I wanted to keep training, but when I learned how serious it was, I realized that the real foe was not my opponent but the infection. When I understood that, I didn't worry that much about fighting or losing momentum in my career. I had to fight to survive. That's what was important."
After consulting with a doctor who does work for Greg Jackson's fighters in Albuquerque, Perez's doctors opted not to do the surgery. He was released from the hospital in about a week after the infection was healing, but he still had a long way to go to be able to fight or just be himself again.
Mentally, he began to crumble. He turned to food for comfort. He still believed he might have lost everything that was important to him, and so he began to gorge on food once he was released from the hospital and returned to Mexico to be with his family.
"I got really depressed and afraid," Perez said. "I ate what I wanted, and I didn't live the life of an athlete. I overate, because I took comfort in the food. I was not in a good place and I didn't know what my future would be."
It took a stern talking to from his mother, Maria Perez Azucena, to help get him back on track.
She didn't let her son feel sympathy for himself. She urged him to do what he needed to do to get better and to focus on returning to his career. She used a cliché with him that fighters often use.
"My mother was very direct, and told me not to be sorry for myself," he said. "She said, 'What doesn't kill you will make you stronger.' I was very depressed at that time and didn't understand why this was happening to me, but my mother set me straight. It was the thing that I needed most at that time."
The UFC believes he can become a headline attraction one day, and Perez is eager to try to regain the lost momentum.
But he also has a new appreciation for his career after his close call.
"You don't think about how easily you could lose it all, everything," Perez said. "I understand that now after all I've been through, and I understand how much all this means to me."
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