Tennessee boxing champ survives death of daughter, mother

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              IBF super middleweight champion Caleb Plant poses during the weigh-in for his fight against Vincent Feigenbutz Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The fight is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 15. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Stepping through the ropes and into the ring is where Caleb “Sweethands” Plant controls everything. From the pace of a bout to how quickly he finishes off an opponent.

The ring is both sanctuary and escape for the Tennessee native who fought his way from growing up in a trailer in a small town outside Nashville to the IBF super middleweight championship. No opponent can ever hit him with harder blows than what he’s already dealt with in his young life.

He took his 19-month-old daughter off life support in 2015. He became the world champ in 2019, only to lose his mother a few weeks later after she was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy.

“To know the things that I’ve overcome and came out the other side with my chin up and my chest out, things way bigger than any man could give me, I walked through things that most people couldn’t withstand, and I came out with my head high and my chest out,” Plant told The Associated Press. “In the real world, there’s a lot of things that we can’t control, but when I step through those ropes I get to control everything.”

On Saturday night, the 27-year-old Plant will defend his title for the second time since beating Jose Uzcategui for the belt in January 2019. Undefeated at 19-0 with 11 knockouts, Plant will fight Vincent Feigenbutz of Germany at Bridgestone Arena in front of family, friends and fans who know his painful journey.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Plant said. “Something that I wanted to do since I was a kid, bring a world title to the Bridgestone successfully. So to be doing it at this stage in my career, it’s beautiful. So I’m focused. I’ve worked extremely hard this camp to ensure that I get my hand raised in spectacular fashion.”

Born in Nashville, Plant grew up in Ashland City about 25 miles northwest. His father, Richie, opened a small martial arts gym and started his son in kickboxing when Plant was 9. Plant won nine national titles and five world championships before turning to boxing at 12.

He picked up his nickname at a Golden Gloves regional.

“My first time, people go like, ‘Man, who is this kid? You know he’s got some sweet hands. He’s slick, he’s sharp, he’s fast. he’s got some sweet hands.’ It just kind of stuck,” Plant said.

He placed fourth at the 2010 USA Boxing National Championships, was the 2011 national champ at 178 pounds and was an alternate for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Plant was 97-20 as an amateur.

Daughter Alia was born May 7, 2013, with a medical condition that caused repeated seizures.

She needed a feeding tube, daily medications, a heart monitor and oxygen. Plant turned pro in May 2014, knocking out Travis Davidson after only 47 seconds in his debut. Plant kept fighting to pay the bills, going 5-0 with four knockouts in 2014.

His daughter repeatedly ended up on life support. The sixth time, Plant realized Alia had fought with everything she had after surviving a night in an induced coma at Vanderbilt’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital. That’s when Plant let his daughter go on Jan. 29, 2015.

She remains with him still.

“Even though she may not still be here physically, energy … it doesn’t die. It’s only transferred,” Plant said. “So her energy still lives through me and is motivation to keep her name alive and so everything that she went through for it not to be in vain, for me to let her spirit live on through all my accomplishments.”

Plant, who now lives in Las Vegas, got his first title shot Jan. 13, 2019. He beat Uzcategui in Los Angeles and had a hometown celebration Jan. 31. His mother, Beth, died March 9. She was being transported in an ambulance when she reportedly pulled a knife. The driver called police, and a deputy shot her when she brandished the knife at the officer. She was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Plant dealt with the roller-coaster of emotions, drawing on lessons learned from his father on how to focus during training and fights. In July, Plant successfully defended his title with a technical knockout of Mike Lee in the third round.

“Champions, no matter what’s going on in their life or even in the gym, at the end of the day when it’s time to do what they do best, they go in there and they block all that out,” Plant said. “They block out all the noise, they block out all the ups and downs,and they do the job. And that’s what I’m best at.”