Sacrifice. It is through it that all great things are accomplished. Few professions understand the depth of this like that of a professional boxer. In the world of fighting, sacrifices are everywhere. From the early morning hours of painful running to the days filled with violent, impossibly hard physical training, to reach that ultimate goal of goals- a world title- a fighter must give all of himself. When he is finished doing that, the fighter must look for more to give and if he is both unfortunate and lucky to find something, he gives that, too.
For IBF bantamweight titleholder Yonnhy Perez, 20-0 (14), who makes his first title defense against top contender Abner Mares, 20-0 (13), Saturday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA, (as the co-feature to Rafael Marquez vs. Israel Vasquez IV), the greatest sacrifice of all came when the Colombian-born fighter left his home, wife, two young children and all that he ever knew or loved in search of a closer step to a world title. It is a sacrifice, made four years ago, that makes all the others seem like gifts.
“My family is the first and only factor in my career,” Perez told the media last week during an open workout. “I am Colombian. I live here in Santa Fe Springs and my whole family is back there. He [Mares] may be hungry, but that is where all my training is geared towards. I have a lot of needs. My family has a lot of needs. I am always thinking of them and that’s what drives me.”
Perez’ travels took him to the Santa Fe Springs Activity Center, an appropriate name, considering Perez’ all-action, volume-attacking style. It is there where he met his close friend and trainer, Danny Zamora.
“He came and tried out,” explained Zamora of meeting Perez. “He did a workout for us and then, when it was over, I told him, ‘Hey, why don’t you go and hang out at my Mom’s house and I’ll come get you later,. after I am done training my amateurs.’ So he goes and when I got there later, he was gone. I asked my mom what had happened and that’s when he showed up with all his stuff. He told me, ‘You are my trainer from now. I’ll stay here with you.’ And so he did.”
The two became fast friends and, as trainer and fighter, the match could not have been better. Zamora is a trainer who understands the necessity of implementing and experimenting with new fighting techniques. In Perez, he found a willing pupil eager to learn every day.
“It’s been four years and I am still teaching him some things in the ring,” said Zamora. “Like we have seen in his last couple fights, like [with Silence] Mabuza [who] was on the ropes a lot and we adjusted. So there are a lot of little things that we adapt to and adjust. He is always learning and the main thing is he adjusts so well in the ring when it comes for fight time. I’ve never seen a fighter as well-prepared as him, so it makes it a lot easier for us to adjust during the fight. He can fight any style. He is always wanting to learn and do new things. He’s still hungry because he knows he still has to feed his family.”
While Perez has soaked up everything he needs to get to the elite level, one thing he can’t seem to shake is an insatiable need to eat sweets. The man loves his sugar, according to Zamora.
“He just does things differently,” Zamora explained of their culture differences in the culinary arena. “He loves Snickers. Guy can eat them five at a time. But you look at him and go, ‘How does he do that?’ because he is always in such great shape. And he loves Coke. When I first brought him here, he was about to go to bed and I look at him and he is eating a loaf of bread and a big thing of Coke. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘It’s OK, Boss.’ So when we started the next camp, I told him, ‘Yonnhy, no more Coke, OK?’ ‘OK, Boss,’ he said. The next day at lunch, I see him with a big thing of Coke and I’m like, ‘Yonnhy, what did I tell you?’ He said, ‘It’s OK, Boss. It’s Pepsi.’ We’re working on it. We got him on Sprite after that,” laughed Zamora.
It would take four years for Perez to meet his goal of a world title, but the standout Colombian amateur finally made his mark as a professional, last Halloween, in Las Vegas, NV, when he met and beat Joseph Agbeko in an exciting 12-round fight that changed Perez’ life forever.
“The reality is that, yes, I really missed them [Perez’ family] a whole lot,” admitted Perez. “But as time moved on, then [I] got more used to it. When I came to Santa Fe Springs, I was a nobody. I missed my family. Thanks to my promoters, Ken Thompson and Gary Shaw, all my dreams came true and now I am a somebody. I am a world champion. It took a lot of time and it took some work, but my dream of either having my family here or me going back to Colombia is much easier now because, now, I am able to provide for them.”
Perez returned home to his family a champion and received a hero’s welcome in Colombia. It was a joyous moment, but not one without its problems.
“The reception in Colombia was huge,” said Perez. “After awhile, my wife was getting a little fed up with people coming around to the house and not ever leaving. It became a thing and even I was tired.”
But beyond the never-ending visits, there was another more unexpected benefit to being a rare Colombian world champion boxer.
“I need dental work so I went into the dentist,” Perez explained. “There were not just dentists there, but other doctors and they didn’t even charge me for the services. That’s when I realized, ‘Wow, I am a world champion. I’m getting some stuff for free.’ My father told me, ‘I knew they loved you in Colombia, but not that much.’ I was so happy with the reception. I don’t know how big I am in the U.S., but I feel it in a huge way in Colombia.”
The family reunion was brief and, soon, he returned to Santa Fe Springs to prepare for his title defense. A champion’s work is never done and Perez understands this better than anyone.
“I feel more secure and more confident with everything that is happening with my career,” said Perez. “But with that comfort and everything, comes a responsibility. Now everyone wants to fight me. Everyone wants what I have. Case in point, now I have to face my good friend Abner Mares, because he is a friend of mine and he wants something I have. Yes, being champion makes me more comfortable, but I have a huge responsibility to defend my title.”
To hear Perez tell it, his family- ever-present in his heart- has placed a hunger there, driving him through all stages of a fight from camp to final bell.
“The only way I can describe it is, I am hungry because I want to win,” said Perez. “I know when I go up in the ring, it’s all or nothing at all. And the only one who is going to win or lose is going to be me. Nobody else. So when I go up there, I know it could be my best fight or my worst night on the same night and I have to prepare myself to be at a great level. I am going up to the ring and I am going to give it my all. I’ve done that my whole career.”
In Mares, Perez makes yet another sacrifice. The two men became friends and competitors, roughly eight years ago in the amateurs. They fought three times, with Mares winning twice. Over those eight years, the men have become very close. But come May 22, all that ends, if only briefly.
“He was on the Mexican team and I was on the Colombian team,” Perez explained. “We had great fights in the amateurs. I know him very well, because that’s when we became friends. We’ll still be friends after the fight. But we are going to have to break up that friendship, May 22. It is my obligation as champion to face the best. He is there and I have to face him. We’re going to be best friends after the fight; maybe even better than before. But May 22, we are going to break up our friendship for probably about an hour.”
In Abner Mares, Perez faces a skilled and versatile fighter who can box, move, punch, and is both younger and bit bigger. But what he has in size, Mares lacks in world-class experience. While Perez has faced top contenders Silence Mabuza and Agbeko, Mares is making a huge step up in class. In Perez’ mind, it is this experience that separates them.
“Yes, it is better for me,” said Perez, “the fact that I have fought two former world champions in my last two fights. I understand that Abner is talented, but we cannot compare the amateur fights that we had together. I’m not going to blame anyone, but the reality is, that when we fought and he beat me, it was because the Mexican team had more [political] power than the Colombian team. Now we’re two warriors. Whatever happened in the past is in the past. He beat me in the amateurs and now I rely not only on that experience that I had, but also how positive I am about my victory on May 22. We’re going to prove who is the best in the bantamweight division.
“Abner is a good guy,” Perez continued. “He’s a very talented fighter. He’s got a lot of skills. He can do a lot of things in the ring. Not only that, but he is also a hungry kid. He wants to come and show everybody what he is capable of. But what you have to remember is that I am the champion and I have to show everyone why I am the champion. He’s not going to come over here and do whatever he wants with my title. Even though he is a good kid and a very good friend of mine, I am the champion.”
As always, Perez is a man alone, sacrificing himself so that those he loves can live in peace and comfort. Perez lives and breathes the fighter’s commitment each day to make that possible. May 22, in what is arguably the toughest and biggest fight of his career, Perez knows as well as anyone, it is up to him to win so that his dreams can stay in reality just a little bit longer.
“Abner can do a lot of different things in the ring, but nothing that I am worried about,” said Perez. “I know how well he’s prepared. I know he is more than ready for this challenge. I know his trainer very well. He’s a great teacher and a great coach. But on May 22, my closest friend, my trainer Danny Zamora, will walk me to the ring and leave me with Abner. It will be just me and him and I will get the job done.”