Richard Perez is one of the primary figures behind the success of the Diaz Brothers. | Marc Sanchez/Icon SMI
The hot dogs and potato salad must have tasted great that day. Richard Perez never had a chance to take a bite. He consumed the high blue sky that seemed as bright as the sun itself and the cool, clean mountain air that filled his lungs. Then, all went blank. Something grabbed Perez, locked up his whole body like a vise grip. A perfect day was ruined.
The next thing Perez knew, he woke up in a hospital bed wondering what happened to him. He was 13 years old then and does not remember much of the incident.
Now one of today’s best mixed martial arts trainers -- he has been a driving force behind Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz for years -- Perez learned he had epilepsy, a chronic neurological disorder characterized by seizures. Some forms of epilepsy involve recurrent, unprovoked seizures, while others require only a single event combined with brain alterations that increase the chance of future seizures. An estimated 50 million people across the globe have been diagnosed with epilepsy, the onset of which occurs most often in infants and the elderly.
It visited Perez that fateful day, but it has not stopped him from pursuing his dreams and he never let it define him. In fact, his ailment has inspired him to strive harder. He has battled his whole life, fighting off rejection from those closest to him who thought him crazy. He even turned down the lure of the streets.
The youngest of four children, Perez grew up in a fighting family, so the struggle was nothing unusual for him. Still, the thought of being afflicted with epilepsy rocked him at his foundation. He had gone deer hunting in the mountains the day it first struck. It all started so innocently.
“I was at a picnic table getting ready to eat, and the next thing I know, I woke up in a hospital feeling so bad [that] I [had] destroyed this family’s trip,” Perez told Sherdog.com. “I had a plate of potato salad and a hot dog in a bun sitting at a picnic table. After that, I don’t remember anything. I went through a depression, but that day changed a lot of things.”
The gym was his salvation. He found it liberating to hit the speed and heavy bags, and he sparred with different fighters who exhibited various styles. Over time, Perez began to absorb everything: angles, speed, footwork and leverage for punching power. He also conquered his personal demons, as some of the best minds in the fight business opened their doors and provided him with an opportunity.
“I was angry growing up,” Perez said. “What helped me was the gym and working out, working out, working out a lot. I was always in the gym sparring, and it taught me a lot. Sparring different people and seeing different styles, you find out what you like and how you pick up different things. It saved my life. It’s in my blood, I guess.”
The passion started in a tiny garage. Perez was the youngest of four boys, all born in a seven-year span. Their father taught them to hit the bag, along with all the little nuances they needed to be successful.
“I learned a lot from my brothers,” Perez said. “We lived in Herndon, Calif., first and boxed the kids around the street. Then we moved to Fresno and we’d spar with everyone, and then we moved to Modesto. My brother, Johnny, was once ranked No. 8 in the world. Then Johnny got drafted to Vietnam. He served in Vietnam and when he came back, he was never the same again. Bernie, who is three years older than me, lost in the 1968 Olympic Trials.”
As he grew older, life began to unravel. Perez’s father became so fearful of his condition that he put his youngest son in a hotel by himself when he was 14. Perez was a pass-around kid, and, for a time, he lived on the streets. Perez’s mother visited on weekends to wash his clothes, and she would occasionally sneak him $10 a week. Perez performed odd jobs, like picking tomatoes, for food money and sometimes was forced to live with less-than-desirable people. He had no other choice.
“I really don’t know how I survived that time,” Perez said. “It was God. It was all God. That saved me. I used to deal drugs at 18, 19, and I even got into it a little bit. A friend got busted and that scared me and I went cold turkey and stopped. That wasn’t me. I look back at all of that and I just thank God for being alive. I made it. I still don’t know how.
“I was jumped one time by six guys when I was 17. It was really rough,” he added. “I had no parents, no home. There were times I used to sleep on the streets. There were a few times I even slept in a laundry mat -- I busted in the backdoor. My parents didn’t want me to live with them because of the epilepsy. My brother used to ask me how I lived through that.”
Boxing saved him. That was the one constant in his life.
“I used to ask why this had all happened to me,” Perez said. “God helped me and gave me focus. It’s why nothing bothers me. I didn’t want anyone to define me. I used to keep the epilepsy a secret and go around to different gyms to test myself. You overcompensate for certain things, and fighting made me feel good, really good. It still does.”
Perez’s affliction slowly lost its hold.
“It doesn’t bother me to train and work out; the punches don’t seem to faze me,” he said. “I haven’t had a seizure in about 20 years. I used to take a heavy dose of medication. I lessened it myself. I did that myself and felt a lot better. When I went to the doctor, he was amazed. Doctors go by the books. They originally told me I shouldn’t be doing that, but once I did, I felt better.”
Reynaldo Zaragoza, the brother of boxing hall of famer Daniel Zaragoza, took notice of Perez’s talents and style. At the time, Perez had found work at the Manteca Unified School District in San Joaquin, Calif., where he was employed for 34 years before retiring four years ago. Perez began training with Zaragoza. However, what really launched his career was his work with Rodney Jones, an accomplished junior middleweight who fought Corey Spinks for the IBF title in February 2007.
Nick and Nate Diaz bounced around before they landed at Cesar Gracie’s jiu-jitsu academy in Pleasant Hill, Calif. They trained regularly but lacked a definitive direction.
“I was doing student karate, real ghetto stuff in the backyard, and I was working with a bunch of trainers; I didn’t have a regular trainer,” Nick said. “It was all kind of rough.”
An encounter with a boxing prodigy forced the elder Diaz to re-examine his approach.
“Cesar one time took me to the CYC Gym when Andre Ward was a teen-ager just coming up,” Nick said. “I noticed people focused on training Andre, and he was a lot younger than me. I began working a lot harder and saw the talent Andre had. That’s when I had to focus harder on my game.”
Finish Reading » “I was 16 years old when I started fighting. I was always looking for a good boxing trainer. I could only hope for someone like Richard. I doubt I would be where I am without Richard. I might have amounted to something but probably a lot different.”