The Book of Caleb: Tragedy, triumph and race are defining Caleb Plant’s boxing legacy
Sometimes, you don’t have control over losing the things you love. It can be the most painful feeling in the world as you are forced to sit and helplessly watch something being taken from you.
That’s what Caleb Plant had to do.
The first time was when his 20-month-old daughter Alia died in his arms back in 2015 after a lifelong battle with an unknown disorder. The second time was when his mother was shot and killed by police after pulling a knife on a deputy in March.
The pain he has endured due to loss is unfathomable. Yet, he’s still here, still fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. He has no choice but to fight.
As for the things the 27-year-old can control? He’ll never allow these things to be taken from him as long as he has his say. He has fought too hard to yield. These things are his undefeated record and the IBF super middleweight title, which he promised Alia he’d bring back to her. He did just that shortly after realizing his dream of being a champion when he defeated Jose Uzcategui by unanimous decision in January.
On July 20, he has another promise to fulfill. And that’s to retain his world title and bring it to his mother.
He has no choice, because he is in control. He has worked too damn hard and been through way too much not to keep his promises. More importantly, he serves as a vessel for people who are going through tough times and are ready to throw in the towel on life. He was able to overcome the most harrowing of pitfalls and become a world champion. You can, too.
If there was ever a fighter to root for, it’s Caleb Plant.
“Have you ever seen the Book of Eli?” Plant asks on a hot summer afternoon in Las Vegas. He’s sitting at a Starbucks with his fiancée, boxing reporter Jordan Hardy, and is discussing his life to this point.
He makes the inquiry in the midst of talking about how close he is to accomplishing what he set out to do when he put on a pair of boxing gloves as an 9-year-old in the small city of Ashland City, Tenn. (population: 4,538). He is a world champion who will defend his title on the biggest stage of his career when he faces Mike Lee at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on July 20 in the FOX PBC Fight Night Main Event that leads into the massive pay-per-view showdown between Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman. In a couple of months, he’ll marry the woman of his dreams, and he recently purchased his first house in Las Vegas.
But something is missing that will allow him to let down his guard and enjoy the spoils from his triumphs. He just doesn’t know what it is.
“Eli is on a mission and he stops at nothing and he doesn’t really know the mission that he’s on,” Plant explains of the 2010 film starring Denzel Washington as the title character. “He just can’t stop. I don’t know all that I’m searching for, but I just have this sense of desperation and urgency within me all the time that I just have to keep going.”
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In Plant’s mind, he is not close to where he is supposed to be. He won’t let his guard down because he simply can’t afford to do so. This sense of desperation was instilled in a young boy in rural Tennessee who grew up with two sisters to parents Beth and Richie in an impoverished community dominated by pills, heroin and meth.
“There were not a whole lot of opportunities,” he recalls of growing up Ashland City. “It seemed like since everyone was in poverty or involved in drugs in some way or another. People are in this fog there, and since everyone is in the fog, it’s not really a thing they were worried about.”
But even as a preteen, Plant knew this wasn’t how he wanted to live.
“It would just make me really upset that I was living in that type of environment,” he continues. “At an early age I could see through the fog and that I wanted to do something about it. I didn’t like it.”
From what he recalls, Beth and Richie were constantly at odds. Between his mother’s struggles with drug abuse and his father often finding himself at the bottom of a bottle, chaos in the Plant household was a regular occurrence. Whether it was scrounging for their next meal or being chased by foreclosure papers, the day-to-day battle for survival started to become the norm. However, Richie had plans for his children, and the former amateur kickboxer decided to build a sanctuary for his only boy in the form of a mixed martial arts gym.
Little did he know, that sanctuary would be the Plant family’s saving grace.
“I started off doing martial arts, and then I started kick boxing shortly after that,” Caleb Plant says. “One weekend my dad would drive me to Atlanta for a two-day boxing tournament, and the next weekend or two he would drive me to Kentucky for a kick boxing fight. Two weekends later he would drive me all the way to Chicago for one three-round amateur fight.”
Plant fell in love with the sweet science at the age of 13 and decided it would be his way out of poverty. What he didn’t realize was that he would have to reverse engineer the subject of race in boxing. In a sport dominated by minorities, Plant is currently one of eight American-born Caucasians to win a WBC, IBF or WBA world title in the last 38 years. Like a teenage Tiger Woods when he met Jack Nicklaus at the Bel-Air Country Club, or Grant Fuhr lacing up his skates for the Enoch Tomahawks, Plant was a foreigner who had to work twice as hard to prove that he belonged.
That fact isn’t lost on Plant, and he began to feel it as a 17-year-old competing in his first men’s national tournament.
“I was somewhat of a minority, I guess you could say,” he says as he taps on the table. “For a while I was seen as an outsider like I wasn’t really accepted by the culture. But I never really thought of myself as what I can or can’t be because of the color that I am.”
Plant earned the nickname “Sweethands” by his peers who he recalled constantly telling him he “had sweet hands for a white boy.” And that white boy could fight. He was ranked third in the nation and made Team USA in 2011. He followed that by winning the Golden Glove nationals in 2012 and being an alternate for the Summer Olympics. With his dad ditching alcohol to focus on his son’s budding career as his lead trainer, the duo decided to enter the professional ranks in 2014.
It didn’t take long for Plant to climb the rankings. In four years, Plant amassed a record of 17-0 with 10 knockouts. He had yet to meet his match inside the ring, but his world came crashing down outside of the squared circle.
For all of his success, Plant’s biggest challenge was the birth of his daughter, which came before he turned pro on May 7, 2013.
Something was wrong with Alia from the moment she entered the world. She was born with a brain abnormality that would plague her with hundreds of seizures a day. While Caleb fought in the ring, Alia fought for her life. She fought until she couldn’t any longer, and now Caleb Plant fights because the odds will never be as insurmountable as they were for Alia.
“Over the years I’ve gotten more used to it, but it’s not something that I’ve come to terms with, or accept, really,” he says about discussing those years of watching his baby girl battle for survival. “The reason I have told this story is because I know that I’m not the only person out there who’s had or has a disabled child, and I’m not the only person who’s lost a child for whatever reason.
“I’ve opened up about it because I want other people to know that they can still chase their dreams or that they can still become successful. That they can still obtain whatever goal that they’re on a mission for. I want people to know that … I know it’s cliché, but if I can do it, you can do it.”
He did it. His beating Uzcategui on Jan. 13 proved Plant belonged in the conversation as one of boxing’s best. He now finds himself in a different situation than the one in Tennessee.
The father and son don’t spend a lot of time soaking in their success, but Caleb is aware he has made Richie proud. Few can comprehend what Caleb Plant has endured to get to this point, but Richie Plant knows about as much as one person can know about his or her child.
“We don’t really sit down and have big old conversations about it,” Caleb Plant says when asked if he celebrates his success as a fighter. “Sometimes it’s just eye contact that says, ‘Look how far we came, and look what boxing has done for us.'”
But turbulence wasn’t done with the Plant family. Just two months after the biggest win of his career, as he was moving into his new home, Plant was dealt another huge blow in the form of a phone call from his younger sister informing him that their mother had been killed.
Not only is he fighting for Alia, but he is now fighting for Beth.
Which is why July 20 is far from another fight for Plant. His opponent is Lee, who couldn’t have a more different backstory, aside from the commonality that they are white Americans vying for the super middleweight title, a first in boxing.
You may have seen Lee in a commercial peddling Subway as the national spokesperson for the sandwich company. A product of Notre Dame, Lee turned down a lucrative career on Wall Street to try his hand at boxing. Aside from being white and unbeaten, the two have nothing in common.
“He hasn’t had nightmares about things that I’ve been through in real life,” Plant says when addressing their backgrounds. There’s been a fair amount of trash talk between the two, and Plant admits he is taking it personally. Then again, he takes all fights personally, because he views them as a battle for survival.
“Anybody who’s trying to send me back to where I came from and all in the way of my dreams and aspirations, that’s personal to me,” he says. “Boxing is life or death for me. I do not look at this as just a sport, this is my livelihood. If I don’t win, I don’t get to go home, because I’m not going to have a home.”
Although Plant has been living in the moment and is still young with an 18-0 record and much more to accomplish, he is beginning to plant the seeds for his legacy. It starts with his future. He has already purchased his first home and will jump the broom with Hardy in October before the two start a family to firmly establish the Plant name.
He admits Hardy has been his rock during trying times, and it appears she showed up at the perfect time to be the peace to settle Plant’s chaos.
Plant met the woman of his dreams in 2016, just a year after the passing of his daughter. He wasn’t looking, but he also wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity if it presented itself.
The story of how Plant and Hardy met is consistent: She liked a few pictures on Plant’s Instagram and happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time Plant was getting ready to face Adasat Rodriguez in his 12th professional fight. Plant made a promise to himself that if he ever met this mysterious woman, he would speak to her. Little did he know, Hardy was present at his weigh-in. She purposefully positioned herself by the water fountain at which Plant would rehydrate. The two spoke, but Plant didn’t ask for her number, a non-action by which Hardy was taken back.
“The prettiest girl in the room? You can’t be pressing them,” Plant says as he glances over at Hardy, who is in conversation with his publicist. “You just got to sit back. Luckily it worked out and we just started talking.”
The two maintained a long-distance relationship as Hardy lived in Las Vegas while Plant resided in Tennessee. Soon enough, the unbeaten fighter made the move to Las Vegas, and the rest is history.
What’s interesting about their relationship isn’t so much about Plant being a white kid from Tennessee and Hardy being a black woman from Las Vegas — it’s how different their respective backgrounds really are. Where Plant was surrounded by drugs and poverty, Hardy grew up in a seven-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot home her parents built.
Once again, Plant found himself reverse engineering the perceived role of race in a relationship. Hardy would be the one from a solid foundation, while Plant’s world was unlike anything the daughter of Eugene Hardy, a gang detective on the police force, had ever experienced.
“I knew that in order to have a relationship go well, I’d have to understand what he’d been through,” Hardy says. “It let me know that he needed more love than I would need, because I grew up with all that love and affection, and he didn’t.”
That willingness to learn about each other’s differences created a peace Plant has needed to mute the noise that comes with his turbulent past. When the madness is outside the door, it’s just Caleb and Jordan, playing “Call of Duty: Zombies” in a hotel room, enjoying each other’s company, talking about starting a family in 2020 and plotting to become boxing’s first power couple.
With Jordan working inside the industry as a reporter and Caleb being knee-deep in his career, the future Mrs. Plant has plans to help the boxing community and give Caleb the opportunity to finally do what he’s always wanted — give back.
She speaks of starting a boxer’s union when it’s time for Plant to hang up the gloves. The union will focus on financial literacy and education so fighters can survive once their short careers in pugilism are over. And because of Plant’s burning desire to make sure kids like him have a brighter future, Hardy’s plan nurtures the community that gave him the opportunity to overcome a nightmarish struggle. It’s commendable and also how you establish a legacy.
“Caleb can be remembered for what he does in the ring, but if we’re changing these fighters’ lives, he’ll be remembered forever,” Hardy says. “Legends are remembered by helping people and changing lives, not by winning belts.”
But before fighter’s unions, marriage and children, Plant has to take care of business July 20. As he reiterates, he can’t afford to lose.
“If I lose what are they going to say about me?” Plant asks while leaning back in his chair with his eyebrows raised. The question isn’t rhetorical. He really wants to know if he’ll be regarded as just another great white hype.
He’s far from it.
Unfortunately, Plant can’t see the forest for the trees. If he did, he’d realize he is already bigger than boxing. He is an inspiration to those who have lost and had to love all over again, as well as those who believe they are confined to their race, religion or environment.
“I’m just hoping throughout my career I can help eliminate what people can and can’t be because of where they’re from or what they look like or their religion or ethnicity,” he says after a long pause. “I don’t believe in that. I don’t think people are bound and shackled to what they can accomplish and what they can be because of the color for their skin.”
Even if he doesn’t realize it yet, no matter what happens July 20, Caleb Plant has already won the biggest battle of them all: life.