Caleb Plant usually carries himself with composure and conviction. Whether he is talking late at night on a Zoom call to me about the terrible adversity of his past life, or walking around Las Vegas this week, answering one question after another about how he feels before he faces the formidable Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez in their world super-middleweight unification bout on Saturday night, Plant has been impressive. He will defend his IBF title while trying to wrest the WBA, WBC and WBO belts away from Álvarez. The winner will become the first undisputed world super-middleweight champion in boxing history.
In these last few days both men have been respectful of each other despite the constant reminders that, in September, they exchanged insults and a few blows after a face off descended into a fracas when Álvarez pushed Plant with real force. “It was normal pre-fight banter,” Plant says with a shrug. “You know how it goes: ‘I’m going to beat you. No, I’m going to beat you. Fuck you. No, fuck you.’ It seemed like he lost his cool then and I responded the way I was taught to respond. I’m a fighter.”
Álvarez is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and Plant suggests the Mexican’s reputation means that “some of these guys he has fought have been coming to hand their belt over. He knows that’s not the situation with this fight. So he was trying to get me riled up. It’s boxing. How many times has it happened before? How many times is it going to happen after this? People make such a big deal out of it because it’s a headline or a way to promote your videos. He pushed me, I got one on him, he got one on me and that was it. I’ve been in worse scuffles than that. What’s the big deal?”
Plant is at his most interesting when his calm resolve is set against all that he endured as a boy who grew up in poverty and desperation in Ashland City, just outside Nashville in Tennessee. He describes his childhood as “lost” and “chaotic” for his mother, Beth, had “real demons” as she drank too much and had a drug problem.
His dad, Richie, who will be in his corner on Saturday night, had his own difficulties but boxing, the fighter says, “saved us. It gave us direction when we had none. My dad got this old gym and it gave him a place to go. He had grown up fighting and he liked martial arts so to have that outlet helped so much. He was full of life again.”
They still did not have much money and Caleb, his sister Madeline and his dad lived in a trailer which felt like an ice-box in the winter and a tin oven in the blistering summer months. “You can use your imagination as to how it was,” Plant says of those bleak years. “There were times in the winter when we had no money for propane [gas] and we wouldn’t have heating. We’d just bundle up, put your sweats on, put your hoodie on, grab a bit of blanket and stay warm. I can still remember those days and it is a big motivation factor that I keep in mind to this day. It makes me keep on working so I don’t end up back in that situation.”
What kept him going when life seemed so hopeless? “I felt like if I quit then it’s going to be like this for ever. But boxing gave me hope that if I kept at it then I can make a better life for myself. I can get the nice things in life I want – a nice home, a nice car and everything we didn’t have when I was a kid. But, just as importantly, I didn’t quit because I truly love boxing. So besides obtaining the material things that boxing can bring you, it gave me a new way of living. But of course life keeps on testing you.”
Plant stresses that he is driven by the memory of both his daughter and his mother. In January 2015, his little girl Alia’s life support machine was switched off. She had a rare medical condition which caused brain damage and over a hundred seizures most days. Plant had just turned 20 when Alia was born and, 19 months later, she was gone. Then, in March 2019, two months after he became world champion, his mother’s life came to a violent end when she was shot dead by the police after she threatened an officer with a knife.
“Thinking of them both every day, before every fight, drives me on. Losing both my daughter and my mother was real painful but it’s made me stronger. Fighting for their memory is a motivating factor for me.”
Now in Las Vegas, a long way from Ashland City and the tragedy of his past, the 29-year-old Plant’s unification showdown with Álvarez is bolstered by his self-belief and all the work he has put in to reach this point as an undefeated world champion. “We’re not just up here keeping our fingers crossed hoping that things turn out how they should,” he says quietly. “That’s not how life works. If you want something, then you’ve got to believe it and you’ve got to feel it in your heart. But you got to work for it. You go through things in life but if you put enough work in then eventually you feel indestructible. That’s the point where I’m at in my life, where I feel like I can conquer anything and everything.”
On Saturday night he has to conquer the cold ferocity of Canelo, a far more decorated world champion who is as smart as he is ruthless. But, in a poignant moment, Plant looks at me and says: “Boxing is an imitation of life. 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. Everything that happens in a fight is the same as what happens in life. So after everything I have been through I feel like I am ready. Besides my boxing ability, my skill and all I’ve studied about the sport, the things that happened in my life have prepared me for this moment.”