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Guerrero's biggest win came outside the ring

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Robert Guerrero had showered and dressed one day in March 2009 when he bumped into his trainer, Bob Santos, as he was preparing to leave the gym.

In a few days, Guerrero would meet Daud Yordan in an important super featherweight bout in San Jose, Calif., that would be broadcast nationally on HBO.

Santos said Wednesday that he recalled watching as Guerrero peacefully strode through the door on his way home, carrying a smile on his face and offering a friendly word for everyone he passed on the way out.

"I've been with him for a long, long time and I remember thinking that if I could mold a human being after someone, to make that person I'd want my son to grow up to be, it would be Robert Guerrero," Santos said. "Just looking at him, watching him leave, he was so relaxed and so at peace and I felt he was ready to put on a tremendous performance."

Guerrero, 27, is an athletic and courageous boxer with surprising hand and foot speed and a lanky body that has made him a difficult physical match for the world's finest featherweight and super featherweight fighters. Santos had grown to admire him, both for his athletic skills as well as for the type of person he had become.

"Just a great, humble, wonderful human being," Santos said of Guerrero. "We've shared so much together. I think he's looked at me as a mentor. We've confided so much in each other over the years. That was the kind of relationship we'd built."

They didn't share everything, however. Guerrero had kept one secret to himself.

Just days before he was to fight Yordan, a bout which could have significant implications for his boxing career, Guerrero learned some awful news: His wife Casey had leukemia and was in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant. There were no donor matches and the sands were quickly escaping from Casey's hourglass.

Only a few months earlier, doctors had drilled into her brain to give her chemotherapy treatments. But now, less than two full months later, she was facing the bleakest moments of her life.

If a donor wasn't found quickly, doctors told Robert that his young wife would not survive much longer. The mother of his two young children, the woman from whom he had been inseparable since they met when they were each 14 years old, was fighting for her life and Robert had said nary a word to Santos.

A devoutly Christian man, Robert Guerrero had often spoken publicly of his deep faith. This, he said, was one of the times he had to prove it.

"It was devastating, of course," he said Wednesday. "I had a lot of sleepless nights where I'd cried myself to sleep. You can't help but think of what's happening to this person you love more than life itself. And we were helpless in this. That's where my faith came in. It was in God's hands."

The doctor's harsh words weren't the last he'd hear. But Guerrero, who fights Joel Casamayor on July 31 in an important non-title super lightweight bout at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on HBO Pay-Per-View, had long since proved he could handle it.

"You need a lot of mental strength to be a boxer and I've been fighting for a long time," said Guerrero, who was a natural at boxing almost from the first time he pulled on gloves at the age of nine. "The discipline you need to succeed in boxing has helped me. Ninety percent of the people, they'll turn to drugs, alcohol, something like that, to get them through something like this. But fortunately for me, I had the discipline to know that this was going to be hard but that it was something I was going to have to do.

"This was going to be my most important fight."


Robert and Casey Guerrero grew up in Gilroy, Calif., and attended Brownell Junior High School together. By the age of 14, Guerrero's boxing exploits were well known around town and he was a popular figure in school who had little trouble attracting attention from the girls.

Casey lived around the corner from Robert. The daughter of a roofer, she'd noticed him. "I pretty much had this really serious crush on him from the minute I'd seen him," Casey said giggling.

Robert felt likewise, but Casey was different from the rest of the girls in his school. She didn't approach him. She didn't fawn over him because of his boxing achievements.

"At that point, I was in the local newspaper a lot and a lot of people in town knew who I was and pretty much everyone in school did," Robert said. "Everybody wants to be around you and be next to you and be your friend. But Casey, she was different."

Of course, the one playing hard to get was the one he wanted to meet. A mutual friend introduced them and they have been together ever since.

Almost from their first days as a couple, all of their thoughts about the future always included the other. Robert was less than a month past his 18th birthday when he turned professional, and Casey was always there for him, cheering him on at his bouts and encouraging him to train hard.

"She never said, 'Oh, you're always training, always at the gym. You never have time for me,' " Robert said. "She was great. She understood right away what a boxer needed to do. Nobody could have given me more support."

With only a few minor obstacles slowing his ascent, Robert zoomed up the rankings. He was beating tough guys early in his pro career and convincing Santos that what he'd seen years earlier in the amateurs was still there.

"He was in just his 10th pro fight and he was still just a baby, just [20] years old and he fought David Vasquez, who was coming off a fight with Paulie Ayala, who had just been the Fighter of the Year," Santos said. "He was a hard, rough guy, especially for a young kid just getting going. A couple of fights later, he fought Enrique Sanchez, whose only two losses were to (world champions) Nestor Garza and Marco Antonio Barrera.

"He didn't have it easy. They put him in there with a lot of really good guys and he just kept knocking them off, one after the other. I knew he'd be special."

Robert won the International Boxing Federation featherweight title on Sept. 2, 2006, when he stopped Eric Aiken in Los Angeles. He was just 23.

"He was so excited," Casey said. "He dreamed of winning a world title for I don't know how long. That was like he'd accomplished the goal of a lifetime."

He lost the belt in his first defense, but the defeat to Orlando Salido was changed to a no-contest when Salido failed his postfight urinalysis and tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. The IBF vacated the title and Robert won it right back, reclaiming it in Denmark after stopping Spend Abazi on Feb. 23, 2007.

And then, almost a year to the day after the Salido fight, Robert was set to defend his title against Martin Honorio in Tucson, Ariz., on Nov. 3, 2007. During the last month of his training camp, Casey wasn't feeling well. He said it was like she had the flu and couldn't get rid of it. She said it felt like she had an ulcer.

"My stomach hurt badly," Casey said. "I was tired all the time. I didn't want to eat."

About a week before the fight against Honorio, Robert had enough of Casey's illness. He decided to take her to the emergency room and have her examined thoroughly. Her white blood cell counts were extremely elevated.

"[The doctor] sat me down and told me she had leukemia," Robert said. "In boxing, you take a lot of abuse, deal with a lot of aches and pains. But nothing really could help you deal with that. It felt like the hardest punch I had ever been hit with. I was literally sick to my stomach. A million thoughts go through your mind at that point, but I knew I was going to do whatever I had to do to be there for Casey.

"It didn't matter to me what it would be, I would do it. She'd always been there for me and I said to myself, 'You know what, Robert? It's time to pay her back. You have to be there for her.' "

Later that week, Robert retained his world title by knocking out Honorio in the first round. He vacated the belt in June 2008 and soon was making a run up the rankings at super featherweight. The Yordan fight would be a tough test in front of a national television audience. A win could lead him to another title bout.

But days before that fight, disaster struck again when he learned of the desperate nature of Casey's condition. Without a bone marrow donor, she was living on borrowed time.

Robert fought Jordan, but was cut badly when he and Yordan inadvertently clashed heads. When the bout was stopped, Robert came under intense criticism from many who said he'd quit after the ringside physician asked him how he was and he said he couldn't see.

"I would have fought on and I know I've received a lot of criticism for what happened," Robert said. "But after what I've been through, that kind of stuff doesn't matter and it doesn't affect me. If I had the opportunity to keep fighting, I would have. The doctor made the decision to stop the fight, not me. But whatever criticism came my way was fine.

"I recognize everyone has the right to their own opinion, but what anyone else thought about it didn't affect me because I had a lot more important things to worry about."

Robert eventually got the opportunity at the super featherweight belt and claimed it when he beat Malcolm Klassen in Houston on Aug. 22, 2009. Golden Boy Promotions saw a star in the making and planned a March 27 fight this year for him against highly regarded Michael Katsidis. A win in that bout would have propelled him to big-time status.

Robert Guerrero, though, was forced to make the decision he wished he'd never have to make.


The chance to have a championship belt wrapped around Guerrero's waist was the one thing that kept pushing him every day. But in January, as the fight with Katsidis was looming, he was conflicted.

A bone marrow donor in Europe had been found for his wife. She was preparing to undergo the transplant surgery, which was the only way her life could be saved. Yet doctors told the couple that Casey Guerrero's chances of surviving were no better than 50-50.

Robert instantly decided to surrender his championship. The title had no meaning – he had to be at his wife's side in her darkest days.

"I really didn't have a choice," he said. "My fight wasn't going to be with Katsidis. It was going to be against [Casey's cancer]. I couldn't be away, I had to be there for her and with her. I needed to do what I did."

Robert would commute 50 miles from their home each day to Stanford Hospital, taking care of their children, Savannah, 5, and Robert Jr., 3, and sitting by his wife's side.

"I knew the kind of guy he was and I knew he would be with me," Casey said. "I was really scared and having him there with me made it a lot easier."

The surgery was a success. A little more than six months since the surgery, Casey, 26, has been declared cancer-free and her doctors have cleared her to travel to Las Vegas next week to watch her husband fight.

The couple does not have health insurance and their medical bills have soared beyond $1 million. Friends have held fundraisers for them and they get some financial assistance from Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid program.

They've paid what they can out of their own pockets, but haven't let the bills consume their lives.

"It might sound a little weird when I say this, but I feel I've been truly blessed," Robert said. "I have Casey and she's the most amazing person. She's cancer free now. That's more important to me than any fight, any title. We have a chance to grow old together and raise our children and live our lives.

"God has blessed me in so many ways. I'm thankful to him for what he's given me and for the fact that he's given Casey her health. And on top of this, I have a fight against a great champion like Casamayor that could do so many good things for me."

He paused for a moment before continuing.

"Casey is a special person and she means more to me than I could ever tell you," Robert said. "To see her now, and for her to have her health back and be cancer-free, I couldn't ask for anything more. I am really and truly a blessed man."