MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. (AP) Life and death are more immediate to Mike Perez than to most boxers. He escaped Cuba nearly seven years ago, clinging to a boat that could have capsized at any moment on a perilous trip over the lonely ocean.
When Perez's last opponent, Magomed Abdusalamov, nearly died after their bout at Madison Square Garden in November, the news reduced Perez to tears and soul-searching. Yet the rising heavyweight apparently never lost his resolve to continue fighting for everything he sought when he left Cuba.
"When I got told what happened, that was hard," Perez said recently in his ever-improving English. "But I had to move forward. I have to do my training and focus on what I do best."
Perez got no joy from the biggest victory of his boxing career. When he should have been celebrating a brutal, tenacious victory by unanimous decision under the New York spotlight, Perez instead waited anxiously as his Russian opponent fought to survive.
Abdusalamov went to the hospital to have his hand checked, but needed emergency surgery for a blood clot in his brain. After surviving an ensuing stroke and emerging from a medically induced coma, he faces a long, uncertain recovery.
While Perez can do little for him, Abdusalamov is constantly in his thoughts.
"He cried because he was hurt, because he was saddened," said Abel Sanchez, Perez's trainer. "He was sentimental. `Coach, how could this be?' He knows it could have happened to him. But he also knows what his job is, and what he has to do to provide for himself, for his family. The feelings heal a little bit."
Perez returns to the ring Saturday in Montreal for the first time since that night, taking on Carlos Takam (29-1, 23 KOs) on the undercard of Lucian Bute's meeting with Jean Pascal on HBO.
Perez wears sunglasses and big diamond studs in each ear to a lunch meeting near the Los Angeles airport, and that's not the only way he fits in around here.
Perez doesn't care much for the hallmarks of traditional Cuban boxing, notably the elusiveness and defense that score points in the amateur game, but don't attract most fans. Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara share little in common with Perez, who has always been a brawler - even getting excluded from certain national teams before his defection because of his inclinations and his inability to beat the other top fighters in his weight class.
Perez doesn't apologize for his ferocious style - not even after what it did to Abdusalamov.
"This is what I do," Perez said. "Since I was young, I learned to fight like that. I did the same thing back in Cuba."
His pro career has followed a unique path. After Perez left Cuba in 2007, the internecine backchannels guiding Cuban refugees landed him in Ireland, of all places.
"That was one of the hardest times of my life," he said. "I don't speak any English. I don't drive. It was freezing there. I left everybody (in Cuba). I have a niece I never see. That's hard, but I was looking to make my dream come true."
Perez made Irish friends and met the mother of his children. He made his professional debut in January 2008 and fought 17 times in the British Isles in less than four years before his U.S. debut in December 2011.
His fight with Abdusalamov was meant to herald his arrival as an elite heavyweight - and it did, but not in the manner anyone anticipated.
Perez has been training in Big Bear, Calif., with Sanchez, the veteran trainer behind Gennady Golovkin's rise to middleweight dominance. Sanchez encourages Perez's aggressive tendencies, realizing they'll set him apart in a heavyweight division that's grown stale and boring, but the trainer also wants Perez to protect himself to a reasonable degree.
"He's like a sponge, absorbent," Sanchez said. "Like Gennady when he first came to me. (Perez's) style was in attack mode all the time. Just a little rough around the edges. We're getting him in a position where he can look good to the American market, but also make sure he has a long career."