March 2008 – by Mark Doyle
Some things are just meant to be. Last year, Ismaikel Perez, one of the most highly-rated young boxers in Cuba, decided, like so many before him, that he wanted to leave his homeland to pursue a career within the professional ranks.
And where has the man known as ‘El Rebellio’ ended up? Cork, of course. Perez touched down in ‘The Rebel County’ on January 11 and, unsurprisingly, has already become something of a cult hero – and not just because of his rather appropriate moniker.
He racked up back-to-back first-round knockout wins within two weeks of his arrival and, on March 22, will fight on the undercard of Matthew Macklin’s eagerly-anticipated middleweight clash with Yory Boy Campas in the National Stadium in Dublin.
It is only early days, of course, but for Gary Hyde, the Cork-based businessman who played the key role in Perez’s move to Ireland, it is very much a case of so far, so good.
“I’m delighted with how things are going. I’ve been friends with him since I first saw him, when he was boxing for Cuba in a Four-Nations international in Liverpool,” Hyde explained in an exclusive interview with irish-boxing.com.
“But I only got involved in his career in a professional sense when he expressed a desire to turn professional after the unrest in Cuba led to them deciding against sending a team to Chicago for last year’s World Championships.
“He just said that he wanted out of it and that he wanted to come over so that he could join the pro game.
“I said, ‘okay, well, I’m your man when you get here’. And the rest is history, as they say.”
History is certainly what Hyde is hoping to make with Perez. On that fateful first night in Liverpool, Hyde felt that he was watching a fighter with the ability to become a world champion in the paid ranks.
“As an amateur, he boxed for Cuba for 12 years. He won Pan-America juvenile titles. He won a World Junior title in 2004. He’s been boxing senior internationals since then. He’s beaten the best in the world, so his pedigree is beyond dispute,” argues Hyde, who, unsurprisingly, refers to Perez as ‘Mike’.
“He’s just a tremendous talent. He has fierce power. He’s unbelievably fast hand speed and his footwork is excellent as well. But it still comes back to the power. He really does pack some punch.
“Actually, that’s one thing I noticed when I saw him boxing in Liverpool: he clearly wasn’t suited to the amateur game. He landed for devastation, not for points, and I thought at that time that this was a man that we’d like to have with us.” Indeed, as soon as Perez made it clear that he was keen on turning professional, Hyde began exploring the logistics of bringing him to Ireland.
His primary concern was finding a trainer, a man not only capable of helping Perez to make the often difficult transition from amateur to professional fighter, but also one capable of aiding the difficult acclimatisation process.
That man was Nicholas Cruz, the legendary Cuban cornerman who guided Michael Carruth to Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992.
“Seriously, who else was I going to get involved?” Hyde exclaims. “Nicholas was responsible for our greatest ever achievement in amateur boxing – Michael Carruth’s gold in 1992. So, he was the obvious choice.
“He was the best possible guy we could have on the team, not least because he’s Cuban, so I approached him straight away about linking up with Mike.
“He had to give up a fair bit to join the team but he’s very excited about Mike.
“And getting Nicholas on board is fantastic for us because I’d say Mike would have found it difficult it hadn’t been for Nicholas Cruz.
“Nicholas is a very wise man. He’s 20 years experience of the fight game in Ireland. He knows the ins and outs of the trade over here. He knows what to do and what not to do.
“So Nicholas made Mike feel very, very comfortable right away and made him feel at home.”
Certainly, Cruz is showing no signs of regretting his decision to become a part of this exciting and ambitious project. Indeed, he, like Hyde, is positively ebullient when it comes to discussing Perez’s potential.
“Since I first came here in 1988 I’ve seen a lot of good things happen within Irish boxing but this is one of the greatest. And I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get involved. There was too much temptation,” he admits.
“This is a man with the power of Mike Tyson and the skill of Floyd Mayweather. And I genuinely believe that Mike Perez can do great things for boxing in this country. He can get the kids excited again, get them back in the gyms. The amount of interest in Michael already is absolutely amazing.”
However, both men are keen to point out that key will be caution. Yes, Perez is talented, but the southpaw is still just 22. Hyde is adamant that he will not be rushed.
“He’s only a baby. He won’t peak for another four or five years. He’s just a raw talent at this point so we have to take our time with him,” he says, before letting his excitement get the better of him once again, “but he’s going to go all the way.”
Certainly, while Cruz is also reluctant for Perez to take on too much, too soon, he does believe that his latest protg is capable of a rapid ascent to the summit of world boxing.
“He’ll beat anyone who’s put in front of him. I can’t see anyone being able to deal with him. But, at the moment, the most important thing is getting used to his new surroundings, though, he is already starting to get used to weather at least,” he jokes.
“But he has amazing potential. He has all the skills. I think he will move up the ladder quite quickly.
“There’s no doubt about his desire for him to fight the best but let’s walk before we run.
We know, though, that we will be running soon.
“But anything can happen. We have to be careful with him. We don’t want any accidents.
“We know that we’ve got an awful lot of potential here so we don’t want to spoil this.”
Consequently, while Perez is likely to be extremely active over the next 18 months, he is unlikely to be thrown in at the proverbial deep end. For Cruz, the next ten fights will be about Perez getting accustomed to the intricacies of professional boxing and developing his skills, rather than seeking out any litmus tests.
Still, if Perez really is as good as both Cruz and Hyde think he is, it will not be long before the money men in Britain and American start to sit up and take notice. After all, everybody loves a heavyweight, particular in an era in which there are not many decent ones to be found.
So, even at this fledgling stage of his career, there are those that are already expressing fears that Perez could be one day tempted away from his adopted home by bigger offers from abroad.
But there is not a chance of such a scenario unfolding, according to Hyde, who is adamant that Perez is here to stay. “He’s a rebel and he loves Ireland,” Hyde declares emphatically.
“Where he comes from in Cuba, Sancti Spiritus, when you’re walking down the road every single person you’d see would salute you. So, this is his background and he’s getting this same level of warmth and good feeling in Cork. “He loves the people of Ireland and the people love him. When we went up to Limerick it was the same, people roaring his name and wishing him well.
“Mike enters the ring with a Cuban flag and a tricolour. He’s very much doing this for Cuba and Ireland. He’s a Cuban superstar but now he’s going to become an Irish superstar.”
A Cuban heavyweight, with a Cuban trainer, winning world titles out of Ireland. It sounds improbable but, then, some things are just meant to be. “