A champion's mettle: How Caleb Plant earned his Canelo Alvarez bout

Lance Pugmire
USA TODAY SPORTS +

LAS VEGAS — Caleb Plant can’t bring himself to admit triumph has already arrived just by stepping to the ring Saturday night against Canelo Alvarez. 

“It’s good, but yesterday’s victories don’t count anymore,” Plant said. “Becoming a champion was a goal, but it wasn’t the goal. The goal is to be one of the greatest of all time, and Saturday night is where I plant my flag.” 

Nashville’s Plant (21-0, 12 KOs) ascended from his position as International Boxing Federation super-middleweight champion to this ultimate test against boxing’s pound-for-pound king, Alvarez (56-1-2, 38 KOs). 

The winner will stand as the sport’s first undisputed four-belt 168-pound champion.

Alvarez, Mexico’s four-division champion, said after Wednesday’s news conference that claiming the distinction will rank as the greatest achievement of his career. 

First, he has to defeat Plant, whose will and resilience lifted him from personal tragedies that sent him to the canvas of life and inspired a resolve that got him to this point.

Plant, 29, endured the 2015 death of his infant daughter, Alia, due to a childhood illness, followed four years later by the shooting death of his mother, Beth, during her confrontation with law enforcement officers. 

“When you go through those things, it’s going to callous your mind,” Plant’s father, Richie, said. “All that he’s been through … he didn’t ask for that. It just came his way. He’s chosen not to let those moments beat him up, but to make him stronger, and they’ve made him stronger for any situation in life.” 

Plant became IBF champion four years to the month after Alia’s death, tearfully dedicating to her that victory in Los Angeles over Jose Uzcategui.

In three title defenses since, his caliber of competition has been criticized as his managers positioned him for this lucrative Showtime pay-per-view date against Alvarez. 

Alvarez is a four-division champion seeking to post his fourth victory in an 11-month span, while collecting nearly $40 million to boot. He stands a strong -1100 favorite to win the fight by Tipico Sportsbook, with the over/under on rounds set at 9.5. 

MORE:Canelo Alvarez won't wager on himself vs. Caleb Plant, but calls fight 'a sure bet'

“One thing I remind myself is that if you created the moment, how can the moment be bigger than you?” Plant said. “I’ve always felt I perform best under the brightest lights and the biggest moments.” 

Reaching this glamorous hour, when spotlights will usher his ring entrance in front of a roaring MGM Grand crowd, was seeded in an 8-year-old youth football practice, when Plant was pulled off the field by his coach in Ashland, Tennessee.  

“Do all you can do. Be all you can be,” the coach, Bam Morris, told young Plant. 

All these years later, Plant said, “People don’t realize the impact they have on your life. But, ‘Do all you can do, be all you can be’ … I’ve been trying to ride that wave ever since then.” 

The only professional boxing trainer he’s ever had, an obscure South Dakotan named Justin Gamber, witnessed Plant’s adherence to mental fortitude throughout his life. 

Gamber said, by his high standards, Plant only lost three of his first 85 professional rounds. One of those came during his third fight, when Plant dropped the second of a scheduled four rounds.

“We cannot afford to lose a single round in a four-round fight,” Gamber scolded in the corner. 

Plant’s eyes bulged, he exhaled in determination and then knocked out his opponent the next round. 

“That told me when the going gets tough, he’s not going to spiral and step down. He’s going to step up,” said Gamber, who has advised Plant this camp, along with former two-division champion Andre Ward. “He's never been on this level, but we don’t know how Canelo will do at that next level we’re trying to take him. I know I’ve seen enough of my fighter to believe in it and trust in it."

"When you lose a daughter and you lose a mother the way he lost his … what does that do to you inside? He definitely needs that toughness to win this fight. He needs to mix it up. He needs to box for the most part. He’ll have to get aggressive and step up to Canelo. If he makes Canelo miss on a big shot, he can’t just float away. I’m confident in him and I’m confident, more importantly, in this,” Gamber said, pointing to his head. "Could his physical abilities be greater than most because of what he has gone through and what that has made him?"

Personal heartbreak had the ability to shatter Plant emotionally, but instead the fighter said he focused on getting through to better days ahead. 

“When you’re in that position — when things are crumbling around you — the thing to remember always is that, ‘If I quit, this is all it’s ever going to be. It’s never going to get better,’” he said. "It was pride for me, not allowing anything to conquer me. I don’t want to get beat — in life, in anything. I’m a very prideful person. My will to win has been with me forever.” 

Richie Plant said what he most concluded from his son’s persistence is “he’s a fighter. He was born for this.” 

Alvarez is fighting at his peak, six months removed from shattering multiple facial bones of Billy Joe Saunders while taking his World Boxing Organization belt. 

But Plant expressed disregard for the substantial odds against him Wednesday, and he’s not content to accept satisfaction in what he’s made of himself. 

“Boxing is a big test of character, a reveal of who we really are," Plant said. "I’ve had plenty of times when I could’ve bowed out, plenty of times to quit, and people would’ve said, ‘Hey well, this happened to him, that's reasonable.’ 

“That’s just not how I’m wired. I don’t believe in that. So on Saturday, there’s not going to be any quit in me. Until the final bell, you’ll all see the man I am.”