Perez takes first step after tragedy

Heavyweight prospect pained by Abdusalamov injuries, but hopes to carry on

Originally Published: January 16, 2014
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

While heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov is bedridden at a rehabilitation clinic with a piece of his skull missing because of the emergency brain surgery he underwent in November, and is unable to speak, walk or recognize anyone after having spent more than a month in a coma, the man whose fists put him there will carry on.

Mike Perez, of course, had no malice in his actions. Injuries sometimes happen in a prizefight, and every boxer who steps through the ropes knows that there are risks.

It's awful what happened and it made me feel bad. A lot of people think that it was my fault, but I know it was not my fault. I was just doing my job. My job? It is to fight.

-- Mike Perez on the severe injuries Magomed Abdusalamov sustained in their Nov. 2 fight

"It's awful what happened and it made me feel bad," Perez said of Abdusalamov's injuries. "A lot of people think that it was my fault, but I know it was not my fault. I was just doing my job. My job? It is to fight."

Less than three months after Abdusalamov suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a 10-round unanimous decision loss to Perez in an extremely violent battle on Nov. 2 in New York, Perez is continuing his career, with his former foe in his thoughts.

"I wish him and his family and his team all the best," Perez said. "I pray for him."

Perez returns to face Carlos Takam of France on Saturday night (HBO, 10:15 ET/PT) at the Bell Centre in Montreal in the 10-round co-feature to the much-anticipated all-Montreal showdown between former light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal (28-2-1, 17 KOs) and former super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute (31-1-0, 24 KOs), who meet in a 12-round light heavyweight bout.

Perez, a Cuba native who defected to Ireland, where he lives with his fiancée and three daughters, will fight with Abdusalamov's name stitched into his trunks. He also said he plans to donate a portion of his purse to the fund helping to cover the overwhelming cost of Abdusalamov's medical care.

Perez (20-0, 12 KOs) is sensitive to what happened, but he says it won't prevent him from going all out to beat the 33-year-old Takam (29-1, 23 KOs).

"I am ready to fight him and I am ready to fight anybody," Perez said. "I hope this guy comes to fight."

Tom Loeffler, the managing director of K2 Promotions, Perez's promoter, said although he believes that Perez is doing fine handling the aftermath of the Abdusalamov fight, nobody will really know its full impact until the bell rings Saturday night.

"I think what happened definitely affected everyone on our side," Loeffler said. "But Mike is strong mentally. He grew up in Cuba, where it's survival of the fittest.

"He realizes it just as easily could have been him in the hospital. Mago was landing hard punches himself, and it was a competitive fight. I think Mike has accepted what happened and realizes that the more success he has in the ring, the better reflection it would be on Magomed. He's dedicating the fight to him and he wants success for the both of them. I believe Mike will be OK, but it's hard to predict. It's understandable how it could affect you."

Said Abel Sanchez, Perez's trainer, "I think this young man knows it's a business and that he wasn't doing anything malicious or trying to injure Mago."

[+] EnlargeMike Perez and and Magomed Abdusalamov
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsMagomed Abdusalamov and Mike Perez traded punishing shots in their November bout, which left Abdusalamov suffering from severe brain trauma.

Sanchez trained Perez, 28, for the first time ahead of the fight with Abdusalamov, but he wasn't in his corner on fight night because he was backstage preparing his star pupil, middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin, for his defense that night in the main event.

When they returned to Sanchez's Big Bear Lake, Calif., training camp six weeks ago to get ready for Takam, there was some concern about how Perez would deal with the tragedy and whether it would haunt him.

The last thing any trainer wants is for a fighter to lose his concentration during a fight and start to think about negative things. There were some difficult times after the November fight and in the first few days of training camp, which Sanchez didn't detail. But Sanchez said that Perez got through it and had a good camp, sparring just as hard as he had for his previous fight, a sign, he said, that Perez's fire to fight still burns strong.

"Physically, Mike is very good. He does everything I ask him to do and he does it with a lot of fervor," Sanchez said. "As far as mentally, the first couple of weeks after the fight were difficult. We talked to him and tried to make him understand that it's part of the business. Sometimes guys get hurt. But we won't really know if what happened to Mago has affected him until we see him get somebody in trouble. Is he going to back off or is he going to try to finish him? If he backs off we will know that it's affected him."

Sanchez has been around tragic situations before. He used to train Sergey Kovalev, who won a light heavyweight world title last summer, and was in his corner for a 2011 fight in Russia, where Kovalev scored a seventh-round knockout of Roman Simakov, who died three days later.

"These young men understand that things can happen, and they think about it, but you hope they don't think about it during the fight," Sanchez said. "I know Mike thinks about it, because he asks me, 'Hey, have you heard anything about Mago?' He doesn't ask every day, but he asks often."

When Sanchez went to New York in mid-December to work the corner of another one of his fighters, he visited Abdusalamov in the New York hospital where he still was receiving care before being moved to the rehabilitation facility. Sanchez spent some time with Abdusalamov's brother and cousin.

"It was very tough, extremely tough," Sanchez said. "But they were very appreciative that Mago was not forgotten and that he is in our prayers. We're all praying he'll get better and live a fruitful life.

"Mike knew I was going to New York and made sure to remind me -- like I would forget -- to please visit Mago and to give him my best. This is something that happened and there's nothing we can do except pray that he gets better. Now we want Mike to go out and do his job. We don't want Mike to think about what happened and become a patient in the bed next to Mago. We have a guy [Takam] in front of us who wants to hurt us."

Although moved by what happened to Abdusalamov, Perez said he's happy that he is fighting so quickly after the November fight and looking forward to advancing his promising career.

"I just want to get back in the ring, get my boxing career going," Perez said. "I'm healthy and everything is good. I have to put what happened behind me. Life keeps going."

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