Boxer Jose Peralta has weathered a long road to finding the American Dream
This feature is part of "I Am New Jersey," a Star-Ledger series profiling some of the people who make the Garden State special.
Jose Peralta scanned the darkness closing in on his green 1997 Nissan Maxima. In a Hoboken grocery store parking lot, his girlfriend and infant daughter slept in the back seat, covered by a blanket.
To keep his family comfortable during the muggy summer two years ago, he would turn the ignition and let the air conditioning run until the gas gauge tipped too low. The baby’s milk was stowed in a bucket of ice for morning.
This was the routine, Peralta searching for a safe place to park, fighting off sleep to protect them. His body would finally give in, sinking him into the driver’s seat cushion, but by then it was already 5 a.m.
Each morning, sun and simmering heat bore down on the front windshield — it was time to drive back to the Police Athletic League boxing gym in Passaic and throw whatever he had left into the heavy bag.
“I almost quit, man,” he said, shaking his head during a quiet moment before a training session last week. “I said to my coach, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m not sleeping or nothing. I’m tired.’ My body was sore.”
Today, Peralta, 21, has a different view of life in America. A third-story apartment on Sherman Street in Passaic. A room for little 2-year-old Tiffany Lovely, with Dora The Explorer curtains and painted purple walls. A photograph of him and his girlfriend, Estephanie Cabral, with the words “eterno love” hanging above the glass kitchen table.
He keeps his proof of U.S. Citizenship framed in the master bedroom and his royal blue boxing gloves lie on the desk, wrapped around the miniature flag he was given for passing his test and becoming a naturalized American.
Peralta says he fought 89 amateur bouts, the first when he was 10.
Despite living in a territorial and violent section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in and around the Barrio Obrero, he sidestepped trouble through boxing, developing a confident persona and immense popularity in his high school.
He survived a bum professional contract he signed when he was 18 that shipped him off to fights he was not prepared for.
And when his family finally moved out of their car after two weeks, they lived in a trainer’s office inside the PAL for another two months. Every night, they slept underneath ceiling-high shelves stacked with memorabilia and trophies from old boxers. The smell of 40 fighters’ sweat and blood from the day was never far.
Now, with each $2,500 paycheck from undercard victories, government assistance and help from friends, Peralta has a home again. Today will be his second Christmas there, his first with furniture.
Every morning, he takes stock of what’s around him, and says the same thing.
“I say I love this. I pray — God, please God, don’t take this away,” Peralta said. “I don’t want to go back to the car. I just want to stay like I am right now. I want to open my refrigerator.
“Now, we are happy. Now, God is blessing. Little by little, but he is blessing.”
• • •
Jorge Martinez pulled his white Ford Econoline van to the edge of Peralta’s neighborhood in Puerto Rico back in the summer of 2003.
A Passaic police officer since 1989, he was trained to recognize the telltale signs that he wasn’t welcome. His imagination didn’t wander when the men who lingered on the outskirts motioned toward their sides, to a gun that may or may not have been there.
Before crossing into the neighborhood, another young boxer in the van from the same area took Martinez’s phone and called his uncle. They’d need permission before they went any farther.
“Crazy,” said Martinez, a sergeant in charge of the Police Athletic League and juvenile outreach program. “I know if I see certain things I don’t want to go through there. It was like the Wild West at that time, not that it’s any better now.”
For several years, Martinez took his best young fighters from the Passaic PAL down to San Juan for a chance to spar with Puerto Rico’s emerging boxers.
Peralta stood out because he was the only one who would get in the ring with Glen “Jersey Boy” Tapia, a hammer-fisted welterweight who is currently 12-0 as a professional and has sparred with Manny Pacquiao — voted last year by the Boxing Writers Association of America as fighter of the decade.
Peralta would lose. Then he would thank Martinez for the opportunity.
Through the years, Martinez hoped Peralta would find the right people to guide him. There was something about the way Jose moved, the way he swung his fists, that may just get him out of there, Martinez thought.
“He has what it takes to become a contender, and possibly a world champion in the future,” Martinez says.
When Peralta was 17, trainers in New Jersey brought him to Teaneck for eight months to prepare for a professional career, but an overwhelming homesickness pulled him back to Puerto Rico. Peralta’s friends and managers say he signed a faulty contract with people who took advantage of his good nature and youth, mismanaged him and lopped off unknown sums from his purses.
They set him up in a fight against a Nicaraguan boxer named Walter Castillo in Managua, Nicaragua. As in most countries, the judges there were biased toward a Nicaraguan national and ignored that Peralta knocked his opponent down, delivering a number of punishing blows. It was a fight he could not win. Peralta, a light welterweight, was supposed to have been paid $500 — he does not know how much he actually received. It still stands as the lone loss on a 6-1 professional record.
Through it all, Jose said, the support from Estephanie was blind and boundless. With their first child on the way, she pushed Jose. She told him he couldn’t give up boxing.
“All day, would I say you have to be patient,” she recalled, standing in her new remodeled kitchen in Passaic. She is still learning English. “You have to be patient.”
From the round glass table, Jose smiled.
“She would tell me everything happens for a reason,” Peralta said. “That’s all she would say. I almost quit and she gave me her support. She was like, ‘We have to do it, we have to do it. You have the talent.
I know you can do it.’ ”
Jose knew it was time to come to the United States in the fall of 2009, where the boxing was more regulated and the opportunities more lucrative. He and Estephanie made it to an assisted living home in Lynn, Mass., where Jose’s mother, Josefina, was staying. On Nov. 14 of that year, Tiffany was born.
Pat Lynch, the manager of the late Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, offered to buy Peralta’s contract away from his managers in Puerto Rico, and by the summer of 2010, they were ready to load up the green Nissan they’d picked up and drive to New Jersey.
• • •
Last May, Peralta stood in his trainer’s office and waited for Mike “Red” Skowronski to finish coating his body in Albolene, a women’s moisturizer used to remove stubborn mascara. It was supposed to make him sweat more.
Peralta then stepped into a gray sweat suit, placed a trash bag over that, and then added a pullover jacket. He climbed onto a plywood platform and began jumping rope while the clanky hum of the PAL heaters grew louder. The room would soon reach 100 degrees.
Peralta was in the final stage of preparation for his citizenship test then. The last time they did this, Skowronski said, he punctuated the tense session by asking his sweat-soaked boxer to name all 13 of the original colonies.
He studied like he trains, refining his English with repetitive spins through a compact disc of 100 test sample questions provided for all prospective citizens. It was no surprise he passed the test comfortably.
Peralta makes no small talk, never wastes a moment, said Peter Napoliello, who worked out in the same gym as Peralta.
“Some guys have a nice wide open door to go through, and some guys have to go through the brick wall. And Jose would go through that brick wall every day and never complain.”
At the old PAL in Passaic, Peralta would wail on one of the four heavy bags drooping from the ceiling. Like Pacquiao, Peralta lets out a high-pitched bark every time his fists thump against the leather, louder and louder with each blow.
Then as summer gave way to fall, Estephanie and Tiffany would be just waking up behind him in the office as Peralta toiled in the foreground of famous words once spoken by Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. Each punch brought him closer to getting them out of there and into a place of their own.
Scrawled in blood-red letters on a crisp white wall, the quote seemed to stand for everything Peralta had come to know after less than two years in America.
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
• • •
After a training session earlier this month at a new professional gym in North Bergen, Peralta climbed into his silver Ford Taurus — the Nissan is long gone — and started the 20-minute drive home.
He has another fight worth about $2,500 coming up on Jan. 21. They may show him on NBC, where mom can watch from Massachusetts.
He passed Monroe Street and the old PAL where he slept and trained.
He saw the familiar streets that two years ago appeared too dangerous for his family to park and spend the night.
He pulled up to the curb of his quaint, dead-end street, entered his building, then jogged up the three flights of stairs. He rapped on the apartment door and smiled when the quick pitter-patter of tiny sneakers grew near.
Tiffany Lovely, with her curly pigtails and little purple bows, with the giant heart on her gray sweatshirt, answered and yelled.
That night, he could hold her close and tuck her into a bed the size of two back seats, lined on one side with all her favorite stuffed animals.
He would ask God, like he does every day, to never take this from him.
Conor Orr: email@example.com
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