IN 2007, Mike Perez swam to a smuggler’s boat off the Cuban coast, hid at sea for nine days, and was held at gunpoint before touching the Mexican shore.
Finally, he met Irish boxing promoter Gary Hyde, masquerading under the moniker ‘Miguel’, who had instigated his defection.
“Coming to Ireland 10 years ago was the best decision I made in my life but not everything has been good,” Mike Perez tells Boxing News. “Things have been hard here. I had a hard time with the guy that brought me. When I arrived, he was like a different person but I found the manager I have now and he’s helped me a lot. He’s like a dad to me.”
The exceptional amateur, who was schooled in Cuba’s celebrated La Finca programme alongside the likes of Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara, had already claimed Gold at the World Junior Championships in 2004 and boasted victories over Luis Ortiz and Yunier Dorticos.
It would be another three-and-a-half years before the Cuban’s presence was widely acknowledged after an artistic yet destructive display at Matchroom’s first international Prizefighter tournament. But, as is so often the bane of Cuba’s boxing defectors, with success came the tussle of promotional issues and Perez was forced out of the ring for a year-and-a-half.
When Mike Perez did finally return, he was every bit as ferocious. In just his second bout back, he made his US debut on Gennady Golovkin’s undercard against heralded knockout artist Magomed Abdusalamov. What should have been the pinnacle of Perez’s career thus far was marred by tragedy when Abdusalamov, having been cleared by the doctors ringside, was found to have sustained a large blot clot to the brain. Unbeknownst to Perez, who was already on his way back to Cork, the subsequent brain damage would have tragic and life-changing consequences for Abdusalamov.
“That fight changed my life,” Perez admits. “I tried to hide it. I admit it now, I hid it for years. I got a lot of abuse on social media from people, and I was hiding. I started drinking a lot, doing a lot of stupid things, and not really training. It was hard.”
Just 10 weeks later, he was thrown into the biggest fight of his career against Carlos Takam. After comfortably securing the first five rounds, Perez had to survive a vicious onslaught from the French Cameroonian throughout the second half of the fight. He clinched a deserved draw but it was clear the burdens of the fight with Abdusalamov had seen him lose both enthusiasm and spite.
He came into his next bout with Bryant Jennings, in July 2014, almost a stone heavier, where his suffered his first loss after being docked a point in the 12th and final round for hitting after the break despite no prior warning.
“I can’t believe they gave it to him,” recalls Perez. “Jennings didn’t do much. The fight with Takam was a much harder fight for me.”
By the time he faced Alexander Povetkin in Russia, just under a year later, Perez sombrely admits he was lost in a dark place.
“I’d train hard but then I’d go home to my apartment and drink,” he admits. “I did that for the whole camp before the fight. When I got knocked down in the first round, I didn’t even care.”
He didn’t make it out of that first round and, at the post-fight press conference, he announced his immediate retirement from the sport, but it was that loss which eventually freed him of his plight.
“I’m happy that happened because that was the thing which woke me up. It was a bad stage in my life which I couldn’t control, but I found myself again and I thank God. It used to cross my mind when I fought. Now, I’ve had help and I’m in a good place.”
Two years later, much to the surprise of the boxing community, an almost indistinguishable Perez announced his return to the sport with refreshed fervour. Having lost an almighty 75lbs, he dropped to the cruiserweight division, intending on fighting Tommy McCarthy on Ryan Burnett’s undercard in Belfast, until McCarthy pulled out and Perez recorded a largely inefficacious 19-second knockout over a petrified late replacement, Viktor Biscak.
That night, Eddie Hearn said, “He’s got a great story that needs to be told. The way his life has turned around, and he will tell it to you one day.”
He was spot on. Perez was announced as an unexpected inclusion in the World Boxing Super Series with many touting him as the dark horse of the competition. Ten years after his defection, and the endured litany of Sturm und Drang since, he finally had his long-awaited opportunity to fight for a world title against WBC cruiserweight boss, Mairis Briedis.
As the merciless oracles of boxing ordained, his efforts were ultimately fruitless. Briedis clinched a close but crrect points decision in a dire fight, sullied, some observed, by the champion’s persistent holding.
“I got frustrated. It was my first fight at that level in two years and I could have done better. After the fight, I saw an interview that Breidis did saying that I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t this or that, and I thought ‘what a little bitch’. If I wasn’t that strong, why wouldn’t he stop holding me after I touched him. If he fought me the way he fought Usyk I would’ve knocked his ass out. That was a great fight and Breidis did well. He showed Usyk can be beaten.”
For all of Perez’s abundantly clear ability to compete at world level, courageous transformation, and humble character, it’s disappointing that he has yet to be signed by a promoter.
“Things didn’t go well in the Briedis fight but I believe I can be a champion at this weight,” declares Perez, who returned with a one-round victory over Pablo Magrini in February.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m Cuban but it’s hard to find a promoter and it’s hard to get fights and to come back at that sort of level. I know I have the talent so I have to just keep pushing and see what happens.”
Until that opportunity comes, he’ll train indefinitely, walk his beloved dog in the Irish snow, and suffer through Disney films with his loving family, despite being a devout horror enthusiast.