How The Prince Of Peru Became the UFC’s Kneebar King: Claudio Puelles Discusses Career Journey

Photo/Instagram: claudio_puelles

In a division where standout prospects are a dime a dozen, UFC lightweight contender Claudio “Prince of Peru” Puelles attracts attention through a combination of brutal technicality in the cage and easygoing charm on the mic. “I want to be hard to read – like, where people don’t know what to expect in my next fight,” Puelles tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I just want to keep [my opponents] guessing, and I want to be a finisher, always.” He laughs. “I am a finisher, so I always want to be known for that. It’s something I take pride in. Even from bottom – most guys who end up on bottom in a fight are like, ‘oh, I’m losing,’ but when I’m on bottom, I’m like, ‘I’m about to finish this guy. I’m going to catch him in something.’ I’m still attacking.” 

Photo/Instagram: claudio_puelles

Owner of three kneebar submissions in the octagon – the most of any UFC fighter despite only a six-fight tenure with the promotion – Puelles treats those accomplishments with a practical-minded sense of nonchalance. “[The kneebar] is something I started working on early in my career,” he explains. “That kind of stuff: kneebars, a lot of submissions. I like finishing fights. There’s more of a tendency now in MMA fights of just holding people down, where people don’t really go for submissions. So it’s easier, because people don’t defend [submissions] properly, especially leg attacks.”

Puelles’ affinity for those tricky submission finishes has earned occasional comparisons to his division’s former lightweight champ and current number one contender, Charles Oliveira. “They’ve been comparing me to him a lot lately, ever since my [last] fight,” says Puelles. “I’m a different fighter, with a different game, but at the same time, we both use everything. We use our whole bodies, we do grappling, striking, everything.” 

Despite the notoriously talent-stacked lightweight division, Oliveira is also, in Puelles’ opinion, its most dangerous member. “It’s Charles, standing up, and on the ground,” says Puelles confidently. “He has a good challenge if he fights Islam Makhachev, but I still think the most dangerous is Charles. I’m not saying he’s going to win if they fight, but he’s more dangerous to the other guys [in the division].”

What makes Oliveira so specifically tough to deal with? “He can finish a fight anywhere, standing up, or on the ground,” observes Puelles. “Of course, Islam has finishes too, but Charles finishes every fight. He’s got a lot of versatility.” 

Photo/Instagram: claudio_puelles

It’s a thoughtful piece of analysis from a man who’s grown up in combat sports since childhood. According to Puelles, even before he learned to grapple, he’d always had his heart set on MMA. “It’s funny, I was maybe three or four weeks into kickboxing training when I knew I wanted to fight in the octagon,” he says. “I didn’t know what MMA was, I didn’t even know how to grapple yet, but I wanted to fight in a cage, not in a ring. Kickboxing [on its own] just didn’t interest me. It was MMA, all day, I don’t know why.”

Part of what drove Puelles’ early interest in cage fighting was how multi-dimensional the sport was. “I would see [MMA fights], and I would be like, ‘Wow, this is so much cooler.’ They’re doing everything! They’re grappling, they’re throwing strikes, they’re choking people out – I don’t know, it was just cool for me, at that age, when I first saw it.” 

Puelles was only about thirteen at the time, but buoyed by a passion for the sport that would shape his adolescence and early adulthood. “When I was doing MMA in Peru, it was a little later – I was maybe fifteen, sixteen at the time. I came here [to the US] first, and started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Florida. So then when I went back to Peru, I started looking for fights. I’d never [experienced] the [Peruvian] MMA scene before, so that was pretty cool, learning all these local names, and meeting all these people trying to make it in MMA who were already pros.”

“I was just a kid – and I wanted to be a fighter – but I had to learn what it was like to be a fighter, and what kind of training you needed to do, what kind of effort you needed,” Puelles reflects. “I didn’t know anything. I knew I wanted to be a fighter, but I didn’t know how tough it was to actually be one.”

Puelles’ stint training jiu-jitsu in Florida occurred when his father moved to the US, taking a teenage Puelles along with him. The elder Puelles also encouraged his son’s fighting career. “He was the one who took me to a jiu-jitsu and MMA school,” remembers Puelles. “I had already started training kickboxing before, but I’d only had about eight to ten months of experience [at the time], and then I moved here. So my dad took me to the MMA school, because he knew I was doing kickboxing, and I said that I wanted to be in the UFC, so he went, ‘Okay, you want to be in the UFC? Then you’re gonna have to train.’ He’d actually trained a little before, so he took me [to the school], maybe a couple times a week, and when he couldn’t take me, I’d walk to the school. So that’s how it all started – in Florida, back in 2011.”

How does the elder Puelles feel about his son’s career in the UFC now? Puelles grins. “He’s a UFC fan for sure – MMA fan, really. He remembers PRIDE way more than me, because I wasn’t really following MMA when PRIDE was a thing. I was still too young. So he would know way more about PRIDE than I did. But now that I’m a UFC fighter, he follows everything.” He chuckles. “He knows everything now!” 

According to Puelles, he was still a relative rookie – having only just come up on the local Peruvian MMA scene – when he first saw the opportunity to join Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. “[Ultimate Fighter] was twenty-eight days and three fights, so almost one fight a week,” remembers Puelles. “It was pretty cool – pretty tough, but it gave me a chance to join the UFC, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time.” 

How has the leap to the international stage felt for Puelles? “I don’t know if this is because I have a bigger following now, but when I was fighting locally, it was mostly people from my gym and friends and family who would support me – now, when I fight, I feel like I have the whole country behind me.” 

Is that how he wound up being dubbed the Prince of Peru? Puelles laughs. “One of my coaches here at Sanford MMA started calling me the ‘Prince of Peru’ after [one of my fights] in December. I was doing my ESPN interview, and he took a picture and wrote it [in the caption], and I reposted it, since he tagged me.” The nickname’s stuck ever since – and in many ways, symbolizes the way Puelles honors his Peruvian roots. “I want to represent Peru, so it clicks,” says Puelles. 

Still, Puelles is careful not to let the pressure of his homeland’s expectations get under his skin. “I don’t know if this makes me a selfish person, but I don’t mind the weight [of the country’s expectations] on my shoulders. I have my own expectations, and they’re very high. So if I’m going to let somebody down, it’s myself. I don’t really think about how I need to win for all these people – of course, if I win, I’m going to share it with everybody, and I love my people, but if I lose, this is part of the sport. If that time ever comes, I’m going to come right back up and win the next fight.”

He also hopes to nurture the budding MMA scene in Peru. “I would love to have some kind of project when I go back to Peru to live – at some point. I don’t know when that’s going to happen; right now, my place is here in Florida. But I would love to do something in the meantime. For example, I was recently invited to be a guest at one of the biggest shows over there, which is pretty cool. I get to see some local fights, and I have a lot of friends who fight [over there] who deserve to be in the big leagues. I don’t know what’s going on, but I believe we’re going to see their faces in the UFC soon.”

Puelles’ ease with English-Spanish bilingualism has also served as a boon in his career. Having spoken previously on his desire to be a commentator of UFC Español, Puelles enthuses, “I would love to. We’ve been staying in touch, and they invited me to their podcast, which was pretty cool. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m hoping for a spot at the commentating table. I love to speak – in both English and Spanish; I’m better in Spanish, but I hold my own in English – and it’s one of my favorite subjects to talk about.” 

What is it about fight commentary that appeals to Puelles? “I love commentating on a fight that’s happening, but I also love hearing other people’s opinions on what’s happening. I like to talk about what we think, and to share that with the world – with people who love MMA. I think it’s nice for them to hear takes from people with expertise in the sport, people who step into that same octagon a couple times a year.” 

Reflecting on the long trajectory of his career, from his early teens to present day, Puelles is cognizant of certain mindset shifts: “Some things are the same: for example, what I want. What I want to get, what I want to achieve. In that sense, it’s the same – I have the same ideas, I’ve just changed the way I work toward them. But if we’re talking about other parts [of my mindset], I do feel like I have more experience. Every fight, I feel like I learn a lot. Every fight is one more toward my record, one more toward my life, and all these memories that you make during fight week stick around to give you a better understanding of the fight game, and what you’re doing.” 

He’s also learned to be smart with matchmaking. “When I had three pro fights, I was going to fight a guy who had fifty fights, I think. I don’t know how, but we almost got matched. I don’t know if I was going to lose that fight or win, but at the time, I was a hundred percent convinced I was going to win. I’m saying this now, because either [a win or a loss] could have happened, but I was a hundred percent convinced I’d win. The guy wound up pulling out – I think he got injured – so it didn’t happen, and I fought another guy who had like five or six fights, whose experience was more like my own, and I ended up winning.”

Puelles looks contemplative. “But you know, looking back now, I think [fighting the first guy] would have been a mistake. Even if I won, it would have been a mistake. I had nothing to gain from fighting a guy that experienced. If I lost, it was going to be bad for my record, and if I won?” He shrugs. “It just wasn’t worth it. You’ve got to be well-guided, when it comes to the fights. It all goes back to that. Having a good gym, with good corners, someone who’s going to take care of you while you grow.” 

Puelles offers the following guidance for up-and-coming fighters: “I would try to help them realize that discipline is the way to go. You need good discipline, if you want to make it. Otherwise, you should go do something different, or it’s going to be really hard. The other thing is that you want to build a smart career. You want to be smart at the gym, you want to be smart with the fights, and there are a lot of mistakes that can happen without the right guidance.”

What kind of mistakes? “Getting into fights at the gym,” answers Puelles promptly. “Sparring too hard. That will take years off your career. I see people getting knocked out regularly in sparring, and that’s not good. You can do hard sparring – but you’ve got to know when to do it. You can’t go crazy three times a week, and then expect to have a long career. You need to take care of your brain and your body. It’s very taxing. You need to know when to take a day off. Of course, I’m not saying take a day off every other day – that’s not the way to go either!” He laughs. “But make the most of your time.” Which is precisely what Puelles intends to continue doing. 

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