How Rosie Perez Became the First Lady of Boxing

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A report by Wallace Matthew for the New York Times.

Just short of 40 years ago, in a house in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Rosie Perez realized she had a boxing jones.

The dozen or so people in the house had just watched Sugar Ray Leonard win a sensational welterweight bout, and everyone was in tears because the loser was Wilfred Benitez, who, like them, was a native of Puerto Rico.

Everyone, that is, except for Rosie, then 15, who wasn’t sure whether to mourn or celebrate.

“I wanted to cry because the Boricua lost,” she said. “But I was also happy because Sugar Ray won. I felt so guilty about that, but I just loved the way he fought. That’s when I knew I was hooked. I was a boxing fan for good.”

Nearly 100 movie, television and theater appearances and one Oscar nomination later, Rosie Perez still hasn’t been able to kick the habit, nor does she want to.

“For me, it was a cultural thing,” she said. “When I grew up, it seemed like if you were Puerto Rican, you were always watching boxing. We watched boxing and baseball, but boxing just spoke to me in a certain way as a young kid. And it still does.”

For Perez, Saturday night will be like Christmas morning. Two major boxing events will occur simultaneously in New York: a heavyweight title fight between Deontay Wilder and Luis Ortiz at Barclays Center in Brooklyn and a light-heavyweight bout between Sergey Kovalev, the W.B.O. title holder, and Igor Mikhalkin at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

A choice like that might keep an avid fight fan like Perez up at night trying to decide which one to attend. But to her, the better fight is clear.

“I’ll definitely go to the Barclays,” Perez said. “And watch the Kovalev fight when I get home.”

Thank heaven for the DVR, because it would be unseemly for the First Lady of Boxing — a sobriquet given to her by the TV analyst Al Bernstein a few years back — to be caught missing any of the action on one of the busiest fight nights in the city’s history.

“It wasn’t that easy a decision because I’m a big Kovalev fan,” she said. “But I think Wilder and Ortiz is going to be a much more exciting fight. Everybody is saying Deontay is going to win because of that amazing reach, but you can’t discount Ortiz. He’s got a lot of power, and he knows how to get inside. So we’ll see.”

As Perez’s 107,000 Twitter followers know, she can be relied upon to provide live running social media commentary on any televised fight, any night of the week.

She can give you a thumbnail scouting report on just about any current boxer, and she impressed welterweight Errol Spence Jr. when she asked to see his wrists after he knocked out Lamont Peterson at Barclays last month to check, she said, his bone density.

“That’s where the power comes from,” she said.

Lou DiBella, a former vice president for HBO and a Brooklyn-based fight promoter who is involved with the Barclays card, said: “Rosie’s got boxing in her blood. She’s not just some celebrity boxing fan who comes to the fights to be seen. She’s a true hard-core boxing nut.”

Unlike celebrities who attend only the biggest fights and arrive just before the main event, Perez attends even D-list boxing matches.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you go to Barclays at seven o’clock when the fight doesn’t start until 10?’ ” she said. “I tell them because it’s fun. I get to see the undercard bouts. I get to talk crap with the fans. I get to mingle with the other fighters in the V.I.P. lounge.”

It’s also how she scouts young talent, the way a baseball nerd will haunt minor league fields and scour Baseball America in search of the next big thing.

“When you go to those four- and six-round fights, that’s when you’re going to see the next Lomachenko, the next Anthony Joshua, the next Mikey Garcia,” she said, dropping names familiar to dedicated fight fans.

DiBella has become a friend of Perez and her husband, the artist Eric Haze, through their mutual association with boxing. “The better you get to know her,” he said, “the connection between her and boxing makes perfect sense.”

Perez was born in Brooklyn, but a tumultuous family situation caused her to become a ward of the state. She lived in foster care in Peekskill and Poughkeepsie until she was 12. There were custody battles among her mother, her father and an aunt, and the Bushwick house she grew up in was frequently occupied by more than a dozen people.

“I grew up like the boxers,” she said. “I grew up hard knocks. But I learned to fight my way through life. You get knocked down, you get back up again. I think that’s why boxing resonated with me so much even as a little girl.”

Perez telegraphed her love for boxing in her first appearance on a movie screen, dancing in boxing gloves and trunks behind the opening credits of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” As her fame grew, so did her ability to attend major boxing matches, and the girl who had idolized Benitez, Leonard, the Puerto Rican champion Wilfredo Gomez, Marvin Hagler and Aaron Pryor began to rub elbows with Mike Tyson, Hector Camacho and Felix Trinidad, a former welterweight champion from Puerto Rico.

Perez delivered the induction speech for Trinidad at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014, which led her cousin Sixto Ramos, a frequent companion at the fights, and Bernstein to refer to her as the First Lady of Boxing.

That nickname earned her a long-sought introduction to Kovalev, who had ignored Perez when they ran into each other at various events until the night he noticed many of his professional boxer peers coming over to pay homage at a New York fight.

“Who is that woman?” he said.

Told by another fighter that she was, in fact, the First Lady of Boxing, Kovalev was sufficiently impressed to come over and say hello.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, he finally spoke to me!’ ” she said.

It turned out Perez and an acquaintance of Kovalev’s had trained at the same Shaolin temple, where Perez, who is 5-foot-1 and approximately a flyweight, became proficient in kung fu.

“I’m not dangerous,” she said. “But don’t mess with me.”

Lately, Perez has skipped what had been one of her fight night pleasures — wishing the fighters well in their dressing room before a bout.

The last two she visited wound up losing, she said, and her family now considers her a jinx. So neither Wilder nor Ortiz can expect a visit from Perez before their bout Saturday night.

“I used to love doing that, but I just can’t anymore,” she said. “Sixto won’t allow it. It’s a terrible thing to have hanging over my head.”

There are responsibilities that go with the being the First Lady of Boxing, and Rosie Perez does not take them lightly.

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