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Eloy made me feel better about myself

Olympian photojournalist Tony Overman and Eloy Perez at Grayland, Washington, in 2014.
Olympian photojournalist Tony Overman and Eloy Perez at Grayland, Washington, in 2014. toverman@theolympian.com

The legend of Eloy Perez was always going to start with the same story:

The Rainier High senior rushed for 245 yards and four touchdowns in a Friday night football game, then won his first professional boxing match the next day.

“You’ve got to do a story about this kid!” my wife told me back in 2006.

What followed was six years of immersing myself in an unfamiliar world of professional boxing as I documented that “kid’s” journey all the way to a WBO world championship fight.

What no one could have predicted was that that bout began a spiral that took Eloy out of boxing, into jail and eventually dead in Tijuana, Mexico.

I hoped to someday do a book about Eloy and his rise to the top of the boxing world.

That all came crashing down Saturday night when I saw a Facebook post from his best friend saying Eloy was “always missed but never forgotten.”

To say that Eloy was loved in south Thurston County would be an understatement. Yes, there were groupies and boxing fans, but the majority of those who knew Eloy loved him for one reason: He made you feel good about yourself.

Eloy was as comfortable with teachers, parents or little kids as he was with his closest friends. Heck, he made everyone feel like they were a close friend.

Why a twenty-something kid would befriend an old guy like me speaks volumes to the kind of person Eloy was. His face would light up with a smile when he saw you. Everyone said it warmed your heart and all those around him.

Eloy once told me that winning in boxing is a team victory. He would share that success with the trainer, the manager, the nutritionist and the sparring partners who helped him earn the win.

But you lose alone, he said.

“It’s just you in the middle of the ring,” Eloy told me.

And therein was the problem. Eloy felt like his loss in that world championship let everyone down. I know he never got over that. What he didn’t realize was that to the majority of us, his boxing was not why we loved him.

I told Eloy I was proud of him because he did what no one else would do: He went toe-to-toe with some of the most dangerous men on the planet — and defeated most of them. But after his championship knockout to Adrien Broner, the only loss of his professional career, he told me that he didn’t want to fight anymore.

The physical rigors of training, the loneliness of being away from family and friends and the Groundhog Day schedules were not something he wanted to go back to.

We spent a lot of time talking about options for his future. He was charismatic, handsome and incredibly talented. I told him his future was unlimited. He said he wanted to return to Rainier and be a police officer so he could help his community.

But he struggled to find purpose after a career that he thought defined him. A pair of DUI arrests eventually landed Eloy in jail. Because his parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was two years old, he was not a citizen and was taken to the immigrant detention center in Tacoma. After more than a year there, the court offered him a choice: stay here indefinitely, or choose to be deported to Mexico. Eloy chose to move to a country where he had never lived, did not speak the language fluently and knew only distant relatives.

He was almost immediately robbed by Tijuana police, and later stabbed as he fought off four men trying to rob him. I wanted to bring him home.

“(Mexico) isn’t so bad once you get the hang of it,” he told me.

I just knew that I would see him again. He was a fighter; he was a survivor. I struggle with the reality that I won’t see him again.

Family, friends and fans will gather in Rainier for an as-yet unplanned memorial. I can only imagine it will be a huge event.

Eloy will not be alone.

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