JOHN RIORDAN: ‘Rebel’ Perez back in ring with plenty on his mind

It’s difficult to assess the survivor guilt that will accompany Mike “The Rebel” Perez back into the ring this weekend.

What will be the Cuban-Cork heavyweight fighter’s mindset when the bell leaves him alone with his first opponent since he nearly ended the life of Magomed Abdusalamov and a referee who will be keeping a close eye on proceedings after the criticisms of Perez’s last bout.

Perez’s 20th professional victory will always be his most unfortunate and most notorious. And it will always be the one he’ll try to scrub away with a more impactful win; a world title, a second or a third, anything to render November’s ten-rounder a little less significant to his overall career.

Perez has been doing the pre-fight promotion this week, dedicating his HBO-televised fight against Carlos Takam (29-1) on Saturday at the Bell Centre in Montreal to the Russian and reiterating his decision to wear Abdusalamov’s name on his trunks.

And naturally, he has been fielding question after question about the cruel fate of his last opponent, a married father with three daughters. Having felt ill not long after leaving Madison Square Garden, Abdusalamov’s condition spiralled downwards to the point that surgery was required at a New York hospital to remove a blood clot in his brain. This caused a stroke and he was placed in a medically-induced coma.

Touch and go for a while, he was given little chance to live but managed to pull out. However, now he’s upstate in a rehab facility, unable to walk or talk.

He is lucky to be alive but you suspect that as tough as this weekend will be for Perez, it will be a lot tougher for the man who will never step between those ropes again.

Perez has been doing an admirable job this week, fielding the questions with patience. I never would have imagined a situation where he’d rather a return to the same old queries we all used to pepper him with about his defection from Cuba to East Cork.

He’s now training in Big Bear, California with Abel Sanchez who has been guiding the phenomenal middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin.

Sanchez had been drilling it into his new charge that he didn’t throw enough punches and that he need to spread the power rather than looking for the big knockout, a devastating ability he has in his armoury.

Of course, this was a tactic which served him well in November and one which would have served the heavyweight division equally well had the memorable slugfest been allowed to stand up on its own merit rather than developing into a tragic story which all of New York and the boxing world eventually focused on with such disbelief.

“I didn’t think he was hurt that bad,” Perez told Sports Illustrated this week. “He kept fighting hard. He was a warrior. I never thought he was that hurt.

“In every way it was a hard fight, a close fight. If he was hurt, it should have been stopped. That’s not up to me. I don’t know what the referee or his corner were thinking.”

He asks his team members for updates on Abdusalamov every day and has not made it through all of his public engagements without getting a little choked up, a little lost for words as to why this strange twist has befallen him. He always wanted the chance to be respected and feared. Now here he is, finally breaking through at the age of 28 with a cross to bear which could have been even heavier.

“Those first couple of weeks after the fight were tough,” recalled Sanchez this week. “He was blaming himself. It was a lot of ‘how could I do this, how could I have done that to a man?’ I know he was thinking that it could have been him.”

Carlos Takam will be facing a troubled soul on Saturday. We enjoyed the novelty of the moody Cuban rebel stepping into that ring for his professional debut in Neptune Stadium to destroy Jevgenjis Stamburskis in 95 seconds in early 2008. He wasn’t able to tell us yet that he nearly died abandoning his country and his family to try and build a better life. Nor that he chose Cork precisely because the party scene in Miami would have sent his promising career off in a different, less satisfying direction.

“This is a serious sport and you have to be serious,” he said this week. “I’m happy where I am and I like it there. I have my family there and hopefully one day I can have the chance to buy my house and make Ireland my home.”

Like every athlete, he just wants to get to that finishing line and settle down. It was always a burning desire but now, these next five years in his career have a new meaning: success and survival will be inextricably linked.

Contact: john.w.riordan@gmail.com; Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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