It is a fight, most would agree, that will go far in identifying one of the more credible challengers to pretty-much-undisputed heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, with apologies to anyone foolish enough to believe that newly crowned WBC titlist Bermane Stiverne’s bejeweled belt somehow puts him on equal footing with the long-standing WBA/WBO/IBF/IBO and THE RING magazine ruler from Ukraine. No Johnny-come-lately with a shiny adornment cinched around his waist can dare to claim parity with someone who, along with his now-retired older brother, former WBC champ Vitali Klitschko, has towered over the division like the Colossus of Rhodes for what seems like forever.
On July 26 at Madison Square Garden, Cuba-born, Ireland-based southpaw Mike Perez (20-0-1, 12 KOs) takes on Philadelphia’s Bryant Jennings (18-0, 10 KOs) in the co-feature of an HBO-televised doubleheader, the other TV bout pairing WBA/IBO middleweight champ Gennady Golovkin (29-0, 26 KOs) against former IBF and WBA middleweight titlist Daniel Geale (30-2, 16 KOs), of Australia. On paper, both bouts have the potential to be exciting, action-packed affairs, with sudden, emphatic finishes inside the distance.
But while Golovkin is a near-automatic knockout machine and one of the emerging attractions in a sport thirsty for big-punching superstars, perhaps the more interesting matchup is Jennings-Perez, given the psychological baggage that Perez, 28, might or might not be carrying. The Cuban defector could be a major factor among a new wave of big men who hope to stake their claim to the top prize whenever the 38-year-old Wlad either retires on his own volition or is shoved off his throne by whomever can do so by force.
Jennings-Perez, which originally was scheduled for May 24 in Corpus Christi, Texas, until an injury to Perez’s left shoulder in sparring forced a postponement and a change of venue, is a WBC heavyweight title eliminator, the winner of which becomes the mandatory challenger to the winner of the as-of-yet unscheduled Stiverne-Deontay Wilder title bout.
But while the big picture is intriguing, of more immediate concern is the lingering question of Perez’s mental state. Is he the wrecking machine who outslugged Russia’s Magomed Abdusalamov to win a 10-round unanimous decision last Nov. 2 in Madison Square Garden Theater? Or is he the tentative fighter who seemed hesitant to let his hands go in settling for a 10-round majority draw with Carlos Takam on Jan. 18?
There is no question that being the winner of death bouts, or those ending in grievous bodily harm to the vanquished, can have an unsettling effect. Can any victorious fighter truly put the memory of a fallen foe, whose life or enjoyment of life has been taken from him by your fists, behind the locked door of suppressed memory? Or will those images linger every time he steps inside the ropes?
Without question, Perez-Abdusalamov was one of the more entertaining scraps of 2013. But it was the 6-foot, 235-pound Perez who finished with a flourish, nearly flooring Abdusalamov with a ripping right hand in the 10th round and continuing to pound him to the final bell. Perez came out ahead on all three official scorecards, by respective margins of 97-92 (twice) and 95-94.
“The toughest guy I faced. He hurt me a number of times,” Perez said in commending the valiant Abdusalamov in a postfight interview. But his celebratory mood was dampened shortly thereafter when Abdusalamov, a married father with three daughters, collapsed and had to undergo surgery at a New York hospital to remove a blood clot on his brain. Not long afterward, he suffered a stroke and was placed in a medically induced coma. Only his superb physical conditioning enabled Mago to beat the ultimate 10-count, but he will be fortunate to ever regain even the slightest semblance of a normal life.
Boxers always speak of the inherent dangers of their profession, but the possibility of death or catastrophic injury exists in many sports and, really, a lot of regular jobs. Think a left hook to the chin bears more implied consequences than a NASCAR driver crashing his car into a retaining wall at 185 mph? The most popular sports league in these United States, the NFL, only last week agreed to remove a $675 million cap on damages from thousands of concussion-related claims after a federal judge opined that the money set aside for compensatory damages to those afflicted was not nearly enough. Even NFL players have nothing on rodeo cowboys and bull-riders, one of whom, Freckles Brown, had an oft-broken body that the great sports columnist Jerry Izenberg described as “an X-ray in progress.” The construction of Hoover Dam between 1931 and ’36 resulted in the death of 96 to 112 workmen, depending on whose version of the grim statistics you choose to believe.
How a fighter holds up to the circumstances in which Perez now finds himself depends on that individual’s ability to cope. But there isn’t much question that there is bound to be some residual effect, especially when the fighter in question is someone like Perez, a sensitive soul outside of the ring who risked death himself during a dangerous boat trip while defecting from Cuba. Perez is dedicated to his Irish fiancée and his three children, so it should come as no surprise that he was badly shaken by what happened to family man Abdusalamov.
“He realizes it just as easily could have been him in the hospital,” Perez’s promoter, Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions, said before his fighter took on Takam. “I think Mike will be OK, but it’s hard to predict. It’s understandable how it could affect you.”
Perez’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, echoed Loeffler, saying that before the Takam bout he warned his fighter that “it could be him laying next to Mago if he doesn’t take this fight seriously. Don’t go in there thinking you’re not going to hurt somebody and then get hurt yourself.”
For all his team’s admonitions, however, Perez fought without noticeable passion against pronounced underdog Takam. Although Perez came out ahead, 96-94, on one judge’s card, the other two saw it as a 95-95 standoff.
So here we are, at the kind of crossroads where other fighters -- Sugar Ray Robinson, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Emile Griffith and Nigel Benn, George Khalid Jones and Teon Kennedy – have stood. It will be interesting to see in which direction Perez turns against the dangerous Jennings, who is being mentioned, along with Deontay Wilder, as one of the best young heavyweight hopes America has produced in recent years.
In his 1969 autobiography, “Sugar Ray,” Robinson reflected on his June 24, 1947, welterweight title defense in Cleveland in which challenger Jimmy Doyle was pummeled so thoroughly that he died.
“The idea is to hit your opponent, to batter him if necessary,” Robinson told his collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson. “If you don’t, he’ll hit and batter you. Every so often, a boxer dies. Whenever that happens, some people like to shout that boxing should be outlawed, that it’s unnecessarily brutal. Most of the time, the shouters are politicians who know it’s an easy way to get their name in the newspapers. But an occasional death doesn’t mean a sport should be abolished. If that were the case, auto racing should be abolished. So should football.”
Robinson’s pragmatism stands in stark contrast to the recriminations felt by Mancini, whose fatal beatdown of South Korea’s Duk-Koo Kim in their WBA lightweight championship bout in 1982 made for an almost incomprehensible chain of tragedies. After Kim died, his grieving mother committed suicide by ingesting a bottle of pesticide and, not long after that, the fight’s referee, Richard Green, also took his own life.
“You tell yourself this is the business you chose,” Mancini said. “You seek answers, but you don’t always get them. Mostly, I asked myself, `Why him and not me? I’d only recently won the title. I had the opportunity to financially secure my future and, fortunately, I was able to do that. But after the fight, I lost my zest for boxing. And without that zest, that passion, I knew it was the beginning of the end for me. I was already looking to get out.”
“I think this fight will be a barometer of his future in this game,” Sanchez said of Perez the day before he was to mix it up with Takam.
If that was indeed the case, Mike Perez might be in more jeopardy than many might imagine against Jennings, whose mind and purpose, at least for now, remain uncluttered.
Who will win? Wladimir Klitschko or Tyson Fury?