Perez knows this is his chance
Perez scored a 10th-round knockout of John Lark, then the No. 3 contender, that night and was poised to challenge Spadafora, who disposed of Renato Cornett with an 11th-round TKO. What Perez didn't anticipate was the controversial loss to John 'Macho Midget' Bailey that followed a year later.
Perez (31-4-2, 20 KOs) had every reason to believe that he would never get his title shot, so he's treating his IBF lightweight title bout against Spadafora (32-0, 15 KOs) Tuesday night at the I.C. Light Amphitheatre as a blessing.
'The world title fight is every fighter's dream and I'm getting the opportunity,' Perez said. 'Now, it's going to happen.'
Don't blame Perez, 29, of Houston, for keeping his fingers crossed.
Perez was twice scheduled to fight then-IBF champ Phillip Holiday in 1996, but both title bouts were canceled. Perez had flown to South Africa for one of the title fights only to have Holiday withdraw, citing bronchitis.
This is the first outdoor fight for Perez, who once had an open-air bout canceled after the ring collapsed. He had a tentative bout with Spadafora scheduled for Feb. 5, 2000, that fell through. Then, with a shot at the IBF title looming, Perez found himself fighting Bailey on short notice on Dec. 29 at the Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort's The Harv in Chester, W.Va.
'When I found out I was going to fight Bailey, it was a letdown because I thought I was going to fight Spadafora,' Perez said. 'I thought I counterpunched him to death, but you can't control the judges. I didn't know what was going to happen with the rankings.'
It was only two weeks after Spadafora's successful defense against Billy Irwin. Perez was the IBF's No. 2 contender, Bailey a former Spadafora sparring partner and Toughman champion from nearby New Cumberland. Bailey won a 10-round decision that had ESPN commentators crying for a hometown fix.
Perez thought the loss would devastate his title chances. He eventually dropped to No. 12 in the rankings, but has worked his way back up to No. 9.
'The public sees that, so it doesn't affect his status too much,' Spadafora trainer Tommy Yankello said. 'Good thing it was on national television.'
Spadafora and Perez have a common opponent in Israel 'Pito' Cardona. An injured hand cost Perez against Cardona in February 1999, losing when the fight was stopped after the seventh round. Spadafora beat Cardona convincingly, scoring a unanimous decision to win the IBF title that August.
'Joel is a well-schooled, fundamental fighter that is very difficult to knock out,' Yankello said. 'He doesn't have an A-plus at anything, but he does everything well. Perez is going to present more of a counterpunching game than some of the fighters Paul's fought.'
Perez recorded his 31st victory just three weeks ago in a six-round unanimous decision over junior middleweight Lee Cargyle at the St. Joseph Civic Arena in Missouri. The memory of victory is still fresh in Perez's mind.
For Spadafora, the memory of his first title fight, against an opponent that beat his challenger, is not too distant. Spadafora understands that this is the moment Perez has been waiting for his entire career.
'Whenever you're fighting a 12-round fight and have an opportunity to be champion of the world, there ain't nothing you're doing wrong,' Spadafora said. 'I've been there. This is his chance of a lifetime. These guys are the most dangerous to fight because they've got everything to win and nothing to lose. But I'm better than I've ever been and up to the test.'