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'He just wanted to be remembered.' Friends, family share memories of magnetic local boxer

Eloy Perez was a professional boxer, and in the early 2000s, he was a rising star. He had a contract with Oscar De La Hoya's promotion company. He boxed at the Playboy Mansion and at the MGM Grand. He fought live on HBO. At one point, it looked like he would be a world champion.

But that didn't happen. In October 2019, Eloy was found dead in Tijuana. He'd been deported there a few years prior.

Tony Overman, a photojournalist for The Olympian who followed Eloy's career, can't make sense of it. "How does someone who seems to have everything going for him end up dead by the side of the road in Tijuana?"

This is that story. 

Eloy grew up in Rainier and Rochester, neighboring small towns in Thurston County, Washington. Growing up, he was well liked by friends, family, and teachers who remember his enormous, infectious smile. And his talent for boxing.

Overman remembers the first time he heard about him, back in 2005. "My wife actually at the time told me about this high school kid that was fighting a professional boxer and said, 'you got to do a story about this kid.'" 

It was the beginning of a yearslong relationship, one that became a true friendship. And it started with what Eloy's hometown crowd called The Legend of Eloy Perez: the story of how, as a high school senior, he played football on Friday night, rushing for 245 yards and four touchdowns, and then on Saturday went into the ring for his first professional fight. And won.

He seemed destined for greatness. "They say I'm supposed to be world champion in a year," Eloy told Tony. "That's what they tell me."

After that first win, Eloy had a long string of wins, at bigger and bigger venues. Eloy graduated high school and moved to California, hooked up with a crew of trainers and managers. He signed a promotion deal with Oscar De La Hoya’s company, Golden Boy.

Credit Courtesy of Tony Overman

By 2012, he had 23 professional wins. He wasn’t just winning. He was undefeated.

"The second story I wrote about him," says Overman, "I said 'He carries himself with the confidence of a 24-year-old that's never lost.'"

But there was one opponent waiting for Eloy. One who was hard to beat.

Eloy was brought across the border from Mexico when he was just a year and three months old. His father had come first, when his mother was still pregnant with him, and his mother waited until after he was born before she joined him.

Eloy thought his boxing career might be a way around the fact of his status. His sister Emma says he saw boxing as a way to bring some money back home to his parents. To make a name for his hometown. To be somebody. Maybe, if he got big enough, to make a case for becoming a citizen.

Then, in 2012, Eloy got his big chance. The WBO Super Featherweight World Championship. He’d be fighting live on HBO, against reigning champion Adrian Broner.

Friends back home in Rochester went out and bought 55-inch TVs, just so they could watch the fight.

But it didn’t go well.

"I knew he was losing right from the beginning," Tony recalled. "You could tell he was going to lose the fight. He didn't have the power. He'd hit Broner and it didn't have an effect on him. Now, granted, Broner was a really great defensive fighter, but he was bigger than Eloy. He was stronger than Eloy. And Eloy couldn't hurt him."

In Round 4, 20 minutes into the fight, Eloy’s defenses failed him.

"Broner hit him and it hurt. He went to duck down and out. But when he ducked down, Broner punched him in the back of the head. It knocked him down on onto his face on the ground," Tony said. "And then Eloy tried to get up, and he stumbled. And then he tried to get up again, and he stumbled into the ropes and he fell."

It was a knockout.

And it was the last time Eloy would ever fight professionally.

The trouble started almost immediately after the fight was over. Eloy failed the post-fight drug test — for cocaine. His sister saw it as a sign he’d given up.
"Growing up, you know, I knew, you know, he did drugs, but he was smart with it," Emma said. "He made sure he was clean before a fight. He just was always on top of it. And then it came to a point when he was like, 'I just I don't really care anymore.' He wanted to get caught."

Eloy Perez runs along a Thurston County road.
Credit Tony Overman / The Olympian
The Olympian
Eloy Perez runs along a Thurston County road.

Eloy’s managers and promoters released him from his contracts. And that was when Eloy’s shadow side really started to come out. He came home to Washington. He got a DUI. He landed on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Emma remembers a phone call: "He said 'I feel like I'm being watched.'"

He was.

ICE picked Eloy up and brought him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. His family got a lawyer, but they couldn't bring him home. After a year, the judge offered him a way out. Voluntary deportation. Eloy signed the papers, and within a week he was in Tijuana. A place he'd never been, and where he didn't really speak the language.

Jannel Herrera was his girlfriend there. She says that, when she first met him, he seemed like "a lost puppy." She saw his best sides. The caring side. The goofy side. And she helped Eloy get a job at a call center.

"I told him, 'you know what, you have a great personality, you like to talk to people,'" Jannel said. "And nobody likes telemarketing. But Eloy, he was just great at it."

They had good times. But Jannel worried about him. Eloy liked to hang out in rough neighborhoods. He trusted the wrong people. And he liked to tell people that he used to be a pro boxer. Jannel worried that one day Eloy would cross the wrong person. Someone who knew they couldn't beat Eloy in a fistfight.

"I mean, somebody who would be like, 'you know what, I'm going to shoot him.'"

It was a reasonable fear. Tijuana averages almost seven murders a day.

Then, in early October 2019, Eloy went missing.

Jannel checked the hospitals. Then the jails. Then the morgue.

Then she called Eloy’s sister, Emma. "I get a phone call from Jannel," Emma recalled, "and she says, 'They killed him.'"

Emma and Tony went down to Tijuana. The city has one morgue, with no computers or refrigeration. Families do all paperwork by hand, standing in line waiting their turn to identify their dead loved ones.

Photojournalist Tony Overman, left, poses with the late Thurston County boxer Eloy Perez at the Washington coast.
Credit Tony Overman / The Olympian
The Olympian
Photojournalist Tony Overman, left, poses with the late Thurston County boxer Eloy Perez at the Washington coast.

And then it was their turn. They brought Emma to a body on a stretcher.

It was Eloy.

"I just fell," Emma recalled. "I was just screaming, I was just screaming 'why? why!' That should not have been him."

The police report said Eloy was brought to a spot overlooking Tijuana and shot execution style. That’s probably all his family will ever know.

Before they left Tijuana, they organized a small memorial for Eloy.

Friends and family gather on what would have been Eloy Perez's 33rd birthday.
Credit Tony Overman / The Olympian
The Olympian
Friends and family of Eloy Perez gather around a birthday cake on what would have been the late boxer's 33rd birthday.

Tony remembers meeting Eloy’s coworkers, fellow telemarketers from the call center: 

"At one point, I said, 'how come you guys all speak such good English?' And they said 'because we all used to live in the States, we all got deported.' One guy said, 'I'm from El Salvador. I'm not even from here. And they deported me to Mexico.' And he then turned and he pointed at Eloy's coffin and he said, 'I could give you 20 stories exactly like this.'"

Eloy’s ashes came back to the United States. They sit on a shelf at his parents house in Rochester, in a little bedroom dedicated to him. The walls are painted blue, his favorite color, and they’re covered with pictures of Eloy, and newspaper clippings from his boxing career. His boxing shorts are there. There’s a championship belt. Some shoes. Those gloves.

It’s hard for Emma to be in the room. It makes it all too real. But she is grateful for the chance to tell people about her big brother.

"He just wanted to be remembered," she said. "And it's just it's amazing that people still want to hear about him, because I know, even with all the bad, he was still a really good person."

Posey Gruener is a former KNKX producer who worked on All Things Considered and Sound Effect.