Caleb Plant faces Jose Uzcategui for the IBF middleweight boxing title.
Autumn Allison, Nashville Tennessean
Caleb Plant will step into a ring in Los Angeles this weekend to face a boxing boogeyman, but he isn’t afraid.
How can he be scared of another man when he has done the unthinkable? What can Jose Uzcategui possibly do to cause him more pain than pulling the plug on his 19-month-old daughter’s life support?
Plant, a 26-year-old Nashville native, had to make that call four years ago to end the suffering of Alia, who was born with a condition that caused her to have up to 200 seizures a day. He will challenge for Uzcategui’s International Boxing Federation super middleweight championship Sunday at Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live in a bout that will be televised on Fox Sports 1.
“I’ve been through much bigger obstacles,” Plant said.
Nashville native Caleb Plant will challenge for the International Boxing Federation super middleweight championship on Sunday in Los Angeles. (Photo: RANDY MOOMAW/THE TIMES)
Plant, the No. 2-ranked contender, takes more than a 17-0 record into the title fight: He takes the promise he made to his daughter.
“I’m not just going to bring the championship back to Tennessee,” he said. “I’m going to bring it back to Alia.”
Rising from poverty
Plant was brought home from the hospital after being born and placed in a dresser drawer. His parents couldn’t afford a crib.
“Pulled it out and lined it with blankets,” said his father, Richie.
The family lived in a two-bedroom trailer on a rural patch of land in Ashland City, a town with a few thousand residents located about 25 miles northeast of Nashville.
“I’d say the obstacles started then,” Caleb said. “They just continued.”
As he grew, Caleb saw himself surrounded by poverty. He saw friends get hooked on methamphetamine and strung out on heroin. Others drank themselves into oblivion. Some ended up in jail or prison.
His father worked a variety of jobs. He had a background in kickboxing and scraped together enough money to open what he calls “a hole-in-the-wall school to teach martial arts.”
Caleb was a natural, but kickboxing was more than a sport to him.
“It gave me an outlet,” he said, “so when I got older I wouldn’t be running around with my buddies getting in trouble.”
He took up kickboxing and soon also started boxing to help with his striking technique.
Justin Gamber, a boxing coach from South Dakota who had settled in Nashville, remembers first seeing Caleb when the fighter was about 10 years old.
“He came from martial arts and kickboxing, so he didn’t have typical boxing fundamentals,” Gamber said. “His stance was a little bit different, but he was so fast and athletic that he could get away with it and still have success.”
Caleb went on to win six amateur world kickboxing titles, then decided to focus solely on boxing. He won the national Golden Gloves and earned a spot as an alternate on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
At age 19, his life changed with the birth of his daughter and the news she had been born with brain damage.
“I think that would be tough for any young man to take on a big responsibility like that,” Caleb said. “What came to fruition from that situation became much bigger than I anticipated.”
He was at an amateur boxing event when he got the call informing him Alia was having seizures. When he got home, he realized how serious the situation was.
“She had no motor skills,” Caleb said. “She couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t grab anything. She couldn’t even eat on her own.”
A tube was inserted into her stomach so she could be fed a special formula every three hours. She took eight medications twice a day. When she was able to go home, she slept with a heart monitor and oxygen.
Physicians tried to find something that could stop the seizures but never came up with a diagnosis despite countless tests.
Five times she went on life support; five times she pulled through.
“As all these things began to sink in and you see what she’s going through,” Richie said, “I really felt at some point like Alia was going to be coming into our life and she was going to be leaving our life.”
It never occurred to Caleb his infant daughter wouldn’t get better at some point.
“As a father, I just didn’t accept that or think about that,” he said. “Maybe it was naive of me.”
Alia Plant, daughter of professional boxer Caleb Plant, suffered seizures from birth. (Photo: Team Plant)
Fighting for control
Caleb took Alia to doctor appointments almost daily. He turned professional in May 2014 and found solace in the gym.
“In boxing I feel like I have so much control over everything,” he said. “I can dictate. I can make (opponents) do things I want them to do. I can make them move how I want them to move. I can set the pace – speed it up, slow it down. I’m in control.”
For a few hours a day, as he sweated and pounded punching bags and worked on his technique, he could forget about Alia.
“When you go in the gym, you try to leave whatever is going on at the door and do your thing,” Richie said. “When you’re in the gym, you’re not thinking about those things.
“Then, when your workout is over, you go back to your life.”
Caleb went back to the situation he couldn’t control. He was helpless.
“When I got to go to the boxing gym, even as a little kid, I got to be a superstar,” he said. “Even at a young age, I had grown men looking up to me when I went to the gym. I got to be someone everybody wanted to be.
“But when I went back to the real world, I ended up being somebody nobody would want to be. I’d go back to the house that no one would want to go to.”
The toughest decision
Alia went on life support for the sixth time as her father was about to leave for Reading, Penn., for his sixth professional fight. He canceled it and stayed.
Doctors at Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital induced a coma to slow her brain activity as she repeatedly seized. They told Alia’s father she wouldn’t make it through the night. Somehow, she did.
Caleb wanted to keep fighting, but that next morning he had an epiphany: Maybe his daughter didn’t want to fight anymore.
He went to her bedside in the intensive care unit. Knowing she would not hear or understand his words, he had a final talk with her.
Alia Plant, daughter of professional boxer Caleb Plant. (Photo: Submitted by Team Plant.)
“Alia, are you tired of doing this, Pumpkin?” he asked. “Do you not want to do this anymore? If you don’t, I’m not going to be mad at you. I’m not going to be disappointed in you. If this is something you don’t want to do anymore, I want to let you know that I support you and I love you and I’m proud of you.”
Caleb asked the medical staff to remove the wires and tubes hooked up to her so he could see her long hair and face.
He told them it was time to turn off her life support.
“They took it off,” he said, “and she passed away Jan. 29, 2015, at 10:55 a.m.”
Facing the boogeyman
Uzcategui, the champion Plant will face, is 28-2 with 23 knockouts. Last July, Olympic gold medalist James DeGale gave up his championship rather than fight the Venezuelan. Uzcategui was given the IBF title by virtue of dominating and stopping Andre Dirrell, a top contender.
“After that performance a lot of people didn’t want to fight him,” said Gamber, who became Caleb’s primary trainer in the professional ranks. “It’s kind of a high-risk, low-reward situation for the top guys in the weight class. He’s a dangerous guy.”
Caleb Plant extended his record to 12-0 with a win over Adasat “El Toro” Rodriguez. (Photo: PHOTO COURTESY OF PREMIER BOXING CHAMPIONS)
Caleb, who moved to Las Vegas a couple of years ago to further his boxing career, didn’t hesitate when he was offered the fight. Richie has heard his son talk about how facing a fighter like Uzcategui is the hardest thing most boxers will ever do.
“Boxing is a dangerous sport, and it’s filled with dangerous people,” Richie said. “What he’s gone through with Alia makes that seem not as challenging.”
Caleb will fight Uzcategui. He will fight for the title.
And he’s still fighting for Alia.
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HOW TO WATCH
Caleb Plant, who grew up in Ashland City, will fight for the International Boxing Federation super middleweight championship Sunday night in Los Angeles. Plant is 17-0 with 10 knockout victories. Champion Jose Uzcategui is 28-2 with 23 knockouts. The bout is scheduled for 12 rounds.
Start time: 7 p.m. CT
TV: Fox Sports 1
Also: Select undercard fights will be shown starting at 5:30 p.m. on Fox Deportes.