CANCER swarmed all over Omar Henry in November 2012. The attack came suddenly and without warning. The light-middleweight boxer was out running when it began. Strong pains bent him over and sent him to hospital. Doctors noticed his eyes were yellow. They discovered his beaten-up liver.
“The emergency room physician, after viewing his liver, asked Omar if he had recently been in a car accident,” said Alan Hopper of Don King Productions – who were managing Henry’s career at the time. “Omar told him he had not.”
The unbeaten prospect had been preparing for a fight, but not one like this. He was excited about boxing Juan Cabrera in a Showtime television headliner. The stage for his long-awaited arrival had been set. It was a stage he’d wanted for most of his life. But the 25-year-old was too ill to perform.
“The doctor told him he was lucky he didn’t go into a prizefight in this condition as his liver could have easily been ruptured during such an encounter,” Hopper continued.
Doctors at University of Chicago Medical Center explored the fighter’s body further. Operations delved deep but could not disinter the disease. The countdown began. On December 12, Henry informed his army of Facebook followers about his condition.
“This is for anybody who don’t know or is confused on what’s going on with me,” he wrote. “I have been in pain for over a month now in the hospital. They eventually found out that I have a nasty rare cancer inside of me. Tomorrow now is my final operation to remove the cancer out of me.
“I pray all goes well. I hope everyone take a lesson out of this no matter how healthy you are don’t take your health for granted because it can be taken from you in a blink of an eye. Please pray for me tomorrow this will be a huge operation. I pray no complication and God protects me. God bless and love you all.”
Five more days passed.
“I survived my surgery with my mom by my side but the battle still isn’t over. God is still in control.”
Fate had fired a gun into Henry’s future. The bullets smashed through the lights.
His fighting style was hectic but honed, fan-friendly, and he had charisma to match. All that watched were impressed. Just a month before his world warped, Henry had talked about his desire to be Ricky Hatton’s comeback opponent. But now Omar was just praying for a miracle.
Fans and friends followed the young man’s demise on Henry’s social media pages. Trainer Jay Johns, who met Henry when he was 15 years old and turned him from a Roy Jones wannabe into one of the game’s most revered prospects, did not believe what was happening.
Back in 2009, three years before illness struck, Henry started to get attention. Manny Pacquiao and his team were preparing for Miguel Cotto and needed a sparring partner to replicate the menace of the Puerto Rican. They approached Johns about using Omar, who had won his first five paid contests in the opening round. But Johns wasn’t keen on his young fighter being bashed up by the peak Filipino.
“Thanks but no thanks,” came the reply.
Henry’s focus was distracted by the interest.
“At the beginning I thought he was going to become a world champion,” Johns reflects today. “But you need to be able to retain the focus. After eight or nine fights he [Henry] started to do all these interviews and talk to other people. He started to believe he had made it when we were not even halfway there.”
The relationship started to disintegrate. Neither Johns, nor his co-manager Cameron Dunkin, could stop Henry from aiming too high, too soon.
“There is no doubt he could have been world champion,” Dunkin enthuses. “Everyone who watched him or sparred him knew that. He could punch, he could box, he had a decent chin. There were no real weaknesses to him. He was extremely strong and all the ingredients were there – physically at least – to be a world champion.”
Mentally, though, something was missing. The growing fighter could not separate his ambitions from reality. With his attentions elsewhere, Henry’s activity dwindled, and promotional giants Top Rank dropped him.
“He became a bit of a celebrity,” Johns explains. There is no bitterness in his voice. “But you have to remember where that ‘celebrity’ comes from. It came from his boxing ability and unless you focus on that boxing ability you have nothing to fall back on. After we split we stayed in contact and I tried to get him to focus on that boxing. From a cursory glance, from the outside looking in, he was starting to get back that focus on his boxing and I was pleased about that.”
After a quiet 2010 and 2011, Henry indeed started to get back on track. He had been signed by Don King. He was sparring with and learning from Floyd Mayweather. He was unbeaten in 13 contests. Without question, the youngster was focusing on the future when disease took hold.
But Johns was initially dubious about the cancer claims. Like many young men, Omar had a habit of exaggerating the truth.
“To be truthful he used to fabricate so many things on Facebook for the benefit of his fans,” Johns says. “He would make up these brilliant stories and from a marketing standpoint he was a genius. I half-expected, and hoped,
it was a misguided plan to get more followers and then sell more tickets for his fights. I was waiting for him to announce on Facebook that it had all been a hoax, and he was sorry. Listen, this sounds bad. But a lot of people who knew him, including some top writers, thought the same.”
It was no hoax. Henry’s condition was real. Johns realised the horrible truth when he spoke to the fighter’s sister. She confirmed his worst fears. That mischievous and cocky kid he had known for 10 years, who he had taught to fight, was dying.
“I was taken aback. Oh man. It was terrible.”
Christmas was a week away but there would be no celebration for Omar Henry. He was in a hospital bed with tubes protruding from his nose and wrists, horrific gifts from the pancreatic cancer that had taken hold. His tomorrows were crumbling but he drew strength from the support he received, from the fear of what would happen if he gave up. His Facebook page – that was once used to call out Saul Alvarez and post pictures of his buddy Lindsay Lohan – became his salvation.
“Merry Christmas to everyone and thanks for all the wishing to me,” he reported on Christmas Day. “If you’re not in pain and in the hospital like me with stage 4 cancer be very grateful to God. In reality there’s more stuff to thank him for than to complain about especially gifts you receive from loved ones it’s the thought that counts.”
That would be the last time sorrow would grace Henry’s words. He knew there was no place for that in the battle he was about to face. He also knew this was a fight he could not cope with alone.
“Today the fight of my life starts Chemotherapy,” Henry reported on December 28. “Pray for me.”
His updates started to dwindle as the ferocious disease grew inside of him.
On January 8 he reached for the keyboard again.
“I got exactly less than 1 month left until my 26th birthday February 8. Hopefully I live to see it. I really have been getting a lot of support with kind words and prayers from all over the world with this battle with cancer. Thank you and I will continue to fight for us.”
Despite the optimism his mentor felt powerless. But like the rest who watched and waited, he was impressed – but not surprised – by Henry’s incredible will to survive.
“He was a fighter through and through,” Johns remembers crisply. “Not just in the boxing ring but in life. He would step up to any challenge. If a guy came in and said, ‘I can run faster than you’, they would go at it. He would meet them at the track and they would run. He would jump higher than men who were a foot taller than him just because people thought he would not be able to. It’s the kind of guy he was. And it showed. His nature was to fight, to win, to prove people wrong. It’s what always shone through.”
Henry had been quiet but was still alive as January came to a close. His 26th birthday was in sight. Although he publicly declared that he could still win the war, he was immersed in the battle to get past his 25th year. But the clock was ticking quicker than ever.
“While I’m in this current state I am fighting with my family by my side and I will not go down for the count,” Henry said on January 28. “I am a champion who has chosen to fight not just for myself but for those whose faith is believing in what you can’t see and I will continue to fight!!! And fight!!! And fight!!! Till I knock this sickness out. Your love and support mean the most to me, your prayers are prayers to not only me but others like me…I want to thank God for unconditional love and unconditional fans. Thanks again Omar Henry.”
But God’s plan for Omar Henry was not survival.
The courageous fighter, virtually broke, would soon be defeated. On January 31 he took to Facebook for the last time.
“To my friends and loyal fans. I want to thank you all for the good wishes and prayers. As of right now my situation has got difficult for myself and my family. I am in need of everyone’s support due to my financial struggle. My family is in need of any help possible. And God grant me more time to see my birthday. Thank you again. My love is to all my friends and loyal fans.”
He died the following day. Eight days short of his 26th birthday. Three months after they noticed his yellow eyes and beaten-up liver.
Maybe Henry would not have fulfilled his potential as a boxer. Not many do. But in his final weeks he at last proved he was the fighter he always wanted to be.