A boxer's heartbreak: Caleb Plant opens up on his tragic loss en route to a title shot

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Caleb Plant’s daughter, Alia, was born with a brain abnormality and she was plagued by seizures, sometimes several hundred a day, during her life. (Photos courtesy of Caleb Plant and graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
Caleb Plant’s daughter, Alia, was born with a brain abnormality and she was plagued by seizures, sometimes several hundred a day, during her life. (Photos courtesy of Caleb Plant and graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Caleb Plant scoffs at the notion that he’ll be overcome by the pressure of fighting for his first world title on Sunday in Los Angeles, when he faces José Uzcátegui for the IBF super middleweight belt at the Microsoft Theater on Fox Sports 1.

He’s lived through so much tragedy and dealt with so many horrors that trading punches with another person, even one of the best fighters in the world, is a fun thing.

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The golfer Lee Trevino once laughed at the suggestion there was pressure trying to win the U.S. Open. Pressure, Trevino quipped, was playing for 10 dollars with 10 cents in his pocket.

Plant could relate better than most. The ring is a sanctuary for him because of the hand life has dealt.

Five times during the all-too-brief 20 months and 23 days that his daughter, Alia Plant, spent on this Earth, doctors told her father she was about to die.

Four times, Caleb looked those doctors in the eye and said no.

“The doctors would pull me into this little white room and they had that look and they said to me, ‘OK, Mr. Plant, we want you to know that we’ve done everything that we can do, but your daughter, she’s going to wind up passing away tonight,’” Plant said. “Obviously, that’s something no parent ever wants to hear. I couldn’t accept it. I didn’t believe it. I told them, ‘No. We’ve got to figure something out. That’s my daughter. I don’t accept that.’ I was probably naive, or blind to what was going on, but I couldn’t accept it. I refused to accept it. I just didn’t think it would happen.”

The fifth time, though, was different. Alia was born with a brain abnormality and she was plagued by seizures, sometimes several hundred a day, during her life.

As he had so often done, Plant rushed to meet with his daughter’s doctors, who had once again put her on life support. Plant walked into the intensive care unit of the hospital she was in and saw his daughter, who had wires protruding from her tiny body.

It felt different when he saw her this time, however. Once again, doctors told him she was going to die. This time, somehow, some way, Plant knew they were correct. It was Jan. 29, 2015, not even two years since he celebrated her birth on May 7, 2013.

“I was so excited and so happy [when she was born],” Plant said. “I couldn’t wait to be her father.”

But she spent most of her life in and out of the hospital and in the care of doctors. She couldn’t do the things with her father that Plant had dreamed of doing.

On that fateful morning, he was alone with her in the ICU and had a talk with her.

“She was in an induced coma and I went up to her and I said, ‘Alia, are you tired of this? Do you not want to do this anymore?’” Plant said. “She’d been through so much. I said, ‘Are you tired? Because if you are, I’m not going to be disappointed in you. I’m not going to be mad at you or upset with you. I just want you to know if you don’t want to go through this anymore, I support you. I love you and your Dad’s not going to be mad at you.’”

The pressure on Plant was intense. He literally had to make a life-or-death decision on the spot: Leave her on life support and pray for a long-shot miracle or remove her and end her suffering.

He loved his daughter so much, and he looked forward to singing “Happy Birthday” and to introducing her to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, taking her trick-or-treating and meeting her boyfriends and walking her down the aisle when she was married.

And now, she was slipping away, and he was helpless. After agonizing thought, he’d decided to keep her on life support until his family and friends had a chance to get to the hospital to see her and say their goodbyes.

But when he spoke to her as she lay motionless in that coma, something changed dramatically.

“They’d said she’d pass sometime in that coming night,” Plant said. “So I thought it was best to keep that life support on until five so everyone who wanted to could get there. But then after I talked to her, something happened and the doctors said, ‘She’s going to pass now.’ I asked them to take all the tubes out of her and clean her up. She’d had those tubes and wires on her all of her life and I didn’t want our last memory of her to be of that. So they cleaned her up and we saw her and at 10:55 [a.m.] on Jan. 29, 2015, she passed away.”

It was the toughest thing he’d ever done in a life he says has been colored by issues. He was born into poverty in rural Tennessee, Ashland City, where the median household income is just $55,855 as of 2017 and the per capita income is just $26,618.

José Uzcátegui (L) and Caleb Plant (R) face off Sunday for Uzcátegui’s IBF super middleweight belt. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
José Uzcátegui (L) and Caleb Plant (R) face off Sunday for Uzcátegui’s IBF super middleweight belt. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

He saw things no young child should ever see: Drugs were prevalent in Ashland City and he was taught how to deal. Things were hectic at home and there were plenty of physical altercations in the home. Things were broken, he said, and doors were ripped from the jamb.

At a young age, he knew he wanted to escape that life.

“I wasn’t happy with what was going on around me, even when I was only 9 years old,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with the economic situation we were in. I love where I’m from, but it’s a tough, poverty-stricken area. There is a lot of meth and heroin and people who abuse alcohol and do pills.

“I didn’t want to be bound by those shackles. I believed early on that I could escape that and become something. I didn’t know exactly what at first, but I knew I was destined for something bigger.”

He was, he said, close to his father and tagged along with him everywhere. When he was 9, his father built what he called “a rinky-dink little gym,” and introduced him to boxing.

Learning to fight would change his life, but he began in the most humble manner imaginable.

“We didn’t have a lot of money and my Dad, he scrambled up what little money he had to put together this gym,” Plant said.

It was, truth be told, a gym in name only. Sure, a heavy bag hung from the wall, and there was a mirror, but it had no ring. His father would put tape on the floor to mark off the ring and when there was sparring, he’d have the kids stand on the tape and lock arms to serve as the ropes.

Plant found he was good at fighting and it changed his life pretty dramatically, at least part of the time.

“From the time I got off school until 10 o’clock at night, that’s where we’d be,” Plant said. “I loved it there because I was the kid who no one wanted to be, but when I got to the gym, I was someone everyone wanted to be. At a young age, grown men were looking up to me and wanted to be like me. I got to be a superstar. I got to be someone who stood out. I got to have an identity. I got to be somebody special. As soon as I’d leave the gym, though, I’d go back to being that kid no one wanted to be.”

He’s now 17-0 with 10 knockouts and if he can win on Sunday, he’ll be the guy everyone wants to be again.

Uzcátegui has fought better opposition and is highly aggressive, but Plant trainer Justin Gamber believes Plant will use Uzcátegui’s aggression against him.

“I love this matchup,” Gamber said. “Stylistically, Uzcátegui comes forward, but he can do some different things. He’s a right-hander but he can fight southpaw. Uzcátegui is good all-around. He’s not great at any single thing, he’s just good everywhere.

“In this fight, Uzcátegui’s biggest assets will be his experience and his comfort level in the ring. But I think he’s tailor-made for Caleb and the hand speed and defense he brings. It’s definitely not going to be an easy fight, but it’s a fight that could play into Caleb’s hands stylistically.”

Plant is a survivor, and he believes he’ll find a way to pull it off because it’s what he’s always done.

He’s lived through the worst horrors one can imagine and stands at the precipice of stardom.

“I’ve been through everyone’s worst nightmare and I’ve come out the other side,” Plant said. “A month after burying my own daughter, I got put on ‘SportsCenter’ for a Top 10 moment when I knocked somebody out real good. I’ve said this before many times, but I’ve taken many defeats in my life. I’m 17-0 right now, no losses, but don’t get it twisted: I’ve taken many, many, many defeats throughout my whole entire life. The important thing is, I’ve always come out on the other side. I’ve never been defeated. I don’t fold and surrender for nobody. That’s just a fact. I don’t care who Jose has fought. I don’t care where any of these guys have fought. I don’t care where they’ve come from.

“I do not fold or break for anybody. When I fight these dudes, I know I’ve been through things they haven’t been through. I’ve been through things they couldn’t go through. I buried my daughter on one Thursday and I was in the gym the next Thursday. I was crying, tearing up and couldn’t make it through with a straight face, but I was there. I’ve survived and I’m stronger than any of these dudes could possibly be because of the dark places I’ve been. And that, I know, will sustain me and carry me.”

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