The Fall and Rise of Alex “The Brick City Bullet” Perez
By Saul Lelchuk (April 2, 2010) Doghouse Boxing  
To say it’s been a long time coming would be an understatement.

All along, most people just said it would never happen at all.

Not after his wild youth on the streets of Newark’s worst projects.

Not after he was rushed to the hospital with gunshot wounds just a week after finally turning pro.

Not when the police banged on his door in the middle of the night and arrested him on charges that carried 30 years in prison.

But for two unwavering people in his inner circle – trainer, manager, and pseudo-father Jose Rosario and friend, co-trainer, and attorney Danny Serratelli (See photo of Danny and Alex on this page) – Alex Perez’s rise in boxing hasn’t been a question of if, but when.

So that now – less than a month before Perez’s next bout, when he is slated to fight on the undercard of the Chris Arreola -Tomasz Adamek bout in Ontario, California – to say they are excited would be, again, an understatement.

But to say they were surprised? Not so much.

“With all that stuff behind him, I can see the real Alex Perez again,” says Serratelli. “I am totally confident in his ability, toughness, and work ethic, and I know firsthand from working with him and many other top fighters in the gym over the years that he should eventually be competing on the highest level and fighting the best in his division. Alex is the whole package – he can box, he can punch, he can take it, and he’s huge for a welterweight.”

Rosario seconds this. “He’s very hungry right now, very anxious to get in the ring and show people what he can do. He’s looking forward to the fight. He’s already close to [the 147-pound welterweight limit] weight now, a month before the fight. But he’s big enough, powerful enough, that we have to bring in bigger guys, middleweights, super-middleweights, for him to spar with.”

Although Perez is almost completely unknown to the average boxing fan, his record thus far bears out this optimism. In a relatively brief amateur career (just under 60 fights) he picked up multiple New Jersey Diamond Glove and Golden Glove championships and competed internationally, before turning pro at 22 years old. Although he has only 11 professional fights under his belt, he is currently undefeated, with six knockouts and one no-contest. A powerful, hard-hitting, 6’1” southpaw, he has sparred with some of boxing’s best, including fellow Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto, Sergio Martinez, Felix Sturm, and Joel Julio.

Working with those fighters has naturally improved him on a technical level, but where it really helps, Perez says, is mentally. “I was the chief sparring partner for some of those guys, and there were times when I was wearing them out,” he remembers. It is a comment not intended as bravado, as he goes on to explain. “So when you’re holding your own with these champions – guys at the top of their divisions – it gives you so much confidence. Because you think, if I’m doing that with the best in the sport, imagine what I’m gonna do to my opponent.”

It is a statement that displays not only confidence, but also an unmistakable surety that belies his age and ring experience. But to hear this self-belief is not surprising. Not when you know Alex Perez. Not when you know what he has been through.

Rewind six years.

Perez had just won his first professional fight with a first-round knockout, but it was not only the victory that left him elated. For Perez, just stepping into the ring as a professional boxer was a true victory in itself. The win was a confidence-builder, a reassurance, a finite return on the grueling hours he had put in at the gym. It was good to see the ‘0’ in the left-hand column of his record change to a ‘1’ on what he hoped would be a steady and uninterrupted march up through the numerical scale.

But the feeling of turning pro? The knowledge that, whatever happened, he had a chance – a chance in the widest, wildest sense of the word. That was immeasurable, uncontainable. “No more of this street s—t,” he told himself after the fight. “No more of this bulls—t. This – boxing – is what’s for me. This is what I’m gonna do.”

Like so many before him, he was not just fighting for himself, but also – predominantly – for his family. Every punch he threw had an explicit, explosive reason behind it. My children. My mother. My sister. My grandmother. My niece. Sure, each punch brought him one step closer to his goals. But his blows did something infinitely more important, more tangible. They brought his family one step further away from the impoverished, crumbling projects where he had grown up: Newark’s notorious, now-defunct Baxter Terrace housing blocks. A neighborhood that steadily produced drugs, gangs, and violent crime the way the Big Ten churns out pro athletes.

He was young. Strong. Hungry. Things were looking good.

Then, just days later, a petty quarrel on a street-corner changed everything.

Words were exchanged, a gun was pulled, shots were fired, people screamed. The all-too-familiar urban sequence, so glossily stylized, glamorized, in a never-ending stream of movies, hip-hop songs, TV shows. Only then the scene was over, and no one yelled cut; the track didn’t end, the chorus never kicked in.

Instead Perez was rushed to the hospital with gunshot wounds to his chest and ribs.

But even the impact of two bullets didn’t banish boxing from his thoughts. If anything, the shooting gave him even more focus. Throughout the two weeks in intensive care, through the month in the hospital, through the long, painful process of recuperation and rehabilitation, he repeated the same mantra he had first voiced to himself after that first fight.
This is for me. Not that street s—t. Not going back to that.

He’d be the first to tell you how lucky he was. He recuperated quickly and completely, and just six months later he was back in the ring, fighting with heightened determination and renewed purpose.

This time, he needed less than a minute to TKO his opponent. Ultimately, the shooting had affected his boxing career in only one lasting way: he was now Alex “The Brick City Bullet” Perez.

But outside of the ring, the incident had a more profound effect on the wild Newark youth. Coupled with the triumph of his pro debut, it helped open his eyes; helped him see that there were two ways he could go. “Either go all-out in the streets,” he told himself, “or go all-out to leave them. Can’t do both.”

He began to settle down, to focus. Fought four times in 2006, three more in 2007. Not the ceaseless activity of some young prospects, but enough to stay active, keep advancing, keep learning. And he kept winning.

But circumstances hit harder than an opponent’s punches could ever land. And so several years ago, when Jose Rosario’s wife was stricken with a cancer that would ultimately prove fatal, Perez found himself once again distracted by events outside of his control. With Rosario – who, in addition to co-running the gym where Perez trains, works full-time for New Jersey’s Essex County – occupied by his wife’s sickness, Perez’s career slowed, stalled. A year passed with no fights. Some of boxing’s biggest promoters and managers expressed interest in signing him (his younger brother, Mikey, is promoted by Golden Boy), but Perez repeatedly refused their advances. “I got loyalty,” he stated simply, when I asked why this was. “He’s basically my stepfather. There’s no way I’d ever leave him.”

Rosario had shown him loyalty. Not just training him, steering his career, but most of all raising him – embodying the paternal role to an eight-year-old kid. Loyalty. Perez had resolved that he would show the same, and stand by his mentor, even if that meant the detriment of his career.

They say it never rains but it pours. Perez might agree. Home with his family one night, asleep in bed, he was awakened by a pounding on the door. Still half-asleep, he found himself confronted by police saying that he had been identified by two men who claimed he had robbed them at gunpoint, shot at them, earlier that day. He told the police he couldn’t have had anything to do with it, had no idea what they meant. He waived his rights, invited them to search his apartment, his car, all to no avail. He was arrested, taken into custody, and charged.

Bail was set at $250,000. He told the judge he could never pay it, not quite realizing, in his shock, that that was the point. “They looked at me,” he remembers, “saw the charges facing me, said ‘No way.’”

Enter Serratelli. Known in Newark as the “Fight Lawyer” for his toughness and longtime involvement in boxing as well as for his legal work (primarily in criminal law and immigration issues), Serratelli had known Perez for years, ever since they were introduced in the Red Brick Gym by Rosario. Training together, they struck up one of those counterintuitive, camaraderie-forged-in-battle friendships that anyone who has sparred is familiar with; over the years, they only became closer. Serratelli took an interest in Perez’s career, offering him advice, training with him, and attending his fights whenever he could.

Now, Perez needed a lot more than advice.

It was the darkest period he had ever experienced, and for the first time in his life, this deeply religious, utterly-determined man was becoming profoundly discouraged. “I thought it was over for me – I was mentally breaking down, day by day. I thought it was the end of the road. I was facing 30 years, locked up, going crazy…” Voice thick with the lingering emotion of the experience, he tries to articulate the helplessness he had felt. “It was worse than getting shot, way worse. When I got shot, I knew [almost immediately] I’d be able to box again – that it all depended on me. My recovery was in my hands. But here, there was nothing I could do…. Nothing.”

Serratelli began visiting Perez in jail on a daily basis, offering support and learning the details of a case he was quickly becoming convinced had no legal merit. But he found himself in the minority with this conviction. Many, both in Newark and in the boxing community, openly questioned Perez’s innocence, and even some of the fighter’s friends opined that he probably had indeed done what he was accused of. To hear of such doubt was an unpleasant shock to Perez, but was less surprising to Serratelli, who had unhesitatingly agreed to take Perez’s case pro bono. “I’m in criminal court almost daily,” he explained. “In a case like this, it is unfortunate that the consensus amongst lawyers, judges, and the public is guilty until proven innocent, rather than vice versa.”

The first step was bail. Given the seriousness of the charges, the prosecution opposed Serratelli’s efforts to get it reduced, but he succeeded in getting a reduction hearing and subsequently persuaded the judge to lower the amount almost two-thirds, to $100,000. Even raising the required 10 percent of that smaller sum was not easy, however, and Perez was incarcerated for almost a month before his friends and family – all pooling their money together – came up with the $10,000 and obtained his release.

That done, Serratelli turned his attention to the charges – armed robbery and aggravated assault, among others. But the case wouldn’t be one of Perez’s first-round knockouts, and instead he found himself mired in the judicial process – a fog that can make the notoriously-convoluted machinations of boxing’s upper echelons seem almost simple in comparison. For week after week, the matter wore on. “I handled that case like a fight,” Serratelli told me. “They [the prosecutors] were talking about polygraph tests, discussing potential deals, saying they’d let him plead down to lesser charges, but I wasn’t interested in that. No polygraphs; no deals. He was innocent – it was either clear his name, or nothing.”

Finally, months after Perez was first arrested, Serratelli was able to give him the news the boxer had barely allowed himself to dream of getting: he was free, all charges dismissed. And with his troubles behind him, Perez was also free to turn his full attention once again to boxing. “It’s a big weight off my shoulders,” he says, chuckling a little at the enormity of the understatement he just made.

But he readily acknowledges the upside to his bitter and trying experiences. If fighters are formed and fashioned by adversity, then Perez is as tough as they come. “This game’s about mental toughness,” he says. “I’ve seen guys in unbelievable, super-duper shape come in and get beat before they ever stepped in the ring... Before my last fight [a 10-round decision win in Puerto Rico for the minor WBC Caribbean welterweight title] I hadn’t fought in 15 months, but I went to the guy’s backyard and took his belt, did what I had to do… Everything that happened to me? I feel like it’s behind me.”

And now? He’s only looking ahead.

“Even when he didn’t have fights scheduled, he was always in the gym, always training,” says Rosario. “We’re not looking past this next fight, but we want to fight four, five times more this year. We want him ranked in the division’s top 10 by the end of the year.”

Top 10 in 2010? Perez has no problems with this. “I’m not working now, no side-jobs, no distractions – just boxing. I get down on my knees and thank God every night for what I have.”

He grows quiet for a moment, thinking. “My grandmother’s very sick, now. This next fight is for her.” The resolute resignation of Perez’s tone reflects the larger metaphysical image his words have painted throughout our conversation: that there’s always going to be something else; that pain and loss and tribulations of one sort or another are never far off; that things might never be just plain easy.

I try to guess what’s going through his mind – the penurious childhood, running wild in the city’s worst neighborhoods? Or maybe the first time he walked into a gym with Rosario and put on a pair of gloves, began to think that maybe his two hands could cave a hole through the insurmountable walls that towered so high around him… Or maybe the arduous years of training, the thousands of long hours in the gym, the cracked cartilage and pools of sweat and headaches and bruised ribs that are the hallmarks of the sport to those who practice it. Or perhaps he is remembering the various setbacks he has suffered – all those happenings that did their best to buffet him off track, the bullets and jail and all the rest.

Or maybe he wasn’t thinking of any of this; was thinking instead about what lay in front of him.

He’s quiet for another moment, then speaks once more. “But you know what? It’s gonna be a good story in the end. It’s gonna be a good story.”

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