There were no good intentions behind the combinations that Mike Perez was throwing and landing on Magomed Abdusalamov’s head and body. In a match between two undefeated heavyweight contenders with championship aspirations, there never are.
After four rounds of an unrelenting attack, most men would have wilted and fallen by now, Perez thought. Twelve of his previous 20 opponents had.
But Abdusalamov, blood trickling from both nostrils, red lumps on his shaved head, kept coming forward, unloading his own heavy artillery. As the rounds wore on in the scheduled 10-round match, Abdusalamov’s face began to grotesquely swell, and Perez began to wonder about Abdusalamov, who had knocked out all 18 of his previous opponents and had never gone past five rounds.
“It’s hard to keep hitting somebody who isn’t going anywhere,’’ Perez said. “You keep thinking this guy is going to go. This guy is going to go. But the guy is still there. What is keeping him up? I don’t know.''
In boxing there are career-defining fights and life-altering fights. Forged in the crucible of pain and punishment, a career-defining match can propel a contender into the championship stratosphere or make a champion a legend. Think of Thomas Hearns' demolition of Mexican legend Jose "Pipino" Cuevas or Muhammad Ali in “The Rumble in the Jungle.’’
The same crucible, however, can prove tragic for some boxers, prompting them to push beyond their limits and breaking them in the process. If they survive, they are never the same mentally or physically. Abdusalamov experienced just such a moment that night—on November 2, 2013—at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Perez scored a hard-fought 10-round unanimous-decision victory and finds himself on the threshold of the heavyweight championship. He will meet Bryant Jennings, an undefeated, top-ranked contender from Philadelphia, in a 12-round title elimination match at Madison Square Garden on HBO on Saturday. The winner will get the opportunity to fight for the WBC title that Vitali Klitschko vacated when he retired from boxing last December.
Meanwhile, 35 miles north of the Garden, Abdusalamov will be bringing a close to another day at the Helen Hayes Hospital where he is learning to walk and talk again.
Abdusalamov has been at the hospital for the last seven months because of the injuries he suffered during the fight against Perez. Mary Creagh, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said that the family would not give permission for his doctor to speak about his medical condition or treatment.
But his attorney, Paul Edelstein, who has access to Abdusalamov's medical records, said he suffered a stroke during the surgery to remove the blood clot that formed in his brain after the beating he took in the ring. The stroke left him completely paralyzed on his right side.
Victory Celebration Was Short-Lived
Perez left the Garden that night feeling happy with his hard-fought victory and oblivious to the ordeal that Abdusalamov was going through.
As Abdusalamov lay in a coma in the intensive care unit at Roosevelt Hospital on Sunday morning, Perez boarded a plane home to Ireland to reconnect with his wife and three young daughters. He had no idea the human misery he had left behind in New York.
His celebration was short-lived as his promoter Tom Loeffler called him at home in Cork, Ireland, three days later to tell him that Abdusalamov was in a New York hospital as a result of the work that Perez had done with his fists.
Perez agonized over what had happened to Abdusalamov. It pained him. He inquired about Abdusalamov, but he never called his family directly. He left it up to his promoters at K2 Promotions to pass along his concerns through Abdusalamov’s promoters.
“I asked the people that I could ask and my promoter.’’ Perez said. “Everybody I asked they said he’s doing way better than before. I just feel bad. But he’s doing much better. That’s what they tell me.’’
Abdusalamov’s family and friends are still puzzled why Perez hasn’t made a personal inquiry about his former opponent. They are upset about it.
“I saw online (Internet) that he did his last fight for Mago. We appreciate that,’’ said Amin Suleymenov, a close friend of Abdusalamov's. “But nothing else... He went out to fight and it was an accident. I don’t know if there’s anything he can do. But he should say, 'Is there anything I can do?' He can say something. Contact me. It’s easy.’’
Perez's Next Fight a Struggle
Perez’s representatives don’t want him spooked by seeing Abdusalamov in his current condition. The sight of tragic boxing injuries can have a damaging mental effect on some boxers.
Roy Jones Jr. admitted that seeing the aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury that Gerald McClellan suffered in a bout against Nigel Benn prompted him to change his style and become a safety-first boxer, refusing to engage at all costs.
That same issue resurfaced before Perez's next fight against Carlos Takam in Montreal on Jan. 18.
“Leading up to the fight, we had a bunch of interviews and one-on-ones, and nine out of 10 questions were about the Magomed fight,’’ Perez's trainer Abel Sanchez said. “It messed with his psyche. Knowing the condition that Mago was in messed up his whole thought pattern. His mind was not on the fight.’’
“Emotionally, I didn’t want to fight,'' Perez said. "He hit me in the head, he cut my eyes. After that I was in like a different place.’’
His mind started to run away with him as he flashed back to the fight against Abdusalamov. He said he kept putting himself in Abdusalamov’s place as Takam battered him with punches.
“I kept thinking I might go into the hospital. I was thinking a lot of stupid things. It was my hardest fight in every way,’’ he said.
The result was a disappointing 10-round majority draw.
A Clash of Knockout Artists
Perez and Abdusalamov had been brought together by the set of circumstances that often make for fantastic fights—two undefeated, sledgehammer punchers who are avoided at all costs by other contenders because they offer more risk than reward as opponents. And HBO wanted some fireworks to lead into the Gennady Golovkin vs. Curtis Stevens main event. (To see a video of the final three rounds of Perez vs. Abdusalamov, click here.)
“We called a lot of fighters, (Tyson) Fury and (Bryant) Jennings, and they all said no,’’ Perez said. “We called Sampson (Lewkowicz—Abdusalamov’s promoter) and he agreed with the fight, and they said this is a great opportunity for Mago. Whoever won would have a better chance to fight for the world title. This is what we’ve been fighting for.’’
Abdusalamov, who is from Dagestan, Russia, knew the significance of the fight against Perez. He had invited several friends and relatives, some of whom flew in from overseas. He was certain that it was going to be the crowning achievement of his boxing career to that point.
“He was really sure that he was going to win,’’ Suleymenov said. “He is a really tough guy, so I believed him. He never had any trouble before. He said three or four rounds [and] he was going to knock him out.’’
But the fight took a disastrous turn for him in the first round. Abdusalamov broke his left hand. As a southpaw, he had lost his most powerful weapon.
He did not tell anyone and didn’t complain. Suleymenov said Abdusalamov told him after the fight that he didn’t want to disappoint any of his friends and family by quitting. Suleymenov had never seen his friend so badly beaten after a match.
“When he took off his glove, half of his finger was pushed inside the glove. He caught his finger. It was dislocated,’’ Suleymenov said. “He was trying to do the punches with that same hand, and it was paining him.’’
A Lawsuit Ensues
That wasn’t the only pain that Abdusalamov complained about after the fight, said Suleymenov, who was with him that night. His nose appeared to be broken. He had a pounding headache, and he was urinating blood in the toilet in the dressing room.
What happened after Abdusalamov stepped out of the ring is now the subject of a lawsuit for unspecified damages that the boxer’s family has filed against the five doctors from the New York State Athletic Commission who were there that night, the commission’s inspector, the referee, K2 Promotions (Perez’s promoter) and Madison Square Garden.
Paul Edelstein, the lawyer for Abdusalamov, said the basis of the suit is medical malpractice for inadequate post-fight care.
Loeffler, president of K2 Promotions, refused to comment on the lawsuit, and a spokesman for Madison Square Garden sent this statement regarding the lawsuit: "MSG does not comment on pending litigation.''
Perez's Psychological Battle
After the judges’ scorecards were read giving him a narrow points victory, Perez breathed a heavy sigh of relief. It was such a grueling, back-and-forth match he wasn’t sure he had pulled it out. He knew exactly what a victory meant for the winner, and he was glad that he won.
A month later, Perez knew that his trainer Sanchez was going to be in New York for a match in December. He asked him to visit Abdusalamov at the hospital and pass along his well-wishes. Sanchez agreed. But when he walked into the hospital room and saw Abdusalamov lying motionless in bed, Sanchez’s heart sank to the pit of his stomach.
The last time Sanchez had seen Abdusalamov, he was a hulking, 6'3", 240-pound mass of muscles giving Perez fits in a boxing ring. Now he was a skinny shell of a man.
“His situation was grave. It was sad to see him in that state. He was barely able to move his eyes,’’ Sanchez said. “He understood who I was. Half of his skull had been taken off, and part of his head was sunken. His head looked like a melted candle. I didn’t want to see him in that condition. To see a big man, a brave man in that condition, it was hard to see.’’
Perez wanted details of the visit when he spoke with Sanchez. But Sanchez had to be selective in what he told him about Abdusalamov’s condition. Sanchez did not want Perez to be mentally shaken before the match against Takam.
“I didn’t tell him about his skull. I tried to tell him as much as I could without lying to him,’’ Sanchez said.
A Desperate Situation
Every time Perez asks others about Abdusalamov’s condition, they tell him that he is good and getting better. Those are relative terms for Abdusalamov.
“He can speak a little bit. Sometimes it’s very low,’’ Suleymenov said. “We have to ask him 15 times to find out what he wants. He speaks so low. They feed him through the feeding tube and a little by mouth. He can’t move the hand, the legs or arms (on the right side).
“He was a serious boxer and sportsman and a tough guy. He lost a lot of weight. He weighs 75-76 kilos (about 165 pounds). He was 68 kilos (about 150 pounds), and now he’s starting to get a little bit of weight back. There is some progress.’’
Bakanay Abdusalamov, who has been married to Magomed for 10 years, arrives at the hospital every day at 10 a.m. and leaves at 9 p.m., attending to as many of her husband’s needs as possible. She does not speak English. Edelstein, the lawyer who is handling the lawsuit, refused to allow her to speak to a reporter for this story.
“His wife is there full time. She’s nervous and crying. It’s difficult for her to hold him,’’ Suleymenov said. “He has three little girls. They come in and see him. For the youngest girl, it is very difficult. She doesn’t understand what is happening.’’
According to Suleymenov, the family has no insurance. The $50,000 per month for Abdusalamov’s care at the hospital and the cost for supporting his family are being handled by donations from a fund that was set up by his promoters at Sampson Boxing.
Perez knew that if he were ever going to be a heavyweight world champion, he would have to get his emotions and his mental state under control. Helped by the people around him, he has rationalized what happened in the Abdusalamov fight as the byproduct of a violent, brutal combat sport.
Perez believes to quit would be an insult to Abdusalamov. Besides, boxing is his only means of earning a living for himself, his girlfriend and their three daughters.
“Only God knows what happens and why it happened,’’ Perez said.
He won’t quit boxing. He said to do so would invalidate why he defected from Cuba six years ago, leaving behind his mother, two sisters, a brother and a four-year-old niece whom he has never met.
The match against Abdusalamov was his first in the United States and his first on HBO. It was the most significant of his career—one that launched him into the championship mix and one that he will never be able to fully appreciate because of what happened to Abdusalamov.
“It’s ironic that you fight all your life in and out the ring and get to HBO and get that signature fight and something tragic happens,’’ Sanchez said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s happened to some great fighters. How Mike deals with it we’ll know in this next fight or the fight after. Hopefully, mentally he’ll be all right.’’
Meanwhile, Abdusalamov's lawyer says his client will never be the same.
“He’s never going to get back to where he was—forget about it,’’ Edelstein said. “There’s no accurate way to gauge how much function he’ll get back.’’
For Perez, the match against Bryant is even more significant than the one against Abdusalamov.
“It opens the doors for me to be who I am,’’ Perez said. “This is going to be my fight. I look forward to this opportunity. I got to do it for me and my family and for my family in Cuba, for the people who support me.’’
Perez does not want to be involved in another match that alters the course of anyone’s life.
“I pray that this fight is good, but nobody gets hurt,’’ he said.
Timothy Smith is a former sportswriter for The New York Times and the New York Daily News. He is currently a freelance writer based in New Jersey.