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Origin story – The makings of Caleb Plant

Caleb Plant
Al Bello/Getty Images
Considering where Caleb Plant has come from and what he’s been through, it’s little wonder that a fight with the mighty Canelo Álvarez is not a huge concern, writes Donald McRae

“I THINK boxing is an imitation of life,” Caleb Plant says as he prepares for his biggest and most testing night in the ring when he faces Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez in Las Vegas on Saturday. “You get knocked down and you get back up. You don’t quit no matter how dark it gets, or whatever adversity passes your way. You just got to keep biting down and fighting, coming up the other side and not quitting, no matter what. The things that happened in my life have prepared me for this moment.”  

Boxing is littered with bleak and troubling backstories. The men and women who show such courage and resolve whenever they step into the ring have invariably suffered in their past lives. They have a deeper hunger and determination than more ordinary people and can withstand the hardship and the hurt of the ring because they have been steeled by all they have endured. 

Yet, even in boxing, the story of Caleb Plant stands out as being bruising. Plant grew up in a trailer in the impoverished setting of Ashland City, a small settlement outside Nashville in Tennessee, and he describes his childhood as “chaotic.” His mother had a terrible drug and alcohol problem and Plant lived mostly with his father and his sister Madeline. Their mobile home was freezing in the winter and stinking hot in the summer. Sometimes he had to plead for money at school to get a slice of pizza for him and Madeline.

Plant’s earliest years were made even more difficult because his dad had little direction. He believes that both he and his dad were “saved” by boxing. Once his dad managed to scrape together enough cash to take over a kickboxing gym, life at last found a purpose. “Yeah, definitely,” Plant says. “It was a good place for all of us, even my sister Madeline, for her to jog along with us and work out, have friends and buddies there that helped lift us out of a difficult place. We could just all get out for a little bit and do something that we love. Most of all it helped that we did it as a family.” 

Plant showed a natural aptitude for boxing and, as his skills flourished, he was given the nickname of Sweethands at a regional Golden Gloves tournament. “Man, who is this kid?” Plant remembers someone saying at ringside. “He sure has got real sweet hands. He’s slick and sharp and he’s got some real fast, sweet hands.” 

In 2011, when he was 19, Plant won the National Golden Gloves championship at 178 pounds. The following year, Sweethands was an unlucky alternate at 165 pounds for the US Olympic team at London 2012. Even though he didn’t make the Olympics he felt certain he was on the right path as a boxer as he looked towards the pro game.  

Caleb Plant
Amanda Wescott/Showtime

He made his pro debut on 10 May 2014 and, by then, he had become a father himself. Just over a year earlier, on 7 May 2013, when Plant was only 20, his daughter Alia had been born. But the chaos of his childhood was replicated by the 19 months that marked the brief and tragic life-span of Alia. She had been born with brain damage, which prevented her from being able to eat normally or develop the motor skills necessary to sit up on her own or walk or talk. Her rare medical condition also caused multiple seizures, which Plant says could exceed a hundred a day. She had to be on a life support machine on five separate occasions before he and Alia’s mother, Carman Jean Briscoe-Lee, decided it would be more merciful to let her slip away. Alia died on 29 January 2015 when they agreed that her life support machine should be switched off.

His professional record then was 5-0 and Plant has admitted that there were times when he chose to be in the gym, preparing for a fight, rather than at Alia’s bedside. But he was young and stricken by her fate. He did what came naturally to him – fight. Plant also knew, deep down, that he could not save his daughter. He says now that he fights to keep her memory alive. In the same way he is also driven to honour his mother who was shot dead by the police in March 2019. She was taken by an ambulance to hospital when she became violent and pulled out a knife. The ambulance driver called the police and Beth Plant threatened one of their officers with the same knife. In the ensuing altercation she was shot. 
She died knowing that her son had, two months earlier, become the IBF super-middleweight belt-holder when he won a clear and unanimous decision victory over José Uzcátegui in Los Angeles. Plant is emphatic that the twin tragedies of losing his daughter and his mother continue to drive him. “I do use it in a positive way,” he stresses. “It’s a big motivation factor for me.” 

Plant and Álvarez have already ramped up the bitterness before their highly-anticipated showdown on Saturday night. The fight will decide who is the world super-middleweight champion, because Álvarez currently sits at No.1 in the rankings to Plant’s two, with all sanctioning body belts also on the line. But their face-off at the first press conference in Los Angeles in September turned nasty. After emotional and softly-spoken words were exchanged, Canelo pushed Plant violently across the stage. Plant came hurtling back at Canelo and punches flew. He was wearing sun glasses and they were crunched into his face – leaving Plant with a small cut under his right eye.  

Thinking of his own mother, Plant shrugs at the fact that Canelo tweeted: “Don’t talk about my mom.”

When I interviewed Canelo last month he told me that Plant had made a mistake by turning their sporting rivalry into a personal feud and that he will be punished in the ring – in much the same way that he hurt Billy Joe Saunders earlier this year.   

Plant sounds relaxed when I ask him if he feels he has got under Canelo’s skin – because the great Mexican fighter was clearly riled by his remarks before the shoving and punching began. “I think that would be a question for him,” Plant says coolly. “I’m not exactly sure. But he knows he’s got somebody in front of him who’s here to win. He knows the most important thing on my mind is winning and collecting those belts.  I’m not here to just pick up the cheque and get out of the ring early. He knows where I’m coming from and he knows that he’s got a hard road in front of him on November 6.”

Yet in his recent bouts, where he has been dominant and imperious, Canelo has looked like the best fighter in the world. The unbeaten Plant is an intelligent man and he knows that, going into just his 22nd fight compared to Canelo’s 60th contest as a pro, he is the clear underdog. He still leans forward intently when I ask him to address Canelo’s strengths.  

“He’s got a lot of experience,” Plant admits before turning the question round to suit his line of thinking. “But sometimes that experience is overrated. Honestly, everybody that I fight has had more pro fights than me, more experience than me in the pro game. I don’t care about that. I have a lot of experience since I was a kid of world kickboxing championships and the higher level of amateur competition leading to the Olympics. I’m a Golden Gloves national champion and I was ranked in the top three or four at multiple national tournaments in the USA and internationally. I fought in Italy. I fought in Trinidad. I’ve fought in international matches in the States and overseas as well, and all of those moments have helped prepare for this moment.  Yeah, he’s got a lot of experience as a pro but that’s just one factor.  When it comes to winning a fight a lot of other factors come into play, especially at a high level like this.” 

All his vast amateur experience won’t really help Plant when he steps into the Canelo cauldron at the MGM Grand. He has never been in any fight that comes close to the magnitude of this battle and he will be tested like never before. Plant insists he is ready: “I know that this is the biggest fight I’ve had so far in my career but that’s always the goal. I just got to keep moving forward. I want each fight to be bigger than the last one. This isn’t anything that I haven’t asked for. I want this and I’m prepared for it. Being undisputed will cement my name in the history books of boxing forever. That’s why I do this. That’s what I set out to accomplish when I first started boxing.”

Plant turns to the best heavyweight fight seen in Vegas for years when he remembers watching Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder’s extraordinary bout last month. “It was a great fight. Deontay showed a ton of heart. He showed even after that loss [in his second fight with Fury in February 2020] he was willing to die in the ring. A lot of fighters say that but few truly mean it, and he showed that he meant that there and then. On the other side, you’ve got to tip your hat to Fury. He definitely showed that he is the best heavyweight in the world. So my hat goes off to both of them.”

Is he ready to show the incredible resolve that the two big men displayed in both rising twice from the canvas before Fury finally knocked out Wilder? “Absolutely. I will do whatever it takes. I envisioned myself being in this position since I was a kid. I envisioned myself getting my hand raised, winning world titles, becoming the undisputed champion who writes my name in the history books forever. This is something I have seen happening long before anyone started interviewing me about it. Even when things were so hard as a kid I was dreaming of this moment.”

The 29-year-old Plant’s eyes are gleaming with intensity now. But has he been affected by the size and significance of even the build-up to this contest? “Honestly, it hasn’t been too different,” he suggests. “I headlined on Fox a handful of times. Yeah, there’s been a lot of media obligations this time. People come out for a week and they’re filming and following you everywhere. But, really, until fight week we’ve just had one press conference in LA. So it really hasn’t been too much. And the rest of the stuff has been fine. It’s just interviews, answering a few questions and taking a few pictures. It’s not a big deal.

“Once we get to fight week there will be some anticipation for sure. You put so much work into it, and your sacrifice, and you dedicate so much of your time and effort into one fight. But that’s what I do every time, no matter which fight it is in front of me. I don’t train differently when I fight Canelo for the undisputed title than when I trained to win the [IBF] title or a title eliminator before that. I was just as dedicated when I trained to defend my [IBF] title against Mike Lee and Caleb Truax and all those guys. I put my all – blood, sweat and tears – into every fight and so as you come down the home stretch in the last couple of days before the fight happens there’s definitely that anticipation and you just want to get in the ring and show the world what you can do and what you’re made of. It’s been a long hard road for me to get to this point. But I’m ready to show the best of myself.”

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