There were no locks, no bars, and no chow lines, but Cuban heavyweight Lenier Pero called that two-year period in which he was banned from boxing a mental prison. Pero was free to walk the streets but his livelihood, something he had done since he was 10, was forbidden by the government. The only thing the 150-fight veteran and two-time gold medal winner at the Pan American Games could do for those two years was wait.
Now, the wait is over.
This Saturday, February 11, Pero (8-0, 5 KOs) faces the toughest challenge of his career in fellow unbeaten heavyweight Viktor Faust (8-0, 6 KOs) live from the Alamodome in San Antonio, live on SHOWTIME (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
“After this fight, I’m ready,” Pero said—not taking Faust for granted yet believing things have finally fallen into place. Working with new trainer, Bob Santos, is one the final pieces needed before a championship run.
“Coming from the Cuban amateur program, they don’t really have to teach us how to fight – we’ve done plenty of that,” Pero said of Cubans who have defected. “But there are a lot of adjustments that need to be made. Bob Santos can get me there.”
Pero spoke of the longer bouts and scoring styles in the pros. Santos, he said, seamlessly helped Pero make those adjustments, which was missing in his early pro career. Despite his long amateur career, Pero found himself starting over from scratch after the long layoff when all he could do was wait.
“I could have come over like Erislandy Lara did, like my younger brother (also a heavyweight) Dainier did – you know, swimming to a boat and heading to Mexico. That way was faster but had many more risks. I decided to seek asylum.”
Like thousands of other Cubans each month, Pero lined up in front of the many foreign embassies in Havana, and sought asylum.
“I went to the Argentine embassy because I had a friend there.”
Once word got out that Pero had applied for asylum, he was banned from the gyms and anyone who was found helping him to box could face repercussions. The asylum process – if approved – could take as long as “four to five years” according to Pero. All he could do was wait.
Sometimes he shaved, sometimes he didn’t.
Sometimes he ate grapes, sometimes he ate an apple.
He watched the sun rise and then watched it set and, during the rain season, he watched the heavy storms chase his neighbors indoors.
Some days, he made a left when exiting his house. Sometimes he made a right.
It took one of his friends to help put a stop to the mundane life Pero was leading. “Man, you gotta stay busy – you’re a boxer,” he told him.
At nights, when it was less likely to be seen, his friend acted as his trainer. Pero shadowboxed in the shadows and hit the mitts or whatever equipment they managed to come across. They did their best to simulate a boxing routine with whatever they had and hoping not to be found out. Then Pero received notification from the embassy.
A friend of an acquaintance with some political clout had expedited his application. Two years after Pero made the difficult decision of applying to leave behind his friends and family, he was on his way to Argentina.
He resumed training once he arrived in Argentina, though he struggled to find consistent heavyweight sparring partners. Following a brief stay, he arrived in Germany where he turned pro. After three wins, one which he took on three days’ notice, Pero returned to Argentina and defeated the unbeaten Jorge Arias once the COVID restrictions were loosened. A win in Colombia was followed by his debut in the United States.
Fighting on the Luis Ortiz-Charles Martin undercard, Pero outpointed fellow undefeated prospect, Geovany Bruzon. Boxing on the same show as Ortiz was especially satisfying for Pero.
“Back home in Cuba, I looked up to and aspired to be like Teofilo Stevenson and Luis Ortiz, who is from the same city as me.”
Ortiz has been helping Pero since those days in Cuba. When he was an amateur, Ortiz would give him tips on everything from training to fighting. And when Pero left Cuba and eventually made his way to the United States, it was Ortiz who opened his home and gave Pero a place to stay until he got his feet under him.
Pero is finally feeling situated and is poised for a move up the ranks. Already in the WBA’s top 10, he knows he has a big obstacle to overcome in the hard-hitting and aggressive Faust. He believes his skill, his aggressive, heavy– handed southpaw attack and slick defense will carry him to the top.
“I just want the chance to prove that I belong, that I can be champ,” Pero stressed. “I have the skills and I have the desire.”
The fight against Faust on the undercard of a nationally televised championship match is the opportunity Pero dreamt of when he left Cuba. It’s the kind of opportunity he hoped for when he and his friend had those clandestine training sessions in Havana, the opportunity he told his family would come if he left for the United States. It’s the opportunity he’s waited a long time for.
For a closer look at Lenier Pero, check out his fighter page.