Up Third Avenue, down Broadway and across the uneven cobblestone streets of chic SoHo, New York City’s vibrant streets were eerily desolate.
On his drive to work, Mikkel LesPierre couldn’t believe how the coronavirus turned one of the busiest cities in the world into a scene out of an apocalyptic movie. And that was just the calm before the nightmarish scenes the boxer would witness at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital on an almost daily basis starting in March.
Before spending the past five weeks preparing for Thursday’s 10-round junior welterweight main event (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) against former two-time champ Jose Pedraza (26-3, 13 KOs), LesPierre (22-1-1, 10 KOs) was busy helping the people of New York during the coronavirus crisis.
Voluntarily deployed from his front-desk job at Beth Israel’s Ear, Nose and Throat unit, he assisted nurses and doctors, providing them with life-saving personal protective equipment and deliveries. LesPierre stepped into New York’s most dire spot in the middle of a pandemic.
New York became the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in America. Although LesPierre did not directly treat infected patients, the data specialist ran supplies to nurses and doctors and saw firsthand the devastation caused by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 385,000 and killed nearly 31,000 people in New York, according to Johns Hopkins University.
He saw body bags, covered by sheets, that were wheeled out on stretchers through the loading dock.
“One day I probably saw two back-to-back [stretchers],” LesPierre said. “Honestly, two, back-to-back, is enough. To see everybody in the hospital in a frenzy and everybody moving like a chicken without a head… To see the amount of people that died because of it, it was just intense.”
LesPierre had the option of taking a leave of absence without pay, which would have helped him, and in turn his wife, Olga, and 1-year-old daughter, Aurora, avoid risk.
“I know a lot of people who [took leave of absence] because they did not want to be there at all,” said Dr. Joseph Herrera, Mount Sinai chair of the department of rehabilitation and human performance. “So Mikkel had that opportunity as well. Yet he stuck around. And if you ask me if I am surprised by that, absolutely not. The people that stuck around are all special people.”
Herrera, who has a sports medicine background and works with pro athletes, served on the New York State Athletic Commission and was chief team physician for USA Boxing Metro from 2007-10.
“Everybody was scared. OK? Doctors, everybody,” he said. “I decided to go in [as] one of the first few doctors onto the COVID unit. I think that is the way Mikkel is as well. Nobody knew if [personal protective equipment] is enough. Are we going to be putting ourselves and our families at risk here? But my question to my staff at the time was: If not you, then who? This is our time to do our job, serve New York City and this country and that is what we did.
“Mikkel comes from the same cloth.”
LesPierre didn’t hesitate.
As he returns to the ring for Thursday’s main event, “Slikk Mikk” says he steps in as a mentally tougher fighter after playing a role on New York City’s front line.
“It was a battle,” LesPierre says. “A battle that we had to fight, as a whole, a unit. When I say a unit, I mean New York City and Beth Israel and me being a part of that.”
STARTING IN MARCH, LESPIERRE began his mornings by putting on protective gloves, a mask and later a medical gown and shield at work. He drove to the hospital rather than taking public transportation. He washed his hands seemingly a million times to avoid bringing the coronavirus back to his family.
LesPierre said he thought at some point between March and May that he must have caught COVID-19 because of his exposure to nurses, doctors and patients in the hallways.
But when LesPierre, 35, recently took an antibody test and a swab test before leaving for his fight in Las Vegas, the results were negative.
He’s one of the fortunate ones.
“It could’ve been a career-ender, actually,” Herrera said of the risk LesPierre faced daily at Beth Israel. “At the end of the day, he never knew if he was going to be OK coming out on the other side.
“But he did it. I think it just makes you a stronger person overall.”
AFTER EACH LONG DAY at the hospital, LesPierre met with his trainer, Joan Guzman, and continued to work out in hopes of getting back in the ring.
After what he saw at the hospital, training helped ease LesPierre’s mind. But the boxer couldn’t escape the coronavirus in Gleason’s Gym, as the pandemic shut down the famous Brooklyn gym.
So for two hours a day, six times a week, LesPierre and Guzman trained outdoors at either the Williamsbridge Oval in the Bronx or at Bronx River Park.
Guzman, a former two-division world titlist from the Dominican Republic, says he is resourceful when it comes to finding creative ways to train outside of a gym.
Mikkel LesPierre trains for his main event fight vs. Jose Pedraza using nothing but a brick wall.
“I’m Dominican,” Guzman says. “Dominicans can train in any place. You don’t need a gym. You only need a gym to spar. Sometimes when you travel, you can’t find a gym so you have to be creative. Training in the pool, outside, in the park, in the hotel, you never stop being creative.
“In the park, [you can create] a lot of movement [that] Mikkel really needed,” Guzman said. “Now it’s complicated because everything is closed [because of the coronavirus]. I do my best. I think he’s ready.”
With joggers and bikers stopping to watch, Guzman had the boxer punch a tree that had a body shield pad wrapped around it to simulate a heavy bag. LesPierre would bob and weave through ropes hung between trees, run hills and shadow box with Guzman on bike trails as riders cruised by.
“The tree is not going nowhere,” LesPierre says of his wooden punching bag. “And that takes more energy out of you. So the workout is more intense.”
After the first loss of his career in March 2019 when then-junior welterweight world titleholder Maurice Hooker outpointed him, LesPierre said he felt he needed to train harder to contend, especially at his advanced age.
“When he fought Maurice Hooker, he knew, ‘I’m meant to be here,'” said Josie Taveras, who manages LesPierre. “He didn’t train to the maximum ability and went 12 rounds with a world champion.”
“Honestly, Mikkel is a whole different person,” Taveras said. “I don’t know what got into him but I like it.”
Once he got the news about five weeks ago that he would fight Pedraza, LesPierre was able to spar eight times — roughly 40 rounds — against boxers who owned gyms. Typically, though, he would have sparred twice as many rounds for a fight.
Still, LesPierre loved the outdoor training so much that he plans to incorporate it for future fights. He says it opened his lungs and he utilized different muscle groups because of the various elevations and variety of surfaces on which he trained.
“It will be better for me because it’s not the norm,” LesPierre says. “Where I am used to a regular ring, now I am doing that on grass or turf, which is a little bit harder. I’m looking to see how it plays out, I think it will play better than I am normally used to.”
LESPIERRE SAYS HE HAS SEEN MORE DEATH and tragedy than one should. After arriving in the United States from Trinidad and Tobago when he was 6 years old, LesPierre grew up in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush.
“The part he’s from is called ‘The ’90s,'” Taveras said. “That is one of the worst areas in Brooklyn.
“The block he’s from is a gang-related block. To sit there and overcome the obstacles, where you got to think for the future and less for the day because the block he is from is a terrible block [filled] with crime.”
But LesPierre said he has never seen anything like what ravaged New York over the past few months. People connected to his circle of friends, family and the boxing community died because of the coronavirus. And then he saw people fighting for their lives at work.
“This is scarier because you don’t know if this could happen to you,” LesPierre says. “It is not like being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the streets and you end up being shot or whatever the case may be.
“This has the potential to get to you and you do not even know that it’s attacking you.”
When LesPierre steps into the ring in Las Vegas, there will be no fans. But he says he will bring with him the spirit and fight he saw from the doctors, nurses and patients in New York.
“I’m probably more strong-minded,” LesPierre says. “Like there is nothing that I haven’t seen that you can show me. I have probably seen worse situations than you have seen. There’s no fear.
“Fight to the last second of the bell,” he says of his mentality. “We tackled this pandemic with no fear. We flattened the curve and it is the same thing when I get in the ring.”