Muhammad Mokaev believes ‘impressive’ win over Alex Perez makes him No. 1 contender to face Alexandre Pantoja

Muhammad Mokaev could be just one major move away from challenging for UFC gold.

The 23-year-old flyweight contender fights Alex Perez this Saturday at UFC Vegas 87, and the bout has some unexpectedly high stakes in the aftermath of a pivotal UFC Mexico City matchup.

This past weekend, 125-pound champion Alexandre Pantoja was cageside to witness Brandon Royval earn a hard-fought split decision win over Brandon Moreno. Theoretically, the bout was to produce a No. 1 contender to fight Pantoja at UFC 301 in Rio de Janeiro, but with Pantoja having defended his title against Royval just two months ago, the door is now open for fresh challenger to stand across Pantoja in the May 4 main event.

Mokaev has done the math and sees a win over Perez as the final part of the equation that earns him a championship opportunity.

“My DMs were full after Brandon Royval vs. Brandon Moreno,” Mokaev said at UFC Vegas 87 media day. “Everyone was like, ‘Go after fight with Pantoja.’ I have trained with Pantoja after my debut and I haven’t seen anything special in him, like he has priority in skill advantage. This [week] he actually said that he would like to fight me instead of Brandon Royval.

“Brandon Royval, I think he has an [injury]. Brandon Moreno is 0-3 against Pantoja. Royval, 0-2 against Pantoja. [Manel] Kape probably going to have one more fight because he didn’t make weight last fight. [Amir] Albazi is injured. Kai Kara-France got the concussion, because when I asked to fight him, [UFC matchmaker] Mick [Maynard] said, ‘He’s got a concussion so he won’t be able to fight you.’ Now I’m the only challenger, but I have to beat Alex Perez in an impressive way.”

Mokaev joined the UFC in 2022 with an abundance of pro and amateur experience and has yet to taste defeat, winning his first five UFC fights. Though his wrestling-heavy style hasn’t always produced impactful offense, “The Punisher” has still managed to submit four opponents inside the octagon.

He’s focused on taking Perez out inside the distance if that’s what it takes to impress the fans and matchmakers.

“If it’s a decision or something like this, I know people don’t like it,” Mokaev said. “When I had a decision against Charles Johnson, I wasn’t happy with myself because I know I can finish these guys. I’m young, hungry, crazy, and I need to finish these guys and then I’m going to fight for the belt.”

Four months shy of his 24th birthday, Mokaev will fall just short of the UFC record for youngest champion even if he manages to book the Pantoja fight and emerge victorious at UFC 301. Currently, the record is held by Jon Jones, who claimed his first UFC title at 23 years and 242 days.

It’s a record that Mokaev targeted earlier in his career, but that he’s not worried about it in the slightest as his dream of becoming champion creeps closer to reality.

“Listen, if UFC wanted me to become UFC champion, they would have done that earlier,” Mokaev said. “They want to keep Jon Jones [with the record], it’s OK, if that’s their plans what can I do about it?

“I called out everyone. I got a big injury in March and I was ready to fight in August in Boston, but I couldn’t get a ranked opponent. Mick said, ‘I can get you a debutant,’ I said, ‘No, I want a ranked opponent.’ So I had to wait until October for Tim Elliott. If they wanted to do this, they would make it, because I was ready to fight anytime.”