Claudio Puelles’ first win in the UFC didn’t come easy at all.
The 22-year-old fighter was badly battered by Felipe Silva on the feet and the ground for a good chunk of their lightweight showdown during the UFC’s first trip to Chile earlier in May. The two fighters had a competitive first round, but in the second, Puelles was wobbled, dropped and rained upon with a ground-and-pound by the Brazilian. The fight looked close to over and Puelles seemed to be on his way out.
Entering the third round, it was clear that “El Niño” was in rough shape. He had a Mark Hominick-esque hematoma quickly closing his left eye, an expected point or two deficit in the judges’ cards, and very few people that actually thought he could turn things around.
But despite his unpromising outlook, Puelles knew he was still game.
“Yeah, I was hurt, especially in the second round, but I never thought about quitting or anything,” Puelles told MMA Fighting. “I did feel I was in trouble, and in the break to go to the third round I did feel like I had received a lot of hits and I was obviously hurt, but I never thought that the fight needed to get stopped. I never thought about quitting. I was telling myself, ‘there is a round left.’”
The tide of the fight didn’t seem like it was going to turn for Puelles in the final round. And it really didn’t. The Peruvian prospect was again rocked several times and dropped. Veteran color commentator Jimmy Smith even called for referee Osiris Maia to put an end to the lopsided fight. But even then, Puelles didn’t feel defeated.
“When I got knocked down in the third round I told myself that there was still time, that the fight was not over until the bell rang,” Puelles recalled. “I thought I could win the fight. The whole time I thought I could win the fight. Obviously, at that moment I was losing, but I knew I could win one way or another.”
The Peruvian was given instructions by his cornermen to keep the fight standing and go for the Hail Mary. It was clear that he needed to finish Silva to avoid falling to 0-2 in the UFC.
“My coach was trying to tell me that I needed to end the fight, and seeing that my rival was defending everything on the ground, he didn’t think I would be able to end the fight on the ground,” Puelles said. “But even my coach has told me in the past, ‘I can tell you something or any trainer from the outside, but sometimes, only you, that are in the fight, can feel the opponent and know what the opponent has or doesn’t.
“And since he has long legs and they didn’t feel too strong, I felt I could lock up a kneebar. I know he had escaped a few times during the first round, but I did feel I could do it.”
Outworked on his feet, Puelles saw a glimmer of hope on the ground. He went with his instincts, against his cornerman’s advice and shot for a takedown, pulling half guard on a confident Silva.
Puelles was greeted by more ground-and-pound.
From an outside view, the inevitable stoppage win for Silva looked to be just around the corner. However, Puelles had a different angle on the situation and he made sure Silva knew it.
“When he was dropping ground-and-pound, I heard him making noises of tiredness from hitting me so much,” Puelles explained. “I smiled at him. I saw that he got tired of hitting me and he couldn’t get me out of the fight. That’s when I was able to go for the leg lock.”
Out of nowhere, Puelles attacked Silva’s left leg, attempting to lock up another kneebar. The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America 3 runner-up recalls the moment he realized he had done the impossible:
“I grabbed [Silva’s leg] with both my hands and I stuck it to my chest,” Puelles said. “I tried to do the kneebar but my strength at that point wasn’t coming through and the guy wasn’t tapping out. That’s when I heard his knee crack twice. It did two cracks and I was like, ‘heck, this guy is not tapping,’ so that’s when I put it on the back of my armpit and that’s when I was like, ‘now I got it.’ It cracked two more times and that’s when he tapped.”
The sold out Movistar Arena in Santiago erupted chanting, “Peru, Peru, Peru!” Puelles had just pulled off one of the craziest comebacks in recent MMA history. He was in ecstasy.
“I yelled, ‘I won, I won,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” Puelles said. “My two cornermen came and all three of us started crying and that moment was incredible. Too many emotions, too much joy, too many feelings crashing together at the same time.
“This was a moment I’ve been waiting my whole life. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been waiting for this moment and now the first step was made. I’m very happy, and now it’s just time to get back to work, so many more moments like this can come.”
Puelles was given a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus for his valiant performance at UFC Chile. The lightweight prospect plans on buying his first apartment with the bonus money.
“I think I won the whole crowd in that fight… I never thought that I’d be a fighter that motivates people through my heart like a Frankie Edgar.”
With this incredible feat Puelles advanced his record to 8-2.
The Lima native is eyeing one more fight before the end of the year, preferably around November or December, to give his body some much-needed rest before returning to the Octagon.