By Thomas Gerbasi
As boxing fans, we’ve been programmed to be cynical. So when Oscar-nominated actress Rosie Perez showed up on Twitter a while back and professed her love for the sweet science, many assumed she was just another one of those celebrity “fans” who only showed up for the mega fights, then disappeared until the next one came along.
But as the weeks went by, she became a staple in boxing’s social networking world, there for every fight, interacting with fight fans, and impressing everyone with her knowledge of the sport, both past and present.
Dare I say it?
Rosie was one of us. In fact, despite repeated pleas from her manager, the only reason she got on Twitter was because of boxing.
“My management had been dying for me to get on Twitter, and I was like ‘oh, what for?’” she recalled. “And I was watching Showtime boxing and I said ‘oh God, they were Tweeting, I have an opinion, duh, duh, duh.’ (Laughs)
Taking in the bouts that night with her cousin Sixto, a regular fight watching companion, Perez was hooked, and though she didn’t know how to open an account, she got it done soon enough and was off and running. Needless to say, her manager was pleased.
“I told my manager, hey, I want to get on Twitter. He goes, ‘great, why now?’ Boxing. And he started laughing. ‘Of course, why didn’t we think of that earlier?’ And that’s how it started.
Not surprisingly, the boxing community has embraced Perez, a true #boxinghead who was even invited to flip a coin to determine the walk in order for the Bernard Hopkins-Tavoris Cloud fight in her native Brooklyn earlier this year. But the biggest honor was yet to come when she was chosen as the Grand Marshal for the 2013 Boxing Hall of Fame Parade of Champions in Canastota, New York on June 9th.
“At first I was pretty shocked because I was like ‘why me?’ There are so many other well-deserving people to be chosen from, but then in a millisecond I was like ‘yay, it’s me.’ (Laughs) That was my initial reaction, and to be quite honest, I was very humbled by it.”
Making it into the Hall of Fame is a full circle moment for the inductees, many of whom have been involved in the sport since they were children. It’s almost the same thing for Perez, whose first exposure to boxing came as a child.
“I had a relative who was a Golden Gloves contender, and as a little girl I was just fascinated watching him train,” she recalled. “I grew up very, very poor and when I would go over his house to visit, he would use bottles filled with water as weights, and to get us all into it, there were a bunch of little kids surrounding him, and he was like ‘okay, this is how you throw the jab, and the jab is the whole thing behind the science of boxing.’ He was trying to speak as if he was an aficionado (Laughs), and I just found it fascinating.”
In those days, boxing wasn’t relegated to the transactions section of the newspaper, as fighters like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, and Duran made it front page news. It didn’t hurt that boxing was on free network television every weekend, and in the Perez household, there was plenty of time spent watching fights on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
“Just bonding with family members, while watching the fights on ABC, it spoke to my heart,” she said. “And when you see the science of it, it just dazzled me. But what I really remember about ABC’s boxing matches is Howard Cosell. ‘Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier.’ And I’m like ‘who’s Frazier?’
She laughs, recalling the good ol’ days of the sport, but to her, even as such a young age, boxing was more than just entertainment.
“I relate to boxers in a way because the majority of them come from hard knock lives, as did I,” said Perez. “And when you get beat up, you want to hit back. When you grow up with such angst inside of you, you have an anger that needs direction, that needs to be expressed in a positive way, and not in a negative, volatile way. And when I saw that as a little kid, when I was hitting this horrible heavy bag that had so many cracks in the leather, everyone would laugh at me. But it felt good. It released so much inside of me. That was the genesis of it.”
Like many of us who grew up in that era, that was our Golden Age, and nothing else could ever compare to it. Regardless, if you’re reading this, it’s obvious that you stuck around when others walked away. But it’s clear that what used to be a sport that the big names in entertainment flocked to has been largely abandoned. Rosie Perez stuck around though.
“I never ran away from it,” she said. “I still think it’s such an amazing sport, and it’s not a sport to be played. You don’t play boxing. And I just love the spirit and the heart of the athlete. It really personifies one’s life struggle. Life comes at you and hits you hard, and do you have what it takes to get back up? And for anybody that goes inside the ring and goes toe to toe, that takes a lot of guts and takes a lot of character. And one thing about boxing is that it exposes you as a person. It exposes the strength and weaknesses in your character. How can you look away from that? Whether it’s going to be on HBO or Showtime or ESPN, or even if it’s on MSG or SNY with Lou DiBella, I watch it all because you just want to root for somebody because you know their background is probably not that good. And you know that who really wants to get inside a ring and get hit? Who really does? But when you see the skill set that it takes and you follow someone from SNY and then they get on ESPN Friday Night Fights, and then they have the opportunity to get on FOX Sports or HBO or Showtime, I hate to sound corny, but my heart just swells for them. And I think that it’s not the fans’ fault that they moved away from boxing as much as it is in part the business of boxing.”
If that’s not a hardcore fan, I don’t know what is. And in keeping with the theme of boxing being a sport of heart, character, and overcoming adversity, Perez takes great pride in the fact that when she goes to Canastota for the Hall of Fame weekend, she will be doing it the year that one of the sport’s most beloved figures, the late Arturo Gatti, gets his plaque. Is it safe to assume that she was a fan of “Thunder?”
“One hundred percent,” she said. “He was a favorite of my cousin Sixto, and early on in Gatti’s career, he was like ‘you gotta watch this guy.’ And even when he was getting the crap beat out of him, he just would not give up. And what was really crazy was the smile on his face afterwards. Even when he was in tears from a defeat, there was so much honesty behind it. And it was so sad the way that he left us. His family must be heartbroken and I hope him being inducted is going to bring a little bit of comfort. I think the boxing world does recognize him as a legend, and I hope the rest of the world sees him as such as well. I just can’t believe my luck that this is the year that I’m going to be Grand Marshal.”
We can’t believe the luck we have with Rosie Perez embracing and representing this much maligned sport. But while we’ve seen her on the silver screen in vastly different roles, from Gloria in White Men Can’t Jump to Carla in the critically acclaimed Fearless, who is the real Rosie on fight night?
She laughs, recalling the time when she met one of her good friends, the daughter of boxing great Jose Torres.
“She saw me at a fight, screaming my head off,” said Perez. “And I’m even more so at home. It’s jumping off the couch, pushing everybody out of the way, it’s all of that. And it is cultural. From every Caribbean island to Central and South America, it’s in the Latin blood to just love the sport and to scream and yell as loud as you can. And we cheer for the winners and the losers.”