Mike Perez: Chasing activity

Understanding the level of fact-checking used for editing Wikipedia pages forms a large part of honestly constructing a sportsman’s story. Anybody – fan, statistician, or journalist – can edit them, with cult-famous footballers, for example, claiming thousands of goals from just hundreds of games.  

It’s always worth that additional clarification; especially with boxing’s more outrageous tales.

“Yeah, most of that is true,” laughs Cuban former world title challenger, Mike Perez (24-3-1, 15 KOs) from the comfort of his German apartment. “I know my wife told me once, ‘They are saying a lot of…’ but I was like, ‘No, this is true’. And then she actually told me about six months ago they’d changed it altogether again and I was like, ‘Wait, now only some of this is true – but some of this isn’t’.” 

It’s easy to look back and laugh now. But Perez’s Wikipedia talks of his dramatic defection from Cuba, which involved swimming offshore to meet a boat manned by armed Mexican Cartel members, before being held semi-hostage until the gang had been paid in full by an ambitious (and questionably reckless) Irishman, Gary Hyde. Or ‘Miguel,’ as he was known during his Central American sports siege.

Some could claim it was superb preparation for navigating boxing’s murky waters and evading as many of the business’s sharks as possible.  

Perez continued, detailing his ordeal when departing Ciego de Avila during the winter of 2007: “The only time that I was scared was when the boat broke; it couldn’t travel the way it was supposed to. And I knew if they caught us there, they’d put everybody on the boat in prison. And that was actually the only time that I was scared. Of course, I was scared when we were in the boat and there was no water or food or nothing. I thought, ‘Okay, so we are going to starve to death here’. But, other than that, no. I wasn’t scared. 

“I think that [defection from Cuba] was one hundred percent the right thing to do for me. I put it to you like this: the way I used to be, there was only two options for me, maybe three. Just getting out of Cuba as I did; trying to make a life for myself and trying to help my family the best I could; or to die. I’d be imprisoned in Cuba. Those were the only options that I had back at home.”

It’s quite incredible to realise that Perez appeared on Matchroom’s Prizefighter tournament just under a decade ago. That night in Alexandra Palace, London, he swept Kertson Manswell, Gregory Tony and Tye Fields under the rug, albeit no fighter a future star. Perez is well-travelled and has taken his losses, inside and outside of the ring, but with his new team at Legacy Sports Management, he feels rejuvenated – for the last roll of the dice.

Perez (right) challenged Mairis Briedis for the WBC cruiserweight title in September 2017.
Photo: WBSS.

His journey through boxing began on the streets and in the dusty gyms of Cuba, but how much further does he still have to travel? And how much more can he realistically achieve, given his inactivity and an intensifying battle with father time? 

“My idea moving forward is to stay busy. I like to stay active, as much as I can. Everybody knows I am 35-years old. Age is just a number, but I would love to stay busy and just get that one, world title,” he said. “I would love [Mairis] Breidis [in the rematch]. I will knock him out, one hundred percent. If he’s in a neutral venue, where there is no bullshit, you know what I mean? That could be the plan. Right now, I’m weighing 203 pounds, 205 pounds. Or I can go to heavyweight, I don’t really mind. I could fight in the new division.”

Perez has been plagued by that inactivity – often synonymous with tricky Cuban professionals – over the course of his 13-year tenure in the paid ranks. Sometimes justified and sometimes out of his hands. But time doesn’t stop between rounds for real life to catch its breath and now, edging towards his late thirties, the former world junior amateur champion is just hungry to perform.

His last fight came in October 2018, beating cruiserweight Keith Tapia by unanimous decision in Orlando. Sadly, the gap of over two years wasn’t new to Perez, who’s suffered his own personal problems of late.  

“Man, it’s the no activity for me, that is the toughest part of boxing. Sometimes, like the last five or six years, I’ve been training for two, three months at a time. I went to San Francisco; I lived in San Francisco in 2016 for nine months; I was in training camp there and I didn’t have one fight the entire time,” he recalled. “They say, ‘Oh, you have to get ready, you’re fighting in a month or two’. So, you go and put everything in there and then, but there’s no fight. That, for me, is really hard, because I’m mentally affected like that.”

The role of the talented, defensively astute amateur star who doesn’t reap rewards, despite his unrivalled efficiency – who knew? Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, arrived in Ireland shortly after Perez had touched down in January 2008 and has since been accused of “running” from opponents on his way to multiple, high-profile victories and coveted world titles.  

“They don’t want to fight us – it’s a risk,” said Perez. “I believe that the Cuban people are the first ones that think – just because we come from Cuba and we are such good amateurs – we have to be as good in professional boxing. They don’t know that we have to come and adapt or sign up to a different kind of boxing. Most Cuban people will be like, ‘You are the champion. And you are from Cuba and you are the best in the world’.  

“As long as you’re winning, you’re the best. As soon as you’ve lost a fight, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, he’s not good anymore. He’s a bum. No, he can retire’. It happened to Rigo; they say he’s running, but they never said Canelo [Alvarez] was running in one of his recent fights.” 

Perez continued, discussing his own part in one of boxing’s stranger professional contracts: “Rigondeaux tried to escape from a competition with the Cuba national team. I can’t remember if he was somewhere in South America or somewhere else, and they caught him and they sent him back. So, when I had left Cuba, I was here in Ireland, already for maybe four or five months. Gary Hyde asked me if I know Rigo. And I was like, ‘Yeah’. So, he was like, ‘Look, can you try to talk to him, to see if he can sign with me, or something?’ So, I did. I talked to him and from there they went and they signed.”

It’s unclear – regardless of Wikipedia entries at time of writing – whether Rigondeaux’s boat was guarded by the same Mexican Cartel staff.

Despite the difficulties of the last 13 years, Perez recalled that introduction to boxing as a young product of La Finca academy in Cuba. Training to chase medals at the sport’s elite amateur tournaments, he was aware of his ability, but wasn’t quite in tune with the sacrifice required to secure professional success.  

Boxing didn’t run in the Perez family – at least on his father’s side.  

“I come from a very, very dysfunctional family,” he admitted. “My mom and dad, they separated when I was really small. Then when I was five years old, my mom kicked me out of the house with my dad. My dad is a chronic alcoholic. Did my family box? No, I think the only fight my father had was with a bottle of rum.

“From there on, boxing was like an escape. I actually was doing boxing, judo and wrestling at the same time, and I just decided to go with boxing. I asked a question to the boxing trainer… I’ll never forget that; it was about school. I asked, ‘If I do boxing, I don’t have to go to school, right?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s just boxing’.  

“I went with boxing and then, we went to the school and I was woken up at five o’clock in the morning to go running. And then, I just heard the trainer was like, ‘Come on. Everybody get ready to go to the class’. I thought there was no school. When I came back home, I just told my dad, ‘I don’t want to box no more’. And he was like, ‘Well, you signed yourself up to boxing, without even asking me? So, now you got to stick with it’. So, I did it, just to prove a point.” 

Launching the final stage of his career, Perez looks in fantastic shape and sounded relaxed. Bridgerweight – the WBC’s new fantasy division – is an option, but Perez and his manager Karim were adamant that they wanted to fight the best in the cruiserweight division, before considering a ranking push elsewhere. Again, the remainder of his career depends firmly on those willing to fight.  

Battles with alcohol, depression and contractual issues have robbed Mike Perez of valuable time, but the Irish Cuban, as he was affectionately known, still promises to have plenty of heart. He is 35 now, and sadly almost irrelevant in current boxing circles. In fact, many have asked if he intends to return at all, as he creeps towards the three-year anniversary of his last professional outing. But he’ll be back.  

After sampling the stories of his perilous journey from his native Cuba, does a return to boxing’s championship contests seem far-fetched for a reported veteran of 500 amateur fights? 

“I believe probably my wife will be telling me when it’s over,” said Perez. “But as I said, my body and my mind will be telling me when it’s time to retire. I know there are lots of people like me, they never want to stop; they want to be in the sport forever, but I know there will become a time that you have to say ‘no’. As soon as I see that things don’t seem the same to me, as soon as I start getting hit with punches that I never took before, [I’ll be out of there]. That’s when I know that it’s time for me to hang up my gloves. But just now, I don’t feel like I have done enough.” 

Enough is never enough; that’s boxing.