NEW YORK – For three days Mike Perez hid in the bottom of a speed boat off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. He was the precious cargo, a talented Cuban boxer, smugglers were supposed to deliver on shore to his Irish benefactor and future manager, Gary Hyde. The transaction had been interrupted by a patrolling Mexican Naval vessel.
Baking from the sun and parched with thirst, Perez had little to hold onto in those three days on that boat except his dream of earning a better life through boxing. When they finally made it to shore, things did not get better for Perez. The smugglers couldn’t reach Hyde on his cellphone. He was traveling from Ireland to Mexico. They talked of cutting their losses by shooting and killing Perez.
After some anxious hours, the transaction was complete. The smugglers got their money and Perez was delivered to Hyde. For Perez that started a quest for the heavyweight world title that began in Cuba, wind through Cancun and Amsterdam and finally landed him in Ireland.
Six years after his perilous journey from Cuba, the 28-year-old Perez finds himself on the threshold of the heavyweight championship. He will meet Bryant Jennings, an undefeated, top-ranked contender from Philadelphia, in a 12-round title elimination match at Madison Square Garden on HBO on July 26. The winner will get the opportunity to fight for the WBC title that Vitali Klitschko vacated when he retired from boxing last December.
All of those struggles seemed a million miles away as Perez went through a brief, but spirited workout at Mendez Gym in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon. With his compact build, hand speed and explosive power, and way he throws punches from a crouch, Perez looked like Mike Tyson from the back as he pounded the mitts.
The last time that Perez (20-0-1, 12 KOs) was at the Garden he won a hard-fought 10-round unanimous decision against Magomed Abdusalamov. But the fight ended in tragedy for Abdusalamov, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and had a stroke during surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain. The stroke left him completely paralyzed on his right side. He is now recovering at the Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, N.Y. – about 35 miles north of where Perez will be fighting Jennings on Saturday night.
Abdusalamov’s family has filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages against the five doctors who were present for the New York State Athletic Commission, the inspector, the referee, K2 Promotions (Perez’s promoters) and Madison Square Garden. The lawsuit claims that all parties were negligent in not stopping the fight in time and for not providing adequate post fight care for Abdusalamov.
Perez doesn’t like to talk about the outcome of the fight that night, though he admits that he was upset with what happened to Abdusalamov. He has refused to talk specifically about the fight in detail, because he said he did so before his last match against Carlos Takam in Montreal in January and it knocked him off his game. He fought to a majority draw.
“The last fight it was a very hard fight in every way,” he said. “Emotionally, I didn’t want to fight. He (Takam) hit me in the head, he cut my eyes. After that I was in like a different place. (I was thinking) I might go into the hospital. I was thinking a lot of stupid things. It was my hardest fight.”
Tom Loeffler, President of K2 Promotions, said he rushed Perez back for the fight against Takam in order to take advantage of an open spot on HBO. In hindsight he said it may have been too early from both a mental and physical standpoint after the match against Abdusalamov.
Perez will need to be at the top of his game against Bryant (18-0, 10 KOs), who has more speed and movement than Abdusalamov and Takam. Any slip up and Bryant will make Perez pay.
Bryant said he is not looking at Perez as having lost anything because of the tragic events following the match against Abdusalamov.
“I don’t know, maybe Mike ate something that night or that morning (before the Takam fight) that had him affected,” Bryant said. “But you can’t look at that and just say ‘Oh, he’s on the down slope’ and underestimate him and his ability and come into the fight unprepared thinking that he’s going to look like he did in his last fight.”
Perez is the atypical Cuban boxer. He is a brawler who isn’t afraid to use his power along with his technique. It was his pro style that kept him down on the rung of the ladder of the elite Cuban boxers who won Olympic gold medals.
Perez has been boxing since he was five years old.
“A man came by the school and asked us if we wanted to play baseball or do boxing,” he said. “I asked the man if I had to go to school if I boxed. He said there was no school. I hated school.”
Perez, a southpaw, was taken to the boxing academy, leaving home on Sunday and returning on Friday. There was one problem with the boxing academy. He had to go to school.
“I came home after that first week and I told my mother that I wanted to quit because I thought I didn’t have to go to school,” he said. “She told me I couldn’t quit.”
Perez eventually blossomed into a talented boxer on a loaded Cuban national team. But his pro style – long on punching power and short on technique – did not mesh with that of the Cuban amateur program and he didn’t flourish in international competition. He won a gold medal at the junior World Championships in 2004, but had difficulty advancing past his own Cuban teammates at the nationals in 2006 and 2007. By 2008 he was noted as a brawler who tested his teammates, but he was often passed over for international competition because the coaches believed he was a liability.
At 22 and with no opportunities to win Olympic gold or World Championships, Perez could not see a future for himself in Cuba. Defecting became his only option to be rewarded for his talents.
Gary Hyde, an Irish boxing promoter, coveted Perez’s teammate featherweight Guillermo Rigondeaux for his group of boxers in Ireland. Using a series of back channels and contacts in Cuba, Hyde found a way to spirit Rigondeaux out of the country through Mexico. When Rigondeaux balked at Hyde’s plan the Irishman went to Plan B, which involved Perez. He put the escape plan in play using Perez. It worked, but not without some anxious moments.
Perez parted ways with Hyde in 2010. He said Hyde couldn’t get him the right fights to move him into the heavyweight championship picture. He selected a new manager, Patrick Thomas, a Cork businessman and continued to live in Ireland.
The match against Abdusalamov was his first in the United States and his first on HBO. It was the most significant of his career – one that launched him into the championship mix and one that he will never really be able to fully appreciate because of what happened to Abdusalamov.
“It’s ironic that you fight all your life in and out the ring and get to HBO and get that signature fight and something tragic happens,” said Abel Sanchez, who trained Perez for Abdusalamov and Takam. “It’s unfortunate. It’s happened to some great fighters. How Mike deals with it we’ll know in this next fight or the fight after. Hopefully mentally he’ll be all right.”
Perez said he is ready for Bryant and to fight for a heavyweight world championship.
“This is a dream come true. It opens the doors for me to be who I am,” he said. “I’m from Cuba and people (there) will be supporting me. I believe I trained hard. This is going to be my fight. I look forward to this opportunity. I got it for me and my family in Cuba and for my family in Ireland and for the people who support me.”