(Reuters) - When Eloy Perez fights holder Adrien Broner for the WBO super featherweight title next month in St. Louis, he will have in his corner an inspirational nine-year-old boy whom he regards as the ultimate warrior.
Sy Sherman, the boxer's official belt carrier, was diagnosed with primary liver cancer 11 months ago but he has been a source of optimism ever since he joined the Perez team last year.
"Sy lifts up our spirits and he's fun to have around," Mexican-American Perez told Reuters. "He just smiles like nothing bothers him, even when he is hurting. He's more a fighter than I am. I am the softy.
"He's coming to St. Louis with us to watch us win that title and he's going to be the one holding that belt afterwards. He deserves it. He's just nine years old and he's already been through 11 rounds of (chemotherapy).
"He has spirit and a big heart, a heart of steel. I can't wait for that moment when I win in St. Louis and he will get on my shoulders and hold that belt high so we can all be proud."
Perez, who has a professional career record of 23-0-2 with seven knockouts, was introduced to Sherman by his assistant trainer, Sam Garcia, at their training base in Salinas, California.
"Sam heard about Sy's story and I know financially it's very hard for any parent to go through something like this," Perez said. "So Sam found him and brought him on to our team.
"We wanted to help him out and so I met him and we all fell in love with him. Sy keeps smiling and, since I met him, he has come to my training sessions and to the last couple of fights. It's great having him around."
Sherman, who lives with his family in Salinas, was aged eight when he learned he had hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the third leading cause of cancer death worldwide, accounting to the Mayo Clinic.
The most common form of primary liver cancer, HCC usually affects people age 50 or older and if the cancer cannot be completely removed, the disease is usually fatal within three to six months.
Since his diagnosis, Sherman has undergone 11 rounds of chemotherapy and is now taking Nexavar pills, which are typically given to liver cancer patients who cannot be treated with surgery.
"Unfortunately we were not able to continue the chemotherapy," said Sherman's father Matt. "He was already in the danger zone with the amount of toxins in his body.
"Remarkably, though, the cancer seems to be slowly but surely going away. It's a miracle. He shouldn't be here today is what it came down to and here he is, stronger than ever."
In Matt's eyes, Sy's regular visits to the Salinas gym where he chats to Perez, the boxer's trainer Max Garcia, assistant trainer Sam Garcia and manager Kathy Garcia have been a significant factor in his son's improving health.
"It has given him something to look forward to and has kept his mind off of his cancer," Matt said. "It's kind of like a mind-over-matter feeling for him.
"He doesn't think about cancer, he is just thinking about Eloy, the Garcias and the next trip he gets to go on with the team. He talks and talks non-stop, and they spoil him every day with little presents and stuff.
"I've got to thank the whole Garcia boxing camp for just brightening Sy's day more than anyone could have done up to this point. They are all like family now."
With Sy in his corner, Perez is confident he will take the WBO super featherweight title from the unbeaten Boner (22-0, 18 KOs) on February 25.
"My training is going according to plan and I have been sparring with some incredible partners, all very talented and none of them have cut me any slack," the 25-year-old said.
"I can't wait for February 25th, I will own the night. I've worked so hard for many years for this opportunity and now it's just six weeks' away. I have my eyes on the prize, I'm not going all the way to St. Louis to lose. It's not an option."
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue