The Unbroken: Fighters who battled cancer and survived
You can be a perfect fighter. You may destroy the best strikers standing; or make the Jiu-Jitsu black belt holder submit; or interrupt takedowns of the best fighters; but what if you are faced with the opponent you can’t see, know or understand?
What should you do if you face something that beats harder than Francis Ngannou or breaks you down harder than Khabib Nurmagomedov? What happens when a confident professional fighter in the prime of his or her life who’s ready to move mountains, gets to know they have cancer that may end not only their career but their life? This is when the real spirit of the fighter is tested. Is he/she ready to be scared in the face of unavoidable death and then keep fighting for life or is he/she ready to resign himself or herself to defeat? It’s easy in the cage or ring. There are rules, limits there, and a referee who watches them to be followed. There are no rules when you battle cancer. But you can beat it. Today, we’re going to tell you three stories of unrestrainable will to live, three cases of the triumph of human spirit.
Daniel Jacobs vs. osteosarcoma
Not many fans know that former middleweight world champion Daniel Jacobs defeated not only such opponents as Caleb Truax, Sergio Mora, and Serhiy Derevianchenko but a rare type of bone cancer as well.
In spring 2011, Daniel Jacobs was a young 24-year-old prospect with big hopes set on him. He had already had more than 20 fights back then and tried to win WBO middleweight title only to lose it to Dmitry Pirog which became the first loss in his professional career. He finished his two next fights and was confidently moving towards reclaiming a title shot when in May 2011 he was told about his next opponent in his next fight for life – a rare type of bone cancer. A big malignant tumor was found in his back that left him paralyzed from the waist down. The fighter ended in a wheelchair. And doctors broke the sad news: Jacobs could lose his legs or his life but one thing for sure, he will lose boxing forever.
Photo: International News
But Jacobs was a fighter, so he fought. He remained standing, defying all odds. Cancer may break down even the strongest, though, and after a long-term therapy and various ways of fighting, Jacobs hit rock bottom. He could barely walk, couldn’t take care of himself neither physically, nor financially – he spent all his money on treatment. He underwent a six-hour surgery to remove the tumor but residual effects kept tormenting him.
“The lowest point for me was when I had to move back to Brownsville and live with my mom,” Jacobs says. “I was sleeping on my mom’s couch. I had so many sleepless nights. I had times where I’d just cry and cry. There were times where I would even doubt whether I could walk again.”
When Daniel lost all hopes, the disease suddenly regressed, and he began to recover. Seventeen months after being diagnosed with that fateful condition, he returned to the ring. It was a historical comeback because Jacobs defeated not only the terrible disease but doctors’ prognosis as well who told him he would never fight again. He faced Josh Lutheran and won by a first-round TKO. And that was only the beginning. Jacobs built a successful career with being the IBF middleweight champion once and facing such boxers as Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez.
“Never in a million years [I would think I would reach that point]. When the doctors told me I couldn’t box again, I knew I would prove to them that I could, but I never thought that I’d be at this level,” Jacobs said ahead of the fight with Canelo.
Jacobs lost by unanimous decision to the Mexican superstar and lost his championship title. Despite this, he is still one of the strongest middleweights in the world and, more importantly, a person who defeated something larger that an opponent in the ring.
Tatiana Suarez vs. thyroid cancer
Undefeated 28-year-old fighter Tatiana Suarez who performs in the UFC women’s strawweight division, passed through a severe battle for her life when she was still young. In 2012, while preparing for the 2012 London Olympics draft, 20-year-old Suarez injured her neck. During the MRI she could expect disk displacement at worst but the doctor shocked her with the diagnosis. Tatiana had a malignant tumor in her thyroid gland.
“I refused to believe in what was going on,” Suarez remembers. “Cancer? How’s that possible? When I started feeling pains in my neck, I made little of them. I thought maybe another microinjury. But it turned out to be a horrible disease that doomed my career.”
Can you imagine the horror that struck the 20-year-old girl on the brink of a new life? Yesterday she was preparing for the Olympics and today she’s fighting for her life. Tatiana was immediately hospitalized. The decision was made to remove the tumor but it had already infected the adjacent lymph nodes, so the doctors had to remove them too. The situation was tough. After the removal was successful, it turned out the disease spread to the patient’s lungs, so Tatiana had to undergo a radiation therapy course which is essentially radioactive iodine radiation.
Photo: USA Today Sports, Peter Casey
It took Tatiana 18 months to fully recover. Upon returning back to “normal” life, Suarez realized she couldn’t live the way she used to live. Having been given a second chance, she decided to try something new, find her life’s purpose. This quest brought her to the gym of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“I think God sent me this challenge. At least that’s what I was thinking when I fought the cancer. I want this story to serve as an example for others. Never give up. You must keep believing and praying.”
Combining her existing fighting skills with moves of another martial art, Suarez decides to try her hand at MMA. In 2013 she starts training in the Millenia MMA gym that raised such fighters as Lorenz Larkin and Saad Awad. In a year Tatiana had her professional debut at the Gladiator Challenge where she defeated Tyra Parker by unanimous decision. In 2016, with a 3-0 record, she entered The Ultimate Fighter project, reached finals, and defeated Amanda Cooper by submission, receiving the UFC contract. Currently, Tatiana Suarez is considered the main challenger in the strawweight division and her current #2 position in the official ranking proves that. Last time Suarez performed at the UFC 238 this month when she defeated Nina Ansaroff by unanimous decision. She is still undefeated with five UFC victories in a row.
Chris Beal vs. fibrosarcoma
Speaking about those who battled cancer, you can’t say it was easier for ones and harder for others. It’s always horrible. But Chris Beal had to survive especially painful consequences of chemotherapy. Like in the previous story with Suarez, for Chris it all started with an injury examination. The fighter had some issues with his knee and he decided to visit a doctor to check everything. The swelling in his knee turned out to be the rarest type of cancer known as fibrosarcoma. It’s a malignant tumor that forms in soft conjunctive tissues. It was in 2009, and Chris was only 23 back then, a promising talent in the bantamweight division.
“I just broke down,” Beal said. “I can’t even remember what I was thinking. The tears just started streaming down my face.”
The problem was also in the complexity of this disease being diagnosed. The nature of the swelling was unclear even after biopsy. Only the second procedure during which Chris was stitched up about 20 times, gave an answer which was rather unpromising. According to the National Cancer Institute, only one person out of two million has the disease in the USA. Beal changed gym for oncology ward. His first sparring partner was chemotherapy. Beal can hardly remember that period of his life.
“The chemo hurt so bad I was on the floor crying. I’ve never had pain like that before. I don’t know how to really describe it. I was weak. I lost my hair. At one point I almost wanted to lose my legs.”
After chemotherapy failed, the doctors decided to do a surgery; only after the malignant tumor was removed from his body, the doctor pronounced him cancer-free. Eighteen months after the diagnosis, Chris Beal came back into the gym. In August 2011 he resumed his fighting, continued his victory march and was soon offered a participation in the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter that eventually gave him UFC contract. Even though he couldn’t stick to UFC for long and achieve any high summits there, he still had two wins and was the author of one of the brightest KO in the history of bantamweight division when he knocked out Patrick Williams with a flying knee. Beal secured his main victory in life nine years ago, though, the victory that eclipses all others.