At a press conference announcing the Macklin-Martinez fight at Madison Square Garden back in January, my phone rang. Colin Morgan was about four yards away from me but he was on a crutch — it was easier just to call me.
I knew Morgan would be in the city and at the Garden and we’d made loose arrangements to catch up. He was visiting family on his way back from California where he was in Mike “The Rebel” Perez’s corner for the Cuban-Corkonian’s unanimous decision victory over Friday Ahunanya.
Leaning on his crutch, he discussed the fights and generally updated me on the fortunes of the Cuban trio he oversees at the Team Thomas Gym in Watergrasshill. A former trainer in the Don King stable, he was constantly interrupted by all manner of local boxing dignitaries, shaking his hand and slapping his back.
I had written a column about Morgan a couple of months previously, having visited their gym during a trip home to Cork. Morgan told me how his young charges had given him gentle ribbing about the piece.
“Mike was saying he’s supposed to be the fighter, why is the trainer getting all the attention?” Morgan laughed in his syrupy Guyana accent.
I knew he had my back. I interviewed all four and I thought it would be good to highlight Morgan’s trip from an injury-halted professional career in the Caribbean via a successful stint as a cornerman in the US onto the Watergrasshill hinterland where he has been tasked with nurturing three talented athletes — Luis Garcia and Alexei Collado being the other two.
“I tell Mike, ‘You have to tell your story man. If you’re interviewed and you don’t tell the media about how you left Cuba, it’s not their fault. It’s up to you tell it’.”
Which peaked my interest, naturally.
Mike Perez was due to fight in Atlantic City last month. It would have been his second fight in the US, a second chance to show that notoriously insular market his fearsome talent is worth serious consideration.
But it fell through a week beforehand due to visa issues, another setback in a stuttering career that is in serious danger of not fully blooming unless some luck falls his way.
When I spoke to Morgan earlier this week, yet another fight had bitten the dust. A promoter had notified him about a fight in Manhattan in May. The plug was pulled just as suddenly as the chance had arisen.
Every fighter has their cross to bear. It’s a theme as ancient as the sport. It’s just that Perez’s struggle to pursue his dream began with a struggle to simply stay alive.
He defected from his country of birth at the end of 2007. How he managed to get out is a less than ordinary tale which goes some way to explaining his clinically brooding presence in the ring.
With the help of Morgan, Perez decided to reveal his epic journey publicly.
“I was two days in the mountains next to the beach, waiting for the call,” he recalls. “One person had a mobile phone. After the call came, we swam in the ocean to a small boat, four people at a time. I had to swim out to the boat at night. I was more worried the police would catch me than anything else.
“From the small boat, we rode two and a half hours to a larger boat to take us to Mexico. We got in another small boat to get to shore, but had to turn back due to a storm. It was a hurricane and it was days before we could get to Mexico. We ran out of food and had just a small amount of water. We were sunburned from the journey over, and now the exposure to saltwater splashing over the sides of the boat was painful. But I never lost my resolve.
“This was my second attempt. The first time, I was caught and went to jail for 20 days. In jail, I shared a very small cell with two other men; there was just two bunks and a toilet. One of my cellmates was a Mexican who had been driving the small boat and was caught.
“I left Cuba on December 27, 2007 and arrived in Mexico on January 5, 2008. After we got to the shore, everyone was taken to a house where, once payment was made, we were picked up. By January 10, I was in Ireland.”
And by January 26 he was dispensing with Latvian Jevgenijs Stamburskis in Neptune, a first round TKO, the ruthlessness of which alarmed everyone in the building. None of us knew what he had been through but not many will forget his raw power. It hasn’t been plain sailing since that risky flight to freedom but, without exception, he believes every other Cuban amateur boxer should follow in his path. Indeed it was Perez who called Garcia, telling him he should make the switch to Ireland. Garcia asked if he could bring Collado too and they arrived six months later. Thankfully for them they had just a six-hour journey and no jail time.
Perez, a former world junior champion at light-heavyweight, has blitzed his way to 18 wins in 18 fights, with 12 of these coming by way of knockout. But he really announced himself to the world in the ‘Prizefighter’ tournament in May last year.
This was not a shoddy set of fighters either. Perez beat the heavyweight champions of Trinidad & Tobago and France, in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, before obliterating 6ft 8ins American Tye Fields in just one round in the tournament’s finale.
But his career has been bogged down ever since. It now seems increasingly unlikely he will ever get to test himself professionally against British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who won in Belfast last week.
As always, there are conflicting stories of why this potentially career-unlocking bout won’t happen, two independent observers I spoke to agreeing that Fury’s camp view an opponent like Perez as being too risky to justify any potential reward.
Perez, if fit, would have the edge but Fury’s promoter, Mick Hennessy, who grabbed the headlines last weekend after post-fight verbals with Martin Rogan, claimed last September that Perez’s ship had sailed.
“He had his chance to fight Tyson, talking a good game but didn’t follow through so he has missed the boat. We’re not here to be messed about, so Perez, or whoever he is, can shoot his mouth off all he wants but he’s just not in our plans.
“Clearly somebody’s little cage has been rattled in Ireland … from what I can see it is the people around him who are mouthing off, not Perez. I would be surprised if it was Perez because when Tyson was an amateur he gave him two very bad beatings in sparring and there were plenty of witnesses to it.”
(I asked Perez about this and he was tightlipped, simply describing it as a good experience.)
“Anyone who knows anything about boxing will know Tyson is in a completely different league to Perez,” Hennessy continued during a lengthy rant. “This isn’t three three-minute rounds like the amateurs or the one-night tournament he was involved in, it’s a 12-round fight and Tyson would badly expose him.”
Of course the to and fro of boxing braggadocio requires Perez to have his own view about Fury’s most recent fight.
“I think [the fight] was a disgrace for heavyweight boxing,” he told me during the week, while he took a break from training in Watergrasshill. “I still want to fight him, of course, I hope it will happen but I don’t think it will because they don’t want to.”
There are other frustrations too which Team Thomas and Morgan must contend with which the trainer told me about last October.
“You can put [Cuban boxers] in the ring and they’ll fight and they might be fine. But they won’t be a crowd pleaser, a superstar. It’s showbusiness. You can be a great amateur boxer, run around the ring, get a few points and don’t get hit and win. But they won’t pay to watch you for the next fight. ‘All the Cubans are the same. How many of them have been world champions?’ You always hear that.”
He’s not wrong. Ask any boxing insider and they will have some urban legend or other story about Perez, Garcia and Collado. Accusations about laziness and indiscipline are a common theme.
“I know what people say about me so I was glad to get that win in California,” Perez says. “I was completely focused, I trained and prepared well. The fight was tough but we travelled a long distance and I won. That was important.”
Morgan’s pedigree as a trainer is undeniable but spend just a little time with them at their gym and you’ll see he’s also something of a life coach, constantly keeping his fighters positive during the long days and weeks without a defined target. The trio were heading towards an abyss before he arrived, the possibility of deportation even arose. If anything, that idle chatter about poor application could stem from another era when other voices had influence.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” Perez says about Morgan. “We had such problems before, we were changing coaches all the time. One coach would show you one thing and the next would show you something else.”
They will have had Morgan by their side for two years when August comes around, providing much needed stability as well as precisely targeted developments in their technical approach and their conditioning.
Those early days were tough on the heavyweight. He didn’t reach the point where he regretted that dramatic escape but he must have wondered deep down why he went to such lengths.
Not surprisingly, he knew nothing about Ireland before he arrived.
“The first six months were very hard. I didn’t speak English, I didn’t drive, I’d be stuck at home, I’d see nobody. I was very dependent on other people.”
He could only learn the language piecemeal through other people.
“Then I met my fiancee and she helped me a lot. We’d be texting and if I made a mistake, she’d text me back with the right word.”
Food was of course the other major consideration.
“We have a couple of shops here but I feel Irish now. Every now and again, the three of us cook up a big meal of rice and black beans to feel at home.”
Naturally, he still misses his family and the weather but he’s content with his life in Cork. His fiancee is expecting their second child next month, a second daughter to join Mia, who recently turned one.
“Fatherhood has changed everything for me, yeah. I work much harder now. I want to make the best of myself for my little girl.”
He doesn’t mind too much that he is outnumbered by women in his household (“everything is pink!” he says laughing) but there is another important lady he hopes to one day see again.
“I was trying for a while to bring my mother here but she wasn’t allowed to come.
Will that change? “I hope so,” he replies quietly.
Changing the subject to training brightens Perez up and, for what it’s worth, he didn’t look too lazy during the afternoon I spent at the gym. Watching him spar or work the bags is mesmerising up close.
“I enjoy it,” he insists. “I started boxing when I was five years old. You either fight on the street or in the gym. This is all I know. Thank God it hasn’t happened yet but if I get injured, I wouldn’t know what to do with my life.”
This will be his fifth year in Ireland and with his family taking shape, Irish citizenship is now the next personal goal which would in turn put him in line for a tilt at the various European titles on offer. The Perez camp is clearly looking past Fury.
I spoke to Mike Perez three times in the last six months. In that space of time, at least two fights were taken away from him not to mention all the other unknown doors that were shut on him. If he has the psychological resolve to match his left hook, he’ll do fine. What is certain is that his 18-0 record will not be blemished easily.
“What I went through in Cuba and getting out of Cuba — there’s no way a boxing match will compare to that. I have no fear of the ocean, and no opponent is as powerful as the ocean.”
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