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He Can’t Be Judged on Looks : Boxing: Raul Perez seems too tall and thin to be the WBC bantamweight titleholder, but his 45-1 record proves that he’s one of the most skilled fighters in the world.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He’s the best fighter you never heard of, and he’s also the most unlikely looking champion anyone ever saw.

Raul Perez is so skinny he’s hardly a whisper. He has legs that belong on a deer. To look at him, you’d make him even-money with Pee-Wee Herman.

But make no mistake about Raul Perez. He’s the World Boxing Council’s bantamweight champion, has a record of 45-1 and will defend his title for the fifth time Monday night at the Forum, against Gerardo Martinez.

The 23-year-old from Tijuana is unbeaten since 1986, when he lost a 10-round decision in Mexico City. He has become a regular at the Forum and Monday’s appearance there will be his third in the past seven months.

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Perez is the counterpoint to those who criticize contemporary champions, the people who complain that the art of boxing has been lost, that sluggers--particularly Mexican sluggers--have taken over the sport.

Perez, along with a few other of today’s champions--Virgil Hill, Michael Nunn and Sugar Ray Leonard --is a boxer. He has a stiff jab and uses it very effectively. And he uses the nuances of his trade--such as blocking punches with his shoulders, an almost lost art.

He’s a formidable boxer. He’s not known as a knockout puncher, but has stopped 28 opponents.

His best weapon is his height. At 5-feet-11, he is believed to be the second-tallest bantamweight champion--118 pounds--in history. Panama Al Brown, in the 1930s, was a six-footer. In his gym in Tijuana--it’s under the bleachers of a soccer-track stadium--Perez was asked recently about his next opponent, Martinez.

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“I don’t know anything about him, I’ve never seen him, but I know one thing about him,” he said through an interpreter. “He’s just going to be another short guy.”

At that, he laughed. So did Romulo Quirarte, his trainer and father-in-law.

Perez is a Mexican treated as a foreigner in his own country, he says. He’s from Tijuana, proud of it, and can’t understand the heat he takes in Mexico City’s newspapers for not being a “true champion.”

“It’s partly because people in Mexico City, if you’re from Baja California, you’re not really a Mexican,” he said. “It’s almost like being from another country. And it’s really true in boxing.

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“A lot of great fighters come from Baja California . . . and the Mexico City (sportswriters) don’t like to admit it. A year ago, we had four (now two) champions from Baja--me, Dinamita Estrada, both from Tijuana, and Jorge Paez and Gilberto Roman from Mexicali.”

You may not remember the skinny face, the jug ears and the coal black eyes, but chances are you once met Raul Perez at the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana. If you’ve ever been in the long line of cars on the Mexico side returning to the United States, you’ve been visited at your car window by children selling everything from chewing gum to flowers.

In the late 1970s, one of them was Raul Perez.

Success stories in sports? Let’s see someone top Raul Perez’s story.

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Quirarte picks it up when the 9-year-old Perez moved into his home, in 1976.

“Raul’s older brother, Hugo, boxed for me, and Raul trailed Hugo around everywhere,” Quirarte said. “Soon, Raul was working out in here, too.”

Perez, who fights under the nickname “Jibaro"--the skinny one--comes from a large, abandoned family.

“Raul has six brothers and two sisters and the father left the home when Raul was 2. His mother tried to raise the family by being a housekeeper and a seamstress, but it was very hard. Hugo moved in with me, and later Raul did, too.

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“I learned later that before Raul moved in with us, there were nights he hid in the gym when we closed and slept there.”

Perez’s extended family was a big one. Quirarte has two daughters and four sons of his own. Two years ago, Perez married Quirarte’s daughter Marta.

“Hugo learned how to do carpentry work when he lived with us, and sold newspapers for me, too,” Quirarte said.

Quirarte is a distributor of several Mexican newspapers. Raul Perez sold Quirarte’s papers at the border, as well as gum and flowers.

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And if you were walking back across the border in the late 1970s, you also might have had your shoes shined by the future bantamweight champion.

The gyms of Tijuana are busy places, with sweating, lean, hungry-looking little fighters elbow to elbow, sharing a dream that they can one day be chosen to box at the Forum, where the money is.

Perez, who will earn $50,000 Monday, said: “You can make some money boxing here, but when you are chosen to box at the Forum . . . it’s what all of them are working so hard for,” he said, pointing to a half-dozen young men jumping rope and punching bags in the gloom of the stadium gym.

The downside to all this, of course, is lack of education.

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Perez is a fourth-grade dropout. In the gym with him at noon this day was a 9-year-old, in training, who should have been in school. A stablemate of Perez’s, Manuel Medina, is only 19 but has a pro record of 38-3. He turned pro at 14.

Perez speaks no English. In fact, his Spanish isn’t even very good. Yet he wants to become a Spanish-language boxing broadcaster when he retires from the ring.

He attends Forum boxing shows on nights he isn’t boxing and sits next to Carlos Avilas, whose Forum boxing broadcasts in Spanish are heard on 33 radio stations in the United States

“I’m helping Raul with his vocabulary and his pronunciation,” Avilas said.

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“I’ll never forget the opportunity that (matchmaker) Tony Curtis and the Forum gave me,” said Perez, whose first Forum appearance was in 1985. “I’d like to broadcast boxing there some day.”

Perez has risen from street urchin to one of Tijuana’s most recognizable celebrities. He turned pro at 17 in Tijuana and was a main-event fighter there the following year.

And it’s unlikely he’ll forget his roots. He owns three new condominiums in Tijuana, the first of which he gave to his mother. He lives in one with his wife and young daughter, and rents out the third. His only luxuries appear to be a new car, a compact, and a small motorcycle that he parks in the dining room.

Assuming he defeats Martinez Monday, he hopes to arrange a match soon with another Forum meal ticket, Paul Banke, the Quail Valley fighter who won the WBC’s super-bantamweight championship--122 pounds--recently. Presumably, Banke, who is 5-7, would be “just another short guy” for Perez.

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Perez will come in at 118 Monday, without difficulty. Between fights, he weighs 119.

“Raul eats like a horse and never gains weight,” Quirarte said, laughing. “I thought by now we’d be moving him up in weight, but his legs are so skinny he may always be a bantamweight.”

At lunch, Perez ate a chicken breast smothered in gravy, several slices of pizza, a salad, chips and dessert, and drank several colas.

Once, he said, he boxed solely to eat.

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“I got $20 for my first pro fight, and that meant I could eat,” he said. “I never thought anything about being a champion when I started out. I only thought about food.”

These days, he says he thinks often of the father who abandoned his family years ago.

“I think of my father on the nights before I fight, when I am alone,” he said.

“My father lives in San Diego. I saw him last Christmas, when he visited my mother. I had not seen him for years. I have good feeling for him, I respect him, but there is no connection between us because he left us when I was 2.”

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Considering the poverty, the abandonment in his childhood and all that he survived, he says he is most grateful for his considerable talent.

“God gave me more than I deserve,” he said.


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