Michael McCarthy provides us with an insight into the life of upcoming Cork-based boxer Mike Perez who faces a career-defining weekend in New York.
Have you heard about Mike? Mike is an Irish citizen. He lives and trains in Cork. He has an Irish fiancé and three daughters in Cork. Mike is also a professional boxer, a heavyweight in fact. He is a boxer who is ranked internationally and one who is now just a single victory away from a shot at the WBC Heavyweight title. Naturally, for a Corkman, Mike fights under the ring name “The Rebel” and regularly wears the Irish tricolour on his shorts.
Some of you may think this is a work of fiction. Surely if there was a boxer representing Ireland, on the verge of a world title shot in the sport’s glamour division, you’d have heard about him by now?
Well perhaps the reason you may not have heard about him, is that Mike was born Ismaikel Perez. And unlike those of us who had the good fortune to be born in the Rebel County, Mike was not born a stone’s throw from St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral or The Mardyke. Instead, Mike was born somewhere the people are less familiar with the delights of Beamish or Clonakilty Black pudding; Sancti Spiritus, Cuba.
Although baseball is the most popular sport in Cuba, boxing is a huge part of the national identity. Boxing gives the isolated socialist republic a rare opportunity to compete on the international stage. Olympic boxing history is littered with Cuban medalists. Cuba, with a total of 67 Olympic Boxing medals, lies second in the all-time medal table, behind only the United States. In the World Amateur Boxing Championships, Cuba’s record is even more impressive; they top the medal table with 121 medals, more than double that of second placed Russia. By any standard, the Cuban amateur boxing programme is incredibly successful.
Mike Perez was schooled in the Cuban amateur system. As an 18-year-old, he won gold at the 2004 World Junior Championships in Korea. However, the problem with Cuba’s boxing production line is the bottleneck at the top. The competition for limited places is intense. It is estimated that there are close to 20,000 boxers on the island and over 80 considered of Olympic standard.
These men are competing for one of 12 places on Cuba’s Olympic team. Professional boxing is banned and politics can often play a role in team selection for international events. As a result, numerous talented fighters find their opportunities in the sport limited.
Perez first came to the attention of Cork-based manager Gary Hyde in 2005. Hyde was in Liverpool watching an amateur tournament which pitted a combined team from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales against Cuba. Perez impressed, particularly when boxing Ireland’s light-heavyweight champion, and future Olympic medallist, Kenneth Egan.
In order to turn professional, Perez would have to defect from Cuba and Hyde was determined to help him do just that. When written as a single sentence, “Mike Perez defected from Cuba in 2007”, it all sounds fairly straight forward, right? He just defected and turned professional. Simple?
Cuba does not take kindly to defection. A first (failed) attempt landed Perez in a prison cell. His second attempt could have killed him. Under the cover of darkness, on the night of December 27th 2007, Perez swam out to a small boat operated by a Mexican cartel that had been hired by Gary Hyde.
Hours later, he was transferred to a larger boat which made the journey to Mexico but remained offshore to avoid detection. Perez and his Mexican chaperones were once again transferred to a smaller boat to bring them the final few miles to Mexico. However, a storm forced them to remain at sea.
Trapped on the boat for days, they quickly ran out of food and were running low on water. Thankfully, the conditions eventually relented. On January 5th 2008, they finally reached Mexican soil. However, Mike’s ordeal was not yet over. Smuggling people out of Cuba is a business, not a charity. Rather than being liberated in Mexico, Perez was transferred to a cartel house where he was kept until Hyde’s final payment ensured his release. Perez touched down in Ireland on January 10th. So yeah, in 2007 Mike Perez defected from Cuba.
Just over two weeks later, Mike made his professional debut on January 26th 2008. He quickly raced to 8-0 within his first 13 months as a pro. A shoulder injury which required surgery then kept him out of the ring for a year. On his return to action, it seems he was eager to make up for lost time. He had the unusual distinction of boxing twice on the same card in Limerick. Of course, he knocked out both of his opponents.
His first real breakthrough came in 2011 when he took part in Eddie Hearn’s Prizefighter series. The Prizefighter format sees eight fighters compete in an elimination tournament which all takes place on the same night. Perez dominated an international field, winning the tournament with knockouts in both his semi-final and in the final itself.
Unfortunately, the months that followed proved frustrating for Mike. Fights fell apart due to injuries or visa issues and he ended up fighting just twice in the two years that followed his Prizefighter success.
However, just when people had begun to write him off as another prospect who fell by the wayside, Perez bounced back to enjoy the most successful year of his career thus far. In May 2013, he scored a one-sided victory over American Travis Walker on the undercard of Wladimir Klitschko’s defence against Francesco Pianeta. That win put him back on the heavyweight map. Next came the Magomed Abdusalamov fight.
November 2nd 2013, at Madison Square Garden, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin was providing the main event against America’s Curtis Stevens but boxing aficionados were also looking forward to the intriguing heavyweight clash on the bill. Perez and Russia’s Abdusalamov were both unbeaten and both highly promising fighters. Abdusalamov had knocked out all 18 of his previous opponents whilst Perez had won all of his 19 bouts. The fight was televised live throughout the United States on HBO and both men were eager to put on a show.
For ten rounds, they thrilled the crowd with toe-to-toe action. Both men suffered some rocky moments but Mike Perez was the better man on the night and won on a unanimous decision.
The fight was hailed as the best heavyweight fight of the year. The win, and the entertaining nature of the fight, marked Perez as a star on the rise. Even Abdusalamov, despite the defeat, appeared to have enhanced his career prospects.
However, later that night the devastating news broke that Abdusalamov’s post-fight brain scan at a nearby hospital had revealed a large blood clot. A medically induced coma, followed by a stroke and subsequent brain surgery left Abdusalamov in a critical condition. Thankfully, he survived the ordeal but, almost nine months later, his recovery is still ongoing and his once promising career is over.
What should have been the highlight of Mike’s career had become a nightmare. Although every fighter is aware of the risks of the sport, it would be impossible for Perez to emerge from a tragedy like that unaffected by it. In the build up to his next fight, questions about Abdusalamov were unavoidable. Perez had the Russian’s name stitched into his shorts and donated a portion of his fight purse to his former opponent. It seemed the tragedy remained on his mind in the ring, or at the very least had affected his preparation, as Perez was sloppy and lacklustre in his bout with Carlos Takam last January. In fact, he was lucky to emerge with his unbeaten record intact as the judges granted him a draw, despite his disappointing showing.
And so, the questions remain about Perez, questions which hopefully will be answered this weekend. The man who stands in his way is Bryant Jennings, an unbeaten American who has stopped 5 of his last 6 opponents. Jennings will have the advantage in reach, height and punching power. But Perez is the superior boxer and has superb hand-speed for a heavyweight. He has also shown a strong chin so far in his career.
The addition of David Haye’s long-time trainer, Adam Booth, provides another potential x-factor for Mike. If he can return to form, he has more than enough talent to out-box Jennings. However, if he gives a repeat of his performance against Carlos Takam then he will find his unbeaten record ended.
The question of what exactly it means to be Irish is not one this writer will attempt to answer. What I will say, is that as a sporting nation, we have never been slow to embrace the sportsmen and women who represent this country, regardless of their origin.
The “granny rule” has long been exploited by Irish soccer and rugby, whilst the likes of Tony Cascarino and Richardt Strauss enjoyed the support of Irish fans despite the lack of any Irish blood in their veins.
Essentially, we support anyone who represents us. Mike Perez has called Cork home for the last six years. When he arrived, he was quick to embrace us,
“I want to win a world title for Cork and for Ireland.”
On Saturday night in New York, when he walks to the ring, proudly wearing the Irish tricolour on his shorts, legendary ring announcer Michael Buffer will introduce him as, “Fighting out of Cork, Ireland” and I, for one, will be cheering on Mike “The Rebel” Perez.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.
Mike Perez vs. Bryant Jennings is live on Sky Sports 1, Sunday July 27th. Coverage starts at 1.30am.