UFC 281 Fighter to Watch: Claudio Puelles

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – APRIL 23: (R-L) Claudio Puelles of Peru works for a submission against Clay Guida in a lightweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 23, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Talented lightweight from Peru takes on Dan Hooker in Saturday’s main card opener, looking to extend his winning streak to six and establish himself as a legitimate, young threat in the 155-pound weight class.

Name: Claudio Puelles
Nickname: Prince of Peru
Record: 12-2 overall, 5-1 UFC
Division: Lightweight
Team: Kill Cliff FC
Opponent: Dan Hooker

How We Got Here

Puelles first registered on the UFC radar as a contestant on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. He advanced to the finals, beating current UFC bantamweight Marcelo Rojo in the semifinals before losing to Martin Bravo. He was 20 years old and nine fights into his career, and despite the second-round loss, he remained on the roster, fighting sporadically for the next four-and-a-half years.

Puelles made two appearances during that stretch, registering a third-round, Hail Mary kneebar win over Felipe Silva in May 2018 and a unanimous decision nod over Marcos Mariano 16 months later, but then wouldn’t fight again for 21 months, as visa issues and the global coronavirus pandemic made it difficult for him to train and compete.

He eventually got himself to South Florida, setting up shop with the crew at what is now called Kill Cliff FC (formerly Sanford MMA) and turned in an “Oh yeah, I remember that guy” effort in beating Jordan Leavitt in June 2021 to extend his winning streak to three. Six months later, he clasped onto a kneebar in the third round of his fight with veteran Chris Gruetzemacher to run his winning streak to four and start generating a little buzz, and then in April, Puelles picked up the biggest win of his career, submitting Clay Guida, by kneebar, three-minutes-and-a-tick into the opening stanza.

In the time since he first debuted to now, Puelles has understandably undergone clear physical growth.

While he’s always been in tremendous shape, the 26-year-old has added functional size and strength to his near-six-foot frame, growing into his body and looking the part of a promising athlete.

What There Is To Like

Listen: winning five straight fights against anyone, over any length of time, in the UFC lightweight division is one of those accomplishments that should make you sit up and take notice.

When you couple that with the fact that Puelles seemingly has a WWE-esque finishing move in his arsenal with this kneebar that he keeps hitting, it makes me even more intrigued.

Now, the first one he hit way back when against Silva was a desperation attempt that paid off — he was losing the fight, took a shot at catching the leg, and managed to get the finish — and even his catch against Gruetzemacher was a surprising finish. It was a classic case of “Fuck Around and Find Out,” as the veteran showed little concern for the series of leg attacks Puelles offered earlier in the round, stayed on the canvas with him, and allowed his leg to get trapped, extended, and jacked up.

But his performance against Guida was impressive, really highlighting Puelles’ overall advances on the ground and his ability to work towards that signature submission attack.

He willingly wrestled with Guida right out of the chute, turning an early takedown attempt into a scramble where he was able to attack with a triangle choke off his back. That turned into an omoplata look and back into a triangle before Guida had to extricate himself from the situation and re-enter. When he did, Puelles deftly setup the kneebar attack and got the finish.

The most recent finish was the first one where it felt like he wasn’t just throwing up looks and seeing what he could find — it was deliberate, well-executed, and secured Puelles the biggest win of his career.

Say what you will about beating Guida at this stage of his career — 40 years old, 59 fights, 37-22 record, 3-5 in his last eight — being the young lightweight’s best win, but you can only face the people they put in front of you, and thus far, “The Carpenter” has been the most high profile, experienced foe he’s faced.

The last thing that there is to like about where Puelles is at now is that he still clearly has room to grow.

He doesn’t turn 27 until April, trains with a great team at Kill Cliff FC, and has the build and natural athleticism to where you can see his striking becoming a bigger part of his game and much more sharp over the next couple years. It doesn’t have to become world-class and the lead weapon in his arsenal — that should always be his grappling — but if he can make himself a credible threat on the feet, it will open up more opportunities for him to attack takedowns and look for ways to get to where he wants to be inside the Octagon.

Remaining Questions

The biggest remaining question is whether or not Puelles is truly someone capable of making a push towards the Top 15 or further in the lightweight division?

Lightweight is one of a handful of weight classes — along with bantamweight and welterweight, I would argue — where failing to crack the Top 15 isn’t as much of a demerit as it would be in the more shallow divisions, so if the “Prince of Peru” doesn’t get there, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost. He can still have a solid career residing in the “Second 15” and making the odd advance towards the upper tier, and if he fails to get there now, it doesn’t mean he’s never going to get there in the future.

One of the next layer down questions that will help answer the primary question is how Puelles will continue to develop as a striker and a fighter overall?

As mentioned above, he doesn’t need to be a world-class striker to find further success, but sharpening those tools and finding more offensive ways into his grappling attacks will invariably serve him well going forward.

Right now, everything comes from a defensive starting point — he’s reacting to the positions he’s being put in, how his opponents are attacking — and while it’s worked out fine in terms of results, that’s not always going to be the case, especially if he wants to continue climbing the divisional ladder.

The best fighters in the division aren’t going to afford him time to search for leg entanglements by hanging out on the ground with him or allow him to do so without making him pay a heavy price, so finding ways to be the initiator of these sequences and exchanges will be crucial to Puelles being able to continue thriving with his current style.

How he answers these questions this weekend — and in the next 12-18 months overall — will tell us a great deal about how high the streaking prospect will be able to climb in the lightweight division.

Why This Fight Is Important

This is where we start getting our answers about Puelles and his potential.

As we talk about all the time over on the YouTube channel, we know the quality of Dan Hooker — what it takes to beat him, what it means to beat him, and how to rate a fighter based on how they acquit themselves when sharing the Octagon with the Auckland resident.

Puelles has shown he doesn’t need to continue doing the “fight middling veterans” thing any more, having dispatched a pair of them in succession, and he’s well beyond the “face off with unproven newcomers” stage of things as well, which leaves one of two options: face proven veterans or face fellow ascending youngsters.

Facing Hooker makes more sense at this point than squaring off with another up-and-comer like Jalin Turner, for instance, because there is no need to hand either of them a loss against anyone other than an established veteran at this point. Also, Turner throttled Brad Riddell last time out and is a step ahead of Puelles in his own ascent up the lightweight hierarchy, but you know what I mean.

Hooker is a quality hand and established veteran, but he’s also not someone that is in the thick of the chase or a big enough presence at the moment that he’s going to be getting dropped in with the Michael Chandlers of the world — though I’d watch the hell out of Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler in 2023. Basically, he’s the perfect dance partner for Puelles at this moment because he still represents a significant step up in competition and dangerous matchup, but he’s also — and I’m sorry to say it this way — expendable in the lightweight collective at the time being.

This is another one of those fights where “The B Side” is the person of greater interest, similar to Belal Muhammad’s bout with Sean Brady and Arnold Allen’s fight with Calvin Kattar. In each of those instances, the combatants were a little closer to one another in the pecking order, but it’s a similar feel to me as Hooker is a known commodity, while Puelles is still an intriguing bundle of questions.

I cannot wait to see how this one plays out on Saturday.

E. Spencer Kyte is a veteran MMA content creator based in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He's written for numerous outlets, including FOX Sports and The Province, British Columbia's leading newspaper, and has been a freelance contributor to the UFC website for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @spencerkyte.