By Thomas Gerbasi
“This is a very long story,” laughed Mike Perez. The question was about his migration from Cuba to Cork, Ireland, but it could cover the life of the heavyweight contender, whose 28 year journey on this Earth has seen more twists and turns than a Hollywood blockbuster.
Scheduled for his second consecutive HBO appearance, this one on January 18 in Montreal against Carlos Takam, Perez should have been in a celebratory mood as he met the media in California earlier this week, but while there were some light moments, the cloud over the proceedings was the southpaw’s first HBO fight last November, a punishing ten round decision win over Magomed Abdusalamov that left Perez’ unbeaten pro record intact and which changed Abdusalamov’s life forever.
Today, Abdusalamov is in a rehabilitation facility in upstate New York, recovering from injuries suffered in the bout that required emergency brain surgery. Perez, to support his family the best way he knows how, fights on. A little over two months later, he can accept what happened, though it’s not easy.
“Unfortunately, what happened happened, and I wish him all the best,” he said quietly. “I’m dedicating this fight to him, I’m putting his name on my trunks, and I hope he’ll be better soon.”
It’s an outcome that every fighter knows is possible, but one that they assume won’t happen to them. Through a long and distinguished amateur career and 19 pro fights, Perez and his opponents escaped that worst of scenarios. In fight 20, it hit home, hard.
“Between his family back home, (K2 Promotions) Tom (Loeffler), Patrick (Thomas) his manager and I, we tried to convey the fact that it could have happened to him,” said trainer Abel Sanchez of the aftermath of November 2, 2013. “He could have been the one laying in the bed with the difficulty for the rest of his life. This is the sport that we chose, it’s a difficult sport, and it was a brutal fight for both guys. The first couple weeks were difficult for him, but I think he’s come to believe that what we were saying is true. Don’t get me wrong though, he’s thinking about it all the time and we talk about it all the time because I don’t want to keep it from him.”
Sanchez is the newest member of Team Perez, and when K2 Promotions’ Tom Loeffler introduced Perez to the renowned trainer (who is best known these days for his work with middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin), the two hit it off.
“He introduced me to Abel Sanchez six weeks before the last fight and I liked what he did with me and the way he trains and the way he trains all the guys,” said Perez. “We all help each other and it’s a good opportunity. This is why I came here, to make my dream come true.”
It was a dream that started as soon as he left Cuba in 2007. Yet unlike most of his peers from the legendary Cuban amateur boxing program that defected, he didn’t end up in the United States – more specifically, Miami, Florida; instead, he landed in Ireland.
“It was a different way to think,” explains Perez. “When I left Cuba, I left everything. I left my family and left everything behind to be a better person. I believe if I went to Miami, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I wanted to do. I needed to stay away from the same people and from parties, and that’s what I did.”
That decision may have been the most important of his life. We’ve all seen outstanding Cuban heavyweight dominate the amateur scene, defect, and then get fat, showing only glimpses of their past greatness. In Cork, Perez didn’t have the temptations of the United States poking at him daily.
“There’s not much to do in Ireland, so I don’t have too much temptation,” he said. “I just concentrate on what I do with boxing and with my family, and that’s the way it is. In Miami, you have a lot of friends from back home and from the Cuban team and school, and there’s too much temptation. This is a serious sport, and you have to be serious. I’m happy where I am, and I like it there. I have my family there, and hopefully one day I can have the chance to buy my house and make Ireland my home.”
A father of three daughters, Perez turned pro in 2008, winning nine of his first 14 fights via first round knockout. Victories over Kertson Manswell and Tye Fields earned him a Prizefighter tournament win in 2011, but after back-to-back wins over Zack Page and Friday Ahunanya, everything stopped, and he couldn’t get a fight.
Enter K2 Promotions, which signed Perez and put him on the May undercard of heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko’s win over Francesco Pianeta. Perez shut out Travis Walker over ten rounds, and then Sanchez entered the picture.
“My first impression was that he was a guy who came in with a good background like Gennady came in with,” said Sanchez, who works with Perez and Golovkin in Big Bear, California. “He had a really different style than most Cuban heavyweights and he was a guy who came in with a chip on his shoulder for a lot of different reasons. One of the main reasons was that he hadn’t fought in two years and his career hadn’t developed. So he came in different than most Cuban fighters.”
And the first thing Sanchez did was make sure that Perez threw punches – not just one or two bombs at a time, but a steady stream of shots designed to take advantage of his physical gifts.
“He’s one of those guys that doesn’t throw a lot of punches,” said Sanchez. “If you look at some of his other fights, he throws one or two just to try to knock you out. He wasn’t a combination puncher. And I felt that with Mago, Mike’s handspeed and simple combinations – 1-2s and threes – were going to do the job because Mago was a little too slow to catch up with him as far as speed was concerned. That was all planned and that was something we worked on.”
It worked to perfection for Perez, who engaged in a crowd-pleasing 10 rounder with Abdusalamov that would have been celebrated as one of the best heavyweight fights in recent years if not for the tragic aftermath, and it gave the division a good name again, even if for only one night.
“I’m always going to be like that and hopefully everyone who fights with me can fight like that so we can keep the fans happy,” said Perez, who knows that the win was his biggest to date, and with it coming on HBO, it opened the door for more premium cable dates. That’s the way the boxing world works. It doesn’t stop. So while Abdusalamov recovers, Perez must fight. And while we know that Abdusalamov will never be the way he was on the morning of November 2, will Perez suffer that same fate that Emile Griffith, Ezzard Charles, Gabriel Ruelas, Nigel Benn, and so many other boxers have suffered after being on the winning end of a fight with a tragic outcome?
“I don’t know,” muses Sanchez. “And we won’t know until we get him in a fight how he’s going to react. We think it’s going to be okay, but who knows.”
What we do know is that Perez is making a quick turnaround from the Abdusalamov fight, which could be the best possible scenario for him to get back to chasing his dream of a heavyweight title.
“In hindsight, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to him because you fall off the horse, you get right back on it,” said Sanchez, “and hopefully the fact that he hasn’t had time to lull on it may help him.”
Or it may not.
Perez is a fighter who throws hard. Will the next time he gets an opponent hurt see him pull back? Only January 18 will tell that tale. And if he wins that fight against Takam and does it like the old Mike Perez, then he and his team can breathe a sigh of relief, because while Mago will never be far from their thoughts and prayers, at least two lives weren’t altered forever that night in New York City.