“I’m not believing it yet,” Pereira said. “I’m still processing all of it.”
At the time, as he got his first taste of international MMA fame, Pereira said he’d received offers from major promotions and turned them down. His dream was the UFC and he believed that it was well within his reach.
He was right. The contract rolled in about two weeks later. Then, on May 18, Pereira made his UFC debut. Despite being an underdog against Danny Roberts, Pereira won it emphatically. While it didn’t involve any moonsaults this time, it was still impressive enough to earn him one of UFC on ESPN+ 10’s “Performance of the Night” bonuses.
From his status as professional fighter to his bank account, a lot has changed in Pereira’s life over the past three months. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is his bewilderment.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Pereira told MMA Junkie. “From one day to the next, it’s like, ‘What is going on?’ I don’t even know the magnitude of everything that’s happening yet. Little by little, it’s hitting me – the person that I’m becoming, the athlete that I’m becoming. The fans that are beginning to follow me. My Instagram blowing up. Combate channel talking to me. The biggest TV channels talking about me.”
Make no mistake, though: For all its seeming suddenness, Pereira’s success has been some time in the making.
Despite being only 25, Pereira has been fighting long enough that he needed a fake ID to make his debut. His record shows a not-too-shabby 32 fights, which took place everywhere from his native Para, Brazil, to Peru, Mongolia, Japan and Serbia.
Every step of the way, there were sacrifices. Starting with his mom, whom he had to leave early to pursue his karate training, Pereira saw himself mastering the art of letting go. Clothes, shoes and friends stayed behind each time that he moved and started anew, always in search of the next professional opportunity.
“I had to learn to live alone,” Pereira says. Any hint of self-pity is noticeably absent, though, much like it is he recalls going hungry, sleeping in places that “weren’t very nice,” getting paid 200 reais for fights, taking 34-hour bus trips to make it to them. These were just things that he had to do to get to where he is now.
Pereira now has friends, cornermen, a team behind him and a UFC deal. But if you’re wondering what was going through his mind as he made that particularly emotional octagon walkout at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, there’s your answer.
“I had to give up a lot of things for this dream of mine to come true,” Pereira said.
When Pereira uses the word “dream,” he doesn’t mean getting a bonus, or a spectacular knockout – or even getting his hand raised at all. The dream was, simply, to walk out to the octagon and hear Bruce Buffer calling his name. And while that second part didn’t get to come true, as Joe Martinez was the announcer that night, the rest will do.
For now, anyway.
“I believe my fourth fight will be for the belt – You can write that down”
As he prepared for his UFC debut, Pereira (23-9 MMA, 1-0 UFC) saw himself answering the same question many times over: Would he be able to do, against the highest level of competition, the type of stunt that first got him noticed in Asia?
“People doubted it a lot,” Pereira said.
Then again, that was really nothing new. Pereira had grown accustomed to hearing people question – or downright discredit – the viability of his unconventional style throughout his career. And his reaction then was the same as it is now.
“I always said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll show my game, I’ll do things no one has done,’” Pereira said.
Pereira only delivered flashes of his aerial antics in his debut but, in fairness, he didn’t have a lot of time. In less than two minutes, a flying knee and a right hand already had Roberts out cold.
For those left wanting more, however, here is the good news: The Brazilian welterweight has no intention of changing his jumping, flying, flipping, whatever-that-thing-is-called ways.
In fact, Pereira insists he couldn’t if he wanted to.
“It’s my style,” Pereira said. “It’s not something that I do because I want to be fancy or because I want to humiliate my opponent. If you tell me ‘Michel, don’t do this.’ I can’t. Then don’t put me in there. It’s the way I fight. I was very criticized early on – I was called a clown, they said I should go to the circle, that this razzle-dazzle is for crazy people. People always said bad things and I had to swim against the current.
“But, thankfully, I got people to understand that this is what’s cool. That this is the thing that’s missing among athletes: Wanting to put on a show. Wanting to please those who pay the tickets. Those who pay good money to attend events, or who pay every month for the channel to watch the fights.”
But what about the other, more conventional parts of his game? Sure, his style is a striker’s delight, but what happens when he meets a stand-out wrestler, or a jiu-jitsu black belt? What can he say about the parts of his game that most people haven’t had a chance to see yet?
Pereira pauses for a second. He takes a breath. And then he asks, almost solemnly, to listen close.
“People don’t understand that I train boxing,” Pereira said. “I train muay Thai. I train kickboxing. I train jiu-jitsu. I train everything. Everything that they do, I do. I just do extra things, which they don’t do. If they want to boxe, I’ll boxe with them. If they want to grapple, I’ll grapple. If they want to wrestle, I wrestle. Just because I do these other things, it doesn’t mean I don’t have boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling.
“I have them. I’ve been training since I was 12. I’ve been building my career to be ready. I believe I was being prepared by God to get to the UFC and give everyone a great show. If I get a top-10, a top-5, whomever it is, I will trade blows with him. And he can be sure: If he makes a mistake, I will jump over on top of him, I will be flashy and I will put on a show. What I do, it’s like a jab and a cross for me.”
As he’s been saying in every turn, Pereira has a goal. He wants to bring the show back into the UFC. He wants to be that person who wakes people up. He wants to make sure those who buy tickets or expensive pay-per-views feel like they got their money’s worth.
But he’s also got more tangible, rather ambitious goals for his career. And you can doubt them at your own risk.
“I signed four fights with the UFC,” Pereira said. “I believe my fourth fight will be for the belt. You can write that down.”
For more on the upcoming UFC schedule, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.