Unlikely champion Caleb Truax has lived a real-life Rocky story

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Caleb Truax celebrates after beating James DeGale in their IBF super middleweight championship bout at the Copper Box Arena in London on Dec. 9, 2017. (AP)

The story of the greatest night of Caleb Truax’s professional life, an improbable world title victory on the road against an Olympic gold medalist, begins about two years earlier on what was perhaps the worst night of his life, a first-round knockout defeat when his world seemed to be crumbling around him.

Truax was somewhat of a boxing lifer, but he’d earned a grudging respect for a gritty, hard-nosed performance in an April 2015 middleweight title bout with Daniel Jacobs. Jacobs stopped Truax in the final round of that bout in Chicago, but not before the nondescript ex-football player got in plenty of shots of his own.

He moved to super middleweight after the Jacobs fight, and quickly landed a significant bout in Atlantic City with former world champion Anthony Dirrell.

His girlfriend, Michelle Stocke, was pregnant at the time with their daughter, who was to be named Gia. A few months before he was to square off with Dirrell, Stocke awakened at 4 a.m. with an excruciating headache. She suffered a stroke and had a bleed on the brain, a point not lost on Truax. Brain bleeds are one of the dangerous risks boxers must confront. And instead of it being him with the brain bleed, it was the woman he loved. Doctors had to perform an emergency cesarean section to deliver Gia, who spent the first two weeks of her life in intensive care.

For the early part of 2016, Truax’s life was taking care of Michelle, tending to infant Gia and training for the fight with Dirrell. Members of his team urged him to cancel the fight, but he declined.

“I was going through so much [expletive], but I thought I could handle it,” Truax said. “I was wrong. I was not myself mentally and with all due respect to [Dirrell], that was not me in the ring. I had a lot more to offer than I did. I just wasn’t the same guy.”

Truax won a pair of bouts after losing to Dirrell, and things were improving at home. Michelle and Gia were healthy, and Truax was able to resume full-time training. He was picked for a Dec. 9 title bout against Britain’s James DeGale, the IBF super middleweight champion and a 2012 Olympic gold medalist.

Perhaps it was the memories of the fight with Dirrell, or just that Truax had no big-name victories on his résumé, but DeGale didn’t seem to regard Truax as much of a threat.

DeGale talked about who he wanted to fight next, even at the final news conference as Truax was sitting a few feet away, stewing.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was really pissed about it,” Truax said. “Trash talk, whatever, it’s part of the game and I’m OK with that. But just totally dismissing me? I mean, that’s something different. It really gave me that extra motivation.”

Whatever the reason, Truax raised his game at the exact right time. He pressured DeGale from the start, and outhustled him throughout. The champ was battered and beaten and lost a clear majority decision.

And that brings us to Saturday in Las Vegas, where Truax now finds himself as the reigning champion, preparing to defend his title against DeGale (23-2-1, 14 KOs) in a rematch televised by Showtime.

Truax (29-3-2, 18 KOs) is perhaps boxing’s most unlikely champion, a guy who had so many fights fall through that he was considering a part-time job.

The DeGale fight came at the right time, giving Truax a little financial freedom. He’s still nowhere near Floyd Mayweather’s tax bracket, but some of the financial pressure is gone.

The 34-year-old boxer has an easy-going nature and a down-to-earth way about him you don’t see in many elite professional athletes. He’s been written off at every turn and had the odds stacked against him for as long as he can remember.

It wasn’t until recently that a friend came to his gym and patched the holes in the roof that allowed the rain and melted snow to pour through.

Now, he’s on top, making the walk on Saturday for the first time as the champion. It is, in many ways, a real-life Rocky story.

He’s a guy who never planned to turn pro. He was boxing in college for the love of the sport, and competed in a tough-man competition for which he not only wasn’t paid, but paid $40 to enter.

He was thus ruled ineligible to compete as an amateur, and wasn’t ready to give up boxing, so he turned pro.

Truax was going to fight a few bouts, walk away and get on with his life. Now, he’s a champion and he’s facing an Olympic gold medalist for the second time.

“If you get out there and you put everything you have into it and you believe in yourself, you never know what can happen,” Truax said. “Don’t give up and don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t do something, and you never know what may happen.”

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