The last seven months have been chaotic for Caleb Plant, and it’s an exact embodiment of the peaks and valleys he’s encountered throughout his life.
The 27-year-old Tennessean describes his journey with a metaphor to a cardiac monitoring machine that’s found in every hospital room. If the vital signs are good, the lines go up and down. When the line goes flat, you die.
Unfortunately for Plant, an undefeated world champion boxer, he knows the symbolism of an unsteady life all too well because he’s battled through adversity by losing both his mother and infant daughter because of tragic circumstances in recent years. He’s survived homelessness and hunger and emerged from a town that’s never boasted a boxing pedigree to catapult himself onto the sport’s biggest stage.
The recently crowned IBF titlist will be defending the belt that he promised he’d one day deliver to his daughter Alia’s grave when he takes on Mike Lee as the co-featured attraction on Saturday’s Manny Pacquaio-Keith Thurman fight card. It will be a battle between two fellow unbeaten Americans who have taken entirely different paths from a cultural, socioeconomic and hardship standpoint.
In 2015, Plant had to remove life support from his daughter 19-month-old Alia, who was born with brain damage that caused her to have up to 200 seizures a day. She did not have any motor skills and was on life support five different times before eventually succumbing.
“I love her very much. I would do anything and everything for her. I miss her. I wish she was here,” Plant told the Los Angeles Times as a pendant adorned by Alia’s face hung from his neck. “But I feel like she’s in a better place, and luckily, she doesn’t have to suffer anymore.”
Plant’s personal ebbs and flows leading up to the fight, which will be televised nationally on Fox immediately before the Pacquaio-Thurman pay-per-view broadcast begins at 6 p.m. PT, are filled with equal parts joy and pain.
He survived a cut and snatched the championship away from Jose Uzcategui when he dropped the Venezulean twice en route to a competitive unanimous decision on Jan. 13 in Los Angeles. It was his first fight since recovering from a broken hand in August. Moments after he defeated Uzcategui and cried while hugging his belt in the locker room, Plant proposed to girlfriend Jordan Hardy, whom he’ll marry Oct. 5 in Tennessee.
“Being a champion today is a reminder of the years and accumulation of hard work and sacrifice. The things and people that I’ve gained and lost along the way as I continue working on being a better man,” said Plant, who also lost his cutman Todd Harlib, 48, who died in 2016.
Six weeks after Plant was presented with the keys to Ashland City in a public ceremony in Tennessee, on March 10, Plant picked up the keys to his new home in Las Vegas, where he now lives and trains. He then received a call from younger sister Madeline, and much like an EKG reading, after a climactic high came the lowest of lows.
His mother, Beth, 51, was being transported to a hospital just after midnight. In the ambulance, she reportedly became combative. The driver pulled over and called for police presence. When police arrived, she brandished a knife from her backpack and advanced toward an officer, who subsequently shot and killed her after she failed to drop her weapon.
A stunned Plant sat in silence back home as he processed everything.
“I miss my mother very much. She was a very sweet and wonderful lady. She had demons she was battling with,” said Plant. “Some of her demons were stronger than she would have liked for them to be. She had her flaws just like anything other humans do, but we still stayed in touch and we loved each other very much.”
Plant said the relationship with his mother was good growing up. But as he got older, it became more difficult because she dealt with alcohol and substance abuse problems, he said. Training in the wake of tragedy has added an extra layer of motivation as he prepares to defend his championship for the first time.
“Boxing has always been like a sanctuary for me. It’s been a place that I could go and be somebody,” said Plant. “I promised Alia that I would win a world title and bring it to her, and I’m promising my mother that I’ll defend it.”
Plant (18-0, 10 knockouts) will carry his newfound confidence into the squared circle against Lee (21-0, 11 knockouts), who’s stepping down from the light heavyweight division to make weight for the 168-pound tilt.
Lee, who’s overcome auto-immune disease, is a University of Notre Dame finance graduate who bypassed a life on Wall Street to chase his dream as a boxer, a sport he picked up during his senior year in high school. He’s previously starred in Subway commercials and now runs Soul CBD, a wellness company he founded.
“We’re night and day different in being men and boxing ability,” said Plant. “You can’t learn mental fortitude in a book. Those things are earned, not learned. We were bred to do different things, and we come from different worlds.”
Shortly after he was born, Plant was taken home from the hospital and placed in a drawer because his parents didn’t own a crib. Plant said that he and his two sisters didn’t have much growing up living in a trailer, but despite some difficult days without proper shelter, they had a good time because they had each other.
“The hard times that I’ve been through have made me the man that I am,” he said. “When you grow up without things sometimes it can create a person who appreciates it more. I paved my own way.”
Plant followed in his father, Richie’s, footsteps and began kickboxing at the age of 9. Before he fully committed himself to boxing, Plant became a kickboxing champion multiple times and said the sport provided an escape for them.
Richie, who now serves as an assistant trainer to his son alongside head coach Justin Gamber, said traveling across the country brought them closer together.
Caleb plans to be a parent again and wants his future children to live in peace, yet still work and earn everything they want from life, much like he did.
In the meantime, he just became the owner of a French bulldog named Nipsey. He will find additional solace later this year when he honors the late matriarch of his family on his wedding day.
“What I have now didn’t come easy, and it’s not something that I want to lose. This is the life that I asked for, worked for and want to keep,” he said. “To me, boxing is life or death.”