The Boxing Journey Of Willie Perez by KB Hill

Maria Mercedes Perez has her ‘head down and arse up’ in her neat Rattray Avenue garden when I rudely interrupt her on this sunny spring late-afternoon.

She spends a few hours a day pottering around there, she says, and you can see it’s a labour of love. Maria’s a rapid-talking, expressive, vivacious Spaniard. When I explain the reason for my visit, her eyes light up.

“Ah, Willie ! He’s inside resting….His legs….they’re playing up.”
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It tickles me that this little fellah, puffing away on a fag whilst keeping one eye on the telly, can be living a life of sporting anonymity in this town…….especially when he was such a public figure in the nation of his birth.

Many locals would be acquainted with Willie through his long years as a floor tiler. That’s how his legs came to be stuffed. All that hard yakka took its toll, he says.

Willie loves Wangaratta. It reminds him of his home town, Toledo, which is a bit larger, but has that country-town feel to it. Maria’s not so emphatic. She’s still attached to Madrid, the city of her birth, and thinks longingly of it sometimes – even though she’s quite happy here.

They took their three kids back home for a visit many years ago. The ‘rellies’ naturally made a fuss of them and it was a great trip. “Beautiful country,” says Willie. “But not for me……”
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His family owned a decent-sized plot of land in Toledo, where they ran a market-garden – growing potatoes, corn and sundry vegetables. His dad knew nothing but work and expected the kids to chip in and do their share.

Willie had three years at school, and when he was 18 moved to Madrid, 70-odd km away. That’s where his love of boxing began to germinate.

From the time he laced up a pair of gloves, he was infatuated by the ‘Noble Art’. Being just a slip of a lad, he needed to be nimble…….had to learn the intricacies of boxing.

There were heaps of young boys of his age who were keen to indulge in the sport, he says, but not a lot had his determination.

He found a job with a big construction company in Madrid, building a train tunnel.

At about the same time he had his first amateur bout, aged 18. He found it difficult to combine hard work as a concreter, with training and regular fights – but managed 30-odd in a hectic two-year period.

This proved an ideal preparation, Willie says, for his foray into professional ranks.
Standing just 162cm and weighing around 57kg, he was moving into a Featherweight division full of outstanding, classy, busy fighters.

What made him a dangerous proposition for wary opponents, was that he was a brave, hard-punching southpaw…………
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It didn’t take Willie long to learn that he’d be confronting one opponent that would be almost impossible to overcome – the Spanish Mafia.

He had steadily moved up the rankings and was preparing for an important bout when he was interrupted by a knock on the dressing-room door. It was the Fight Promoter, who advised him that the lad he was meeting in the ring that night was destined for the top – possible European and World titles.

“You must lose this fight,” Willie was told.

Quite a bit for a youngster to get his head around……..He’d heard rumours of this sort of thing going on, but hadn’t taken them too seriously. He thought, however, that if it was that ‘cut and dried’, he’d put the weights on the Promoter. He demanded double the losing purse. “Okay, okay….” he said to me.

“The first couple of rounds I come out and handle him easily,” Willie explained. “Next round, no problems. I’m right on top.”

“At the end of the fourth, the Promoter comes to my corner, very angry. He points his finger and says: ‘Willie !’ ……. I know he means business.”

“So I lose the fight and get my money. I tell him: ‘Never again will I fight for you.’ ”

“But, of course, it happened other times. The fights were fixed when I don’t realise it.”
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Willie Perez travelled the length and breadth of Spain – and into neighboring Portugal and Morocco – in search of fights. He earned a reputation as a ‘Pegador’ ( a warrior ); a tough operator who feared no-one. Opponents steered clear of him.

But the memory of the night he tangled with a 23 year-old Salamancan – Aquilino Guarido – is still clearly embedded in his mind.

Guarido was a rising star. He had won his first six bouts in impressive fashion. The next – for the National Super-Featherweight title – against Jose Jimenez, a future European champ, was declared a Draw, despite the crowd’s unanimous support for the local boy.

Willie had fought Jimenez earlier that year, and lost narrowly on points. So he knew that Guarido would be a big test.

And so it proved. In a gruelling contest, the judges couldn’t separate them, even though many experts felt that Perez had got the upper hand in the closing stages. It was declared a draw, possibly to appease the rabid Salamancan fans.

An hour or so later, Willie was still ‘winding down’ when a screaming Guarido stormed into his dressing-room, holding his head. He was in extreme pain. An ambulance was called and he was rushed to Hospital.

Early the following day came the announcement that he had suffered a brain haemmorrage and passed away during the night.

“ I didn’t fight him to kill him. We had a normal fight. However, boxing is like the bull-fights. Every now and then a Bull falls…..It was bad luck….” he explained in a subsequent newspaper report.

“It was a very sad time,” Willie tells me. “I was ready to say goodbye to boxing. I had worked so hard to get to the top; now all seemed lost. But I realise you can get hurt working in a factory. Accidents happen with any job.”

The trouble was that he struggled to get fights. He was ‘damaged goods’, so to speak.

Six months later, Willie returned to the ring, but he admits that a little bit of his love for the fight game died on that night in September 1972.

He had a further 11 bouts over the next three years, including a Spanish Super-Featherweight title clash with Miguel Molleda. Tough encounters against World Light-Welter champ Perico Fernandez and European Super-Lightweight titleholder Jose Ramon Gomez followed.

He hung up the gloves for good in 1976, and married Maria a year or so later. In search of a new life, they headed to Australia with their young son, Guillermo (Willy) Jnr……….
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They landed in Sydney, not sure where their future lay. Maria landed a job, working in a kitchen the very night they arrived, and Willie did some concreting. But about six months later, they met a Spanish couple who suggested that there were good prospects up Myrtleford-way, in the tobacco industry.

They worked for Michael Ross at a tobacco-farm in Whorouly for a year, then moved to Buffalo River, share-farming. It was a bad drought-year; Maria says they worked long hours…..backbreaking work.

At the end of it they were flat broke. Maria suggested that Willie put an ad in the paper, seeking work in the trade he knew best – as a Floor Tiler.

The phone rang. It was Ross La Guardia from Wangaratta. Yes, he did have work for him. Willie could start straight away……..

And they’ve never looked back. Willie was self-employed for most of his working-life. He and Maria are comfortable with their lot and their kids – Willie Jnr, Michael and Stephanie, and Grandkids – Alejandro and Noah – are close handy.

This Saturday’s their 40th Wedding Anniversary and they’ll no doubt crack open a bottle of Brown Brothers Muscato and toast what’s been a pretty eventful life……………..

Comments

  1. bob.speechley says:

    Fascinating reflection on Willie Perez and his involvement in the boxing game!

    “peso pluma” – much better designation than “featherweight” IMHO!

  2. Rocket Singers says:

    Great Story!

    Love you do a piece on Maxie Carlos – can you find your way to Shepparton?

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