As Camaguey’s most prominent boxer of recent years warms up in the changing room, stretching, having his ever-dangerous hands wrapped, the new kid on the block is testing himself under the bright lights…
Lenier Pero (6-0, 3KOs), another heavyweight graduate of Cuba’s stellar amateur boxing academy, enjoyed a successful US debut, fighting talented countrymen Geovany Bruzon on the undercard of PBC’s Luis Ortiz v Charles Martin pay-per-view event. That fight, and his willingness to test himself early against his unbeaten peer, has set some hares racing. Another Cuban heavyweight. But one who promises more explosive excitement, with amateur wins over Erislandy Savon, Frank Sanchez and many more to support his technical class.
“I had 320 fights and my amateur career was one of the best there was in Cuba,” Pero recalled, with translation from his manager, Shane Shapiro. “People back home, they’ll always remember me for that, but I want them to also remember me as a [successful] professional. As an amateur, when I look back, I’m very proud of my accomplishments and I did a lot. It was a great schooling for me, I learned how to fight, we travelled to a few other countries where I was able to see these other fighters who were the best from their countries. I’m just getting started now.”
Pero continued: “This was my first fight in the United States, and now, I’m with the right trainer and I’m with nutritionists and people focused on giving me protein and giving me the right diet to get me into the best shape. I think that this is just the start and I think my next few fights, you’ll see me in better shape; you’ll see me sharper and stronger.”
“How many undefeated heavyweight prospects would put their record on the line so early in their career? How many other fighters are willing to engage in a war like that in only their fifth fight?” Pero asks, commanding respect for bucking boxing’s trend of slowly climbing the ladder. “This is what sets me apart; I can fight for the fans; I have a fan-friendly style and I’m willing to take these chances. I can fight at short [range], I can fight at distance, I can box, and I can hit powerfully, as well. The reason the fans should take notice is that I’m exciting. I’m a fighter that wants to be a world champion, and there’s not many fighters that can say they’ve put their undefeated record on the line so early.”
Pero, who spoke to Boxing Social from his base in Miami, reflected on tough, troublesome early days in Cuba. Before finding an escape route to mainland Argentina, he toiled, like many of his fellow amateur stars, training and fighting on a constant loop, growing up in between, and trying to familiarise himself with adulthood. It’s easier said than done; his life and his reputation was forged through boxing, and multiple wins over names like Sanchez (whom Pero bettered an astonishing six times) prepared him for a swift entry to the paid ranks when the opportunity finally presented itself.
“I didn’t grow up very poor, per se, but as everyone knows, Cuba is not an easy country to grow up in. Everything is controlled by the government, but we had what we needed to get by. I always knew that I needed to do something in order to change my family’s life and for that reason, I knew that when I left Cuba, it would lead to a lot of hardships for my family, and they were very sad to see me leave. They knew this was what I needed to change their lives back home. I have a younger brother and he represented Cuba in the Tokyo Olympics; I’m very close to my family, so it’s important to set an example for the rest of my family. We can’t be complacent, remaining in Cuba.”
The 29-year old continues, describing his move to Argentina: “I had a friend that lived there. He invited me, he gave me the idea of leaving Cuba to turn professional in Argentina, and at first, I wasn’t sure. I knew I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t sure it was safe. When I told this to my family, they started crying… They understood that there was no professional boxing in Cuba – that’s something I’d wanted my whole life. I got an invitation letter from a friend in Argentina, but it was very, very hard for me because in my weight class [heavyweight], there aren’t many there. I had to get a letter of invitation from certain people, and it was very hard to leave Cuba.”
“When I arrived in Argentina, I had to learn everything differently; the whole way of life was different for me. The biggest change for me, honestly, was leaving my friends, family, and all of my culture behind in Cuba. Everything and everyone are very close, so leaving those things behind was very hard. I had to adapt to a new culture without any family or friends and at times, I felt very alone.”
Life in Argentina didn’t last as long as he initially expected. And now, living in Miami as many of his defected countrymen do, Pero is truly taking steps to boost his chances of climbing the heavyweight ladder. With Shapiro, he has a young manager passionate about the development of his stable, pushing their profiles and throwing them into fights he knows will capture headlines. Pero beat Geovany Bruzon, and next, he’s looking to challenge someone of Jonnie Rice’s standing, maybe even Frank Sanchez himself in due course.
“I want two or three more fights against opponents who are gonna continue to help me learn. We’re looking at guys that can test me, that can push me, that can make me learn in there and show different things. Then I want to fight for a world title. I believe that with the team I have, I’m going to be able to get that shot. When I see people like Frank [Sanchez] fighting, people I’ve already beaten, it motivates me because – it’s nothing personal – I know that Frank is a very talented fighter, but I have more talent, more chance of winning a world title. If I had fought [Christian Hammer], I would have won in a more spectacular fashion.”
One Cuban heavyweight that ‘El Justiciero’ Pero isn’t looking to stare at from the opposite side of the ring is Camaguey’s Luis Ortiz. The pair are friends – almost brothers, he explains – and fighting on Ortiz’s recent undercard was another demonstration of their continuing mentor-mentee relationship.
“When I first started boxing, Luis Ortiz was one of the first people that helped me – he introduced me to the sport. When I was back home in Cuba, he really helped me a lot, he gave me advice on how to start my career and showed me the way to the United States. Once I got here, he started to really, really support me. I didn’t know anybody, and he took me in. He brought me into his family, and we became like family. He helped me when I started out in boxing, and I had nothing; we are family.”
Their family share an understanding of struggle, and their boxing ability appears genetic. As Ortiz reaches what we assume is the Indian Summer of an impressive career, could it be time for Lenier Pero to pick up his ‘brother’s’ mantle, tackling the giants of world heavyweight boxing? Shane Shapiro thinks he’s a world champion in the making – but will he get the chance? Only time will tell.