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Far from flashy

Yonnhy Perez is the flip side to boxing: close to his impoverished Colombian roots despite his bantamweight title

May 21, 2010|Lance Pugmire

Yonnhy Perez is a world boxing champion, but there are no plans for HBO's "24/7" film crew to follow him. The wads of cash and lavish luxury cars that fellow unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr. has are inconceivable.

That's boxing's other world.

When Perez, 31, trains in the U.S., he lives in the den of his trainer's parents' home in Santa Fe Springs. He doesn't own a car. He will make $50,000 for his first International Boxing Federation bantamweight title defense Saturday against unbeaten prospect Abner Mares at Staples Center, and he will send most of the money home to his native Colombia so his wife, two young boys, parents, grandmother and his original boxing trainer can divvy it up.

Perez's co-promoter, Gary Shaw, recently accompanied the boxer home to Colombia, where Perez provided a tour of his home. It is made of cinder blocks with no interior drywall, bed sheets used as doors and cut-out openings where windows usually would be fitted.

Shaw was so bothered by the conditions that he asked Perez to accept $25,000 to move to a better neighborhood. "This is my street, my neighborhood. These are my friends," Perez replied. "I'll never leave."

Perez brought the promoter a glass of iced tea and summoned friends to play music outside the home. His smile never waned.

"I was touched by how proud he was," Shaw said. "These people I met were the most simple, most gracious, happiest people I've ever met."

Perez makes do in the U.S. with what's left of the purse money, needing $400 a month for rent and $60 to maximize his frequent cellphone calls to Colombia. Perez grins and admits that he will occasionally treat himself to a $10 fried fish dinner at a neighborhood strip-mall restaurant.

"Yonnhy is the real deal," his trainer, Danny Zamora, said.

Perez is 20-0 with 14 knockouts since leaving the Colombian military to make his professional boxing debut in the U.S. in 2005. He produced consecutive upsets by venturing to South Africa last May, scoring a 12th-round technical knockout of native son and former world bantamweight champion Silence Mabuza, then knocking down Joseph "King Kong" Agbeko in the 10th round of a unanimous decision to win the IBF belt on Halloween night last year in Las Vegas.

"He brings a lot of respect to boxing, his country and himself," said Perez's veteran fight promoter, Ken Thompson, who stages several shows at smaller Southern California locales such as the Ontario Doubletree Hotel, where Perez advanced through club fighters and collected purses as meager as $1,000.

When Perez defeated Agbeko, he was summoned back to Colombia for a military parade. When he was 18, the Colombian military mandated that Perez commit to seven years of service, mostly representing the army at a sports school and by fighting an estimated 250 amateur bouts.

He was sent on patrols in Antioquia, dangerously close to the country's drug-trafficking center, Medellin. He recalls how life in Colombia meant "seeing it all: the kidnappings, the drugs, the corruption, the guerillas."

Perez returns home to Colombia for about three months out of the year. His father makes his living by driving people in a horse and carriage, sleeping inside a barn.

Perez works out at a dilapidated gym there, sparring on a wood ring atop an outdoor slab of concrete, with none of the speed bags or weight equipment that U.S. gyms offer.

Even when Shaw visited, Perez balked at accepting a ride home from the gym in Shaw's air-conditioned SUV with a bodyguard. Instead, he packed himself into a shuttle van with seating for six with about 20 others stuffed inside, Shaw said. "I asked, 'Is he mad at us?' and [was told], 'No, that's just who he is,' " Shaw said.

Thompson credits Perez's military experience for shaping him as a fighter and person. Perez rises daily at 4:30 a.m. for a lengthy conditioning run through the Santa Fe Springs neighborhood.

When someone asked Perez recently about the upcoming title defense at Staples Center against presumed crowd favorite Mares (20-0, 13 KOs), a young star in Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, Perez said he would focus on the 300 friends of his coming to the fight and the fact he will walk to the middle of the ring with his "closest friend," Danny Zamora.

"One time, in Colombia, a reporter told me I needed to change now that I'm a world champion," Perez said. "But I'm the same. My friends are poor, poor people who started with nothing. That's how I was too. I just want to do the best I can, for myself and my family."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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