Cuba will once more be at the forefront of professional boxing when another of its sons looks to get himself in line for a shot at a world title.
Heavyweight Mike Perez will enter fabled Madison Square Garden in New York on Saturday with several objectives in mind: to keep his unbeaten record, to pave the way for a world title fight between Caribbean fighters, and to give his adoptive country, Ireland, its first champion in boxing's biggest division.
Perez (20-0-1,12 KOs) faces a fellow unbeaten fighter when he takes on Bryant Jennings (18-0, 10 KOs) in an elimination fight, with the winner becoming a mandatory opponent for titlist Bermane Stiverne of Haiti, who fights out of Canada.
The fight will be the co-main event of the middleweight title bout between unbeaten Gennady Golovkin and former titlist Daniel Geale.
Perez enters the most important fight of his career just one fight removed from a majority draw in January against Carlos Takam. For Perez, it was his first appearance since his 2013 victory over Magomed Abdusalamov that left the Russian fighter hospitalized and in a coma.
The Cuban fighter recently answered a wide range of questions ahead of Saturday's bout; if he's victorious, he hopes to face Stiverne for a world title down the line:
With two fighters risking their unbeaten records, would you say this fight has the potential to become one of the best heavyweight fights in recent years?
Well, that's what we are working on. Let's see what happens. My preparation has been good and I'll go out and do the best that I know how.
What do you know about Jennings and what do you think could be your advantage against him?
About Jennings, I don't know anything. I haven't seen anything. My trainer is responsible for watching him. He has trained me based on what he has seen. And I have all the advantages in experience, in boxing, in quality and in everything. I think I have it all. He's a great fighter who has been managed really well.
What is your plan when faced with a fighter who has a visible height and reach advantage over you?
I don't make plans, I fight for the moment. I make changes at the time. I am ready to do whatever he wants to do. As small as I am, I have the chance to fight and get it on with him. I do things which many heavyweights can't do.
Your last five fights have gone the distance. Do you think Saturday could mark the end of that run?
Well, yes, although that doesn't depend on me. It will depend on how everything turns out. I will settle for winning my fight. If a knockout comes, then great. It's something I can't predict. What I am going to try is that whether it's with a fractured hand or with no feet, however it may be, that I am going to win that fight. I'm training to go 12 rounds.
You are making your return to Madison Square Garden, where you defeated Abdusalamov in 2013, in a fight in which he suffered severe trauma. How much does that weigh on your mind?
I haven't thought about that since that fight finished. I've been asked in all the interviews and I prefer not to remember it. It wasn't something I did intentionally. It's just something that happened and that's it. In the last fight that I had [against Takam], well, it affected me a little. Everybody would ask me about that, and now I thank God because Magomed came out of his coma. Now what I want is to carry on with my life, and I have two beautiful girls to look after. I wouldn't want to win and for these things to happen again. But I've left that behind now. I have to fight for my people. In boxing, nothing is perfect, and now Jennings is on my immediate future.
Does the fact that it is an elimination fight, where the winner would face titlist Bermane Stiverne, make the opportunity more special?
For me, all fights have been special since God gave me the opportunity to fight in Madison Square Garden. This is a little bit more special because it is something that every fighter would wish for. We'll see.
How hard has it been for you to get to this point in your career?
Nobody can imagine that. It has been difficult. Leaving Cuba, recovering from an operation and getting over management problems -- it has been really hard, but you know, as we say, when God shuts a door, he always opens a window.
Cuban fighters are known for a great boxing style, but also for carrying with them a great story of sacrifice and overcoming difficult odds. What is yours?
Mine is also a great story. I am Cuban, I was born there. The revolution taught me. When I left Cuba I didn't leave for Miami. I didn't go like many who went to the States and then made their name from there. I left Cuba for Mexico and then made Ireland my home. It's more difficult, because if you are in the USA, then your name is heard more than if you are in Europe. We also have a cruiserweight champion [Yoan Pablo Hernandez] who is in Germany. But the names which are better-known are those of Erislandy Lara, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Rances Barthelemy. My country of residence is Ireland. It is the country which opened the doors to freedom to me, although adapting wasn't easy. It was absolutely f---ing freezing, as well as that I had to say "thank you" and "excuse me" for everything. But I have managed to socialize a lot and they respect me a lot there. It's my home.
How much does the idea of paving the way for the first title fight between Caribbean heavyweights motivate you?
I'm really motivated by having to go and take that chance to be the first top heavyweight from Ireland and from Cuba. It's a very big and very beautiful thing. I hope to give the victory to everyone. It makes me really happy to know that the Cuban sportsmen support each other.
What is the best boxing style: Cuban, Mexican or European?
The Cuban style every time, and everyone says so.
For you, who won between Lara and Canelo Alvarez?
For me, Lara won 8-4.
How will Saturday's fight against Jennings play out?
I will win, no question. And I will go out there to win any way I can.