It’s sometime around 1974 and a 10-year-old Rosie Perez is in the backyard of her New York home. Her half sister brought her around to strap on the gloves. Let the boxing lessons begin.
“She kept hitting me in my face,” Perez remembered. “I said ‘Stop hitting me.’ She said, ‘I’m going to keep hitting you until you move out of the way.’ I was like, ‘Oh!’”
At least she got the most important lesson out of the way early.
Perez, now 50, has long since been established as an Academy and Emmy Award-nominated force as an actress. But to boxing fans, she’s also something far more: an enthusiastic ambassador for the sport who’s as knowledgeable, insightful and dedicated as any other fight fanatic patrolling the choppy waters of boxing Twitter. A celebrity face for the sport who’s more than just a dabbler when the big names roll into town, like some floppy-haired pop stars.
Perez grew up watching the fights; that’s where the love affair began. She saw the 1979 Wilfred Benitez-Sugar Ray Leonard showdown live on television (“one of those big relics that looked like a piece of furniture”) and cried when Leonard finally stopped Benitez in the waning seconds of the 15th round.
“It broke my heart that Benitez lost to Sugar Ray,” she said. “But I also felt guilty because I was such a big Sugar Ray fan, but I couldn’t admit it.”
She had a half brother who fought in the Golden Gloves. She would help out with the mitts. She started absorbing knowledge from friends and neighbors. And of course, Perez may have, once or twice, got into a scrap of her own.
“I was a very funny, silly girl, but I was also very introverted,” Perez said. “I had a lot of anger issues as well. I would get into a lot of fights. I would never start them. I got tired of having my ass beat.”
Hence the boxing lesson with her half sister.
“Shortly after that, I got into a fight. I didn’t win, but I surely didn’t lose, and then the word was out Rosie knows how to fight. I stopped getting challenged. When I started really understanding the sweet science, I started looking at boxing a whole different way and that was it. I was done.”
Acting might be her main vehicle, but boxing has always been there, riding shotgun. The intersection of the two has gotten her in all-night brain-picking sessions with legendary promoter Lou DiBella, ringside and inside the locker rooms after fights, where weary boxers are at their most vulnerable.
And of course, boxing manifested on screen, too, in subtle ways and obvious ones. Who could forget the booty-shaking, shadowboxing, Public Enemy-backed opening credits to Do the Right Thing?
“The focus, the dedication, the tenacity, the courage it takes to step inside the ring is just insane,” Perez said. “I think it was [boxing historian and analyst] Steve Farhood who told me that old saying is very true. You don’t really fight your opponent; you’re fighting yourself first. I said ‘Oh my god, that’s just like acting!’ You’re so nervous you’ve got to get out of your own way.”
Saturday sees two Brooklyn fighters in Daniel Jacobs and Paul Malignaggi come home to Barclays Center. She’s friends with Malignaggi—her cousin, Sixto, randomly ran into the former two-division champ on the street and introduced himself, they’ve all been friendly since—and will be interviewing fighters for the ESPN broadcast.
It’s her first involvement in a boxing broadcast, and she hopes it won’t be her last. Perez can see a day where she brings her on-camera talents to bear as an analyst or blow-by-blow commentator.
“On The View I had to find my way. Doing this? I was not nervous at all. I said it didn’t seem like work. I could have kept talking,” Perez said. “They said, ‘Yeah. We know.’”