Tunisia’s Finest: Victor Perez

By Jarrett Zook on November 26, 2015
Tunisia’s Finest: Victor Perez
After winning the flyweight title in 1931, Perez immersed himself in the Paris nightlife.

His boxing career may have ended unexceptionally, but when he was shot on the death march from Auschwitz, he died an exceptional man…

It has become all too common to learn of a once great fighter meeting an untimely end. An early death can be attributed to cumulative damage sustained while in the ring, substance abuse, or simply bad luck. Global conflagration may take its toll on humanity at large, but it rarely takes the lives of formerly prominent pugilists. The great Tunisian flyweight, Victor Perez, was one fighter to suffer such a fate. He was a Jew in occupied Nazi territory during World War II and no matter his accomplishments in the ring, he could not escape the same fate as six million of his brethren.

Victor Perez was born on October 18, 1911, in Dar-El Berdgana, a Jewish quarter of Tunis. Like many champions that came before and after him, he was born in modest surroundings and grew up in an ethnic ghetto. As a young man he came to admire the Senegalese champion Battling Siki and as a result, Perez decided to take up boxing. At the age of fourteen, he began training at the local Maccabi Sports Club and turned pro two years later. At some point during this period, likely due to his small stature (5’1”) and age, Perez adopted the nom de guerre “Young.”

For the first eight months of his career, Perez fought exclusively in Tunisia and Algeria and compiled an impressive record of 13-0-2. But Victor knew that if he was to reach the pinnacle of the sport, he would have to leave his homeland. Tunisia was a French colony, so it was only natural that Perez would try his luck in France. Victor had been planning this move for some time and had sold shoes in order to earn the extra money necessary to begin a new life in an unfamiliar land.

Young Perez’s career abroad started shortly after his seventeenth birthday and began inauspiciously as he fought to a draw with the unheralded Lucian Beauvais. But Perez soon found his footing on French soil and went 31-3-4 in his next thirty-eight fights. In 1930 he defeated future European flyweight champion and top ten contender Praxille Gyde, as well as future British bantamweight champion Johnny King. By 1931, Young Perez only had a little work left in order to propel himself towards a title shot. That year he defeated Victor Ferrand and top ten contender Valentin Angelmann. Ferrand was only one fight removed from fighting to a draw against flyweight champion Frankie Genaro, when he lost to the teenage Tunisian. Victor captured the French flyweight title against Angelmann. Four months later and only eight days after his twentieth birthday, Young Perez would get his shot at the title.

Frankie Genaro was a seasoned thirty-year-old former Olympic gold medalist and veteran of numerous title bouts when he met Young Perez in Paris on October 26, 1931. Genaro, at the age of 19, “was an energetic fighter who was fast and clever and determined,” according to CyberBoxingZone, that “fought at a time when the flyweight competition was among the best ever and worked his way to the title.” Perez may have been outclassed when it came to experience, both amateur and professional, but he made up for it with youthful vigor. Consequently, it took just two rounds for Victor to knock out Genaro, no small accomplishment since Frankie was KO’d only four times in his entire career and Young Perez was not known as a power puncher. In fact, the diminutive Tunisian would only amass twenty-six knockouts in one hundred thirty-three professional fights.

After winning the title, Perez immersed himself in the famous Paris nightlife. He began drinking heavily, training lightly, and had an affair with the French-Italian actress Mireille Balin. As a result, Young Perez was past his prime by the age of 21 and he lost his title to Jackie Brown in October 1932, when he was unable to come out for the fourteenth round. For the remainder of his career Perez fought halfheartedly, barely winning more than he lost and almost always losing whenever he faced top competition. Perez fought his last fight when he was twenty-seven. He had already spent most of his earnings and was just another broken-down former champion.

Perez had his last fight on December 7, 1938, against Fortuna Ortega in Paris. This was one month after Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), the pogrom when Jewish homes, schools, businesses, and synagogues were destroyed and ransacked. Perez. despite his Jewish heritage, decided to remain in Paris. Some say it was because he was still in love with Mirielle, but that affair had been over for quite some time. Regardless, when the Nazis finally annexed France in June of 1940, Victor Perez was trapped.

He was arrested by local police and arrived in Auschwitz on October 10, 1943, one of a thousand prisoners shipped from Drancy, France. When he first set foot in the concentration camp, Victor was seen as just another Jewish prisoner and condemned to hard labor at the IG Farben factory. But it would not be long before Perez’s past as a boxer came to light and he was forced to fight bi-weekly matches against other prisoners. Victor was usually the smaller man, but had to fight men sometimes a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier. Yet despite those disadvantages, he always won. He even beat a Kapo (a prisoner that supervised other prisoners) who used to be a former amateur heavyweight.

In these bouts, the winner would be rewarded with extra soup and bread, while the loser would be executed. Though these bouts could dehumanize, with the bloodthirsty Nazi guards betting on the outcome, Perez took every opportunity to share the extra rations with his fellow inmates. Though he risked being killed, fellow prisoner Noah Klieger quoted Perez as saying, “That doesn’t matter. Man isn’t born to live for himself.” Even though the average prisoner survived for only a few months in Auschwitz, Perez managed to survive until Auschwitz was liberated in January of 1945. When in the midst of the death march out of the camp, Perez was reportedly caught trying to smuggle bread to other prisoners. He was shot on the spot, only three and a half months before the end of World War II.

His boxing career may have ended unexceptionally, but when he was shot and killed at the age of 33, he died an exceptional man.

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  1. Asher 09:54am, 11/28/2015

    Jarrett, thank you for keeping alive the memory of Jewish boxers like Victor Perez, Salamo Arouch, Harry Haft. These men and others, while daily witnessing and enduring unspeakable barbarism and deprivations, were forced to box in fight-to-the-death matches while interred in concentration camps as a form of entertainment for verminous Nazi officers. The movie Triumph Of The Spirit gives an insight into these men’s lives, as does the book on Harry Haft.

  2. c.h. 06:43pm, 11/27/2015

    One of my all time favorite pictures is of of Victor “Young” Perez being carried on the shoulders of his fans around the ring after KOing Frankie Genaro. The total joy and exhilaration on his face of achieving his lifetime dream is amazing as he raises his arms in triumph. Next to this picture I have his photo with a short bio of the tragic circumstances of his final days on earth. The affect of viewing them is both sobering and numbing…..Thanks for the great story, Jarrett.

  3. Jarrett 04:53pm, 11/27/2015

    To clarify, Perez was evacuated (along with many other prisoners) and was sent on the death march right before Auschwitz was liberated. It was the Germans who shot him.

  4. peter 11:04am, 11/27/2015

    Interesting glimpse and story of a former title holder. Loved the video clip.

  5. Eric 08:56am, 11/27/2015

    Good thing that Paris was saved from the Nazis otherwise France and the rest of Europe would have been taken over by foreigners with odd sounding names. Oops, my bad, forgot about what is going on today.

  6. Bob 05:53am, 11/27/2015

    Very interesting and well-written story. Just one question: Who shot Perez on the spot? The liberators? The Americans?  Please clarify. Very good story.

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