Image: Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America
You see some strange things in boxing, but when Mike Perez blew a kiss at his opponent every time he—Perez—got walloped in the face, you had to scratch your head a little harder than usual. Perez stopped this eccentric behavior after a few rounds—presumably because he didn’t expect to get smacked around so often. In any case, Perez likely gave besitos to HBO as well after dropping an eyesore of a split decision to Bryant Jennings in a NASA heavyweight title eliminator on the undercard of the Gennady Golovkin-Daniel Geale scrap at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
For Perez, who fled Cuba in 2007 and now lives in Ireland, this was his second stinker in a row since he earned a bit of tragic fame by putting Magomed Abdusalamov into a coma last November. To make matters worse, Perez, 28, seemed disinterested and unfocused against Jennings, a man who first took up boxing five years ago. For one thing, it looked like Perez had spent his training camp at a Cheesecake Factory. At 6’1”, Perez was at least 60 pounds heavier against Jennings than he was when he won his first World Junior Championship in 2004 as a light heavyweight. By the fifth round, Perez started to fade like a cheap windup toy from a 99 Cents (Or Less) store.
Because he weighed 241 ¼ pounds and lacked the conditioning necessary to maintain his form, Perez turned the fight into a dull slog, wrapping Jennings, now 19-0 with 10 knockouts, in bear hugs and half nelsons as often as possible throughout the late rounds. He also hot-dogged it again and again. When Jennings—who can sometimes be too defensive in the ring—realized that Perez was ripe for outworking, he revved up his offense and stayed busy from round to round. Jennings, you see, has a pro outlook, and he focused on the task of winning the fight, not in satisfying some obscure personal need to play jester. Prizefighters have a few mandates as professionals, and one of them is to perform in a way that moves the spectator somehow—win, lose, or draw. Clowning along to a monotonous defeat is no way to go about winning friends and influencing people in boxing.
There are more Cuban boxers fighting in America today than at any time since the late 1950s/early 1960s, when Fidel Castro outlawed professional sports on the island. But these former amateur standouts lack something that their counterparts from fifty years ago never entered the ring without: a professional sensibility.
Over the last few weeks, nearly every ballyhooed Cuban headliner has shown a deficiency regarding commitment between the ropes. Obnoxious Erislandy Lara decided it was better to save his energy in the ring and use it to complain after losing a close decision to Saul “Canelo” Alvarez; Guillermo Rigondeaux—whose sour attitude got him demoted from HBO to UniMás—spiced things up a few days ago by poleaxing his overmatched opponent with a sucker punch; and Yuriorkis Gamboa brought inactivity and the long shadow of Biogenesis into the ring against upstart Terence Crawford, who knocked him out in the ninth round.
Other notable Cuban fighters who have self-destructed recently include slothful Odlanier Solis, whose meaty limbs gave way after less than a round against Vitali Klitschko in 2011, and Yordanis Despaigne, who withdrew from a bout in 2012 because he was not “mentally ready.” No one has heard from Despaigne since. Perhaps some of these athletes have been amateurs for too long—how else can you explain such a collective malaise?
Even the promise of a major payday against heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko or titleholder Bermane Stiverne failed to motivate Perez enough to drop the madcap act and take his craft seriously for 36 minutes. Consistently mugging, leering, and capering, Perez, now 20-1-1 with 12 knockouts, seemed blissfully unaware that judges do not score points for attitudinizing. Maybe Perez, “The Rebel,” was just trying to live up to his nickname somehow. If so, then he was a “Rebel without a Clue” against Jennings.
When Referee Harvey Dock deducted a point from Perez for butting and hitting on the break in the last round, it was the final scene in a tiresome act that does not deserve an encore on HBO. The scorecards revealed that Perez had outsmarted himself with his foolish behavior: he lost by margins of 115-112 and 114-113 on two cards, while the third had him up by 114-113. Remezcla tabbed the bout for Jennings, 115-113.
In boxing, like in Heraclitus, character is fate, and Perez simply did not have enough of it to keep from getting what he deserved.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine, and Esquina Boxeo.