Almost exactly this time last year, it seemed very likely my father was about to die.
It was not a great holiday season for our family. Tremors and outright collapses turned into ambulance rides, emergency room trips, and extended hospital stays. If you’ve never had a loved one deal with cancer, hopefully that never changes. If you have, feel free to sing along since you probably know the words.
Lots of tests, few worthwhile conclusions. Blood in places where blood shouldn’t be. Weakness, occasional confusion and incoherence. Massive weight loss. Finally, a scan, or a probe, or a scope, or some other diagnostic test found a tumor in the intestines. Sports fandom provided a helpful standard of measurement as what was originally thought to be somewhere between a golf ball and a billiards ball was determined to be the size of a baseball, and later a softball.
There are a lot of things from Saturday night’s fight between Teofimo Lopez and George Kambosos Jr that I will remember for as long as my wits stay with me. High on the list is a moment between the final bell and the announcement of the official scores. The week of pre-fight activities included an ugly altercation between the fathers of Kambosos and Lopez that almost turned physical, and a lot of heated words exchanged later on at the press conference.
But, after the fight, George Kambosos Sr and Jr sandwiched Teofimo Lopez Sr in an embrace in the middle of the ring. Kambosos Sr turned to the camera and said, “True fathers love their sons, and this is why we’re emotional.” It was a beautiful moment of calm reconciliation, one that unfortunately did not survive through the announcement of a Kambosos victory.
Every boxing fan is welcome to their own reaction to Lopez Sr and his response to the fight’s outcome. There are a lot of people in this world who never had a relationship with their father, or that never had the sort of father that deserved their love. I count myself blessed that I’ve always known a father that loves me, and one that had pride and confidence in me even when I felt like a failure. That’s what I’ll choose to focus on when I think of the Lopez family, and anything else is for them to sort out between themselves.
You’ll be reading a lot about my dad in this story, and the next thing you should know about him is that he’s the one who taught me how to love a niche sport. He grew up a fan of open wheel racing, and every Memorial Day he’d reminisce about being a kid and listening to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio. I assume the sensory experience was approximately as satisfying as trying to smell flowers over the internet, but happy childhood memories can come from mundane places.
My dad spent a lot of Sunday mornings in the late 80s and early 90s watching tape delayed Formula 1 races with massive chunks cut out of them, because those races were less significant to ESPN than programs like “The Sports Reporters.” If you’re of an age where that show’s name doesn’t mean anything to you? Just imagine “Around the Horn” cosplaying as “Meet the Press” on a set that looked like a medium-sized city’s best available cable access TV studio.
Dad also had to contend with his first-born son harassing him to please change the channel to cartoons instead. Because he loved me, he often would. But, as the years went by and Formula 1 shifted over to live, wall-to-wall coverage on Speed Channel, I stopped being a challenger for the remote and became company during the race instead. More years went by, and I finished college, moved through a series of apartments, but kept waking up at ungodly hours on Sunday mornings to drive across town before sunrise and watch races with him.
I don’t know you, so I don’t know why you care about sports. If you’re a regular reader of this website, you probably share a wonder in seeing strength and endurance pushed to the limits of human ability. If you have a favorite sports team, they’re probably based in a state where you grew up, or at a college you attended. Otherwise, that fandom was probably inherited as part of a cross-generational ritual that gave a rare piece of common ground between children and adults.
Several of the Formula 1 races I watched with my father were held at racetracks he got to see in person during his time stationed in Germany as a US Army artillery Lieutenant. It was during those years in Germany that he happened to cross paths with a vacationing Greek girl that never planned to get married, and never, ever wanted to leave Greece. She was no particular fan of sports, but she went along with him to Hockenheim in 1975 to watch some Formula 1 minor leaguers race in the rain. A year later, they were married. I don’t think my mother has watched a sporting event in person or voluntarily spent hours in a rainstorm since then. She did wind up leaving her home and her family to move from Athens to suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband, though. So, there’s no doubt about her love and devotion.
If you’re reading this, you probably also read my lighthearted bit of pre-fight pro-Kambosos patriotism. If you’ve ever watched a fight where the no-hope opponent was a seemingly random collection of vowels or consonants, and wondered why there’s always a group of countrymen who spent a fortune on flights and hotels to sit in the cheap seats, festooned with flags and face paint — hopefully, that all makes a bit more sense to you now.
Kambosos and I are both Greek hyphenates. Australian in his case, to two Greek parents. American in mine, to just one. Anyone born into a family where ethnicity and geography are asymmetrical can probably relate to the intense pride and passion you feel for avatars of your one-step-removed cultural identity. The smaller the nation and the more chaotic the history, the more fervor whenever a team or an athlete breaks through to worldwide prominence.
Kambosos carries his Greek identity in a very public and a very literal way, in that he has it tattooed all over his body. Written across the back of his neck in Greek is a phrase that translates to: “Greek blood, Greek experience” (or, “suffering”). That “Greek pathos” means different things to different people.
For the grandfather I’m named after, it meant being born in the Ottoman Empire and smuggled across the Mediterranean Sea as a little boy, disguised as an old woman, the only male survivor of his family. He lived through a genocide, a regional war, the WW2 occupations by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, a famine, a civil war, and seven years under a military coup despite living within a very short walking distance of Greece’s equivalent to the Pentagon.
He was young when he left Asia Minor, and with all the records destroyed, he never knew for sure exactly how old he was. He didn’t even know his last name for certain. He was reunited with two sisters after a few years in Greece, and they thought the family name was something different. Decades later, my mom tracked down a long-lost third sister, and she had a third variation on their last name.
My “Greek experience,” by contrast, was one that gave me a convenient way of speaking privately in public with my mom and my brother. I had an easy time with science and math terms that flummoxed non-Greeks, and a smooth path to a top grade whenever I could justify bringing homemade baklava to school as part of a history or geography project. I spent months at a time in Athens, burying toys in the yard outside a house that years later was bulldozed and turned into the Metro station for Holargos. Whenever I kicked a ball over the fence, I’d put my grandfather in mortal peril again as he’d chase it down amidst the traffic of Mesogeion Avenue.
Those times gave my dad his own sort of Greek experience-by-proxy, as he’d show up to the airport to pick us up, terrified that his toddler son would break his heart by failing to recognize and remember him. That never happened, though more than once he found himself spending weeks waiting patiently for me to distinguish between two languages so that he could consistently understand me when I’d try to speak to him.
My dad did not die last year. He was miserable for months, but he survived. In plumbing terms, they had to take out a significant length of pipe, but both the faucet and the drain are original parts, working as they should. In early February, he left me a message after a doctor’s appointment, choking back emotion, telling me that the three sweetest words in the English language are “I love you,” but second place might just go to “no cancer spread.” A few weeks later, he celebrated a birthday we’d feared might not come, and one of his gifts was a t-shirt that says “Tougher Than Cancer,” a size or two smaller than what he would have needed a few months earlier.
I regretted missing the call, but the silver lining was that I was able to save that voicemail and listen to it whenever I needed a pick-me-up. I wound up playing it a lot for myself about three months later, after I got another call from dad telling me that a follow-up scan had found tumors in his liver and his lungs. The “Tougher Than Cancer” shirt went in a drawer somewhere, and things got unpleasant for him again.
It sounds ridiculous, but I was over 30 years old, married and in my own suburban home, before it dawned on me that I was an adult, able to give myself permission to spend money if I really wanted to watch good live boxing.
I don’t know how I first found the sport, but I know it was my dad that taught me discipline and responsibility with money. I have never wanted for anything important in my life, but we didn’t have premium cable channels, because that felt like a frivolous indulgence. My father would buy me gloves and equipment, drive me to and from kickboxing tournaments and watch me fight, and bring me along whenever a friend or co-worker would host a party for a big boxing event. But, it took me a long time to shake that childhood programming and realize that HBO, Showtime, and an occasional pay-per-view party of my own were a perfectly appropriate way to spend money set aside for fun and entertainment.
The timing was very fortuitous, as it happened to coincide with Gennadiy Golovkin’s rise to prominence in America. Any boxing fan knows that fights are more fun in a crowd, but the hardest thing to do is turn skeptics and casuals into enthusiastic viewers of the sport. Golovkin made it easy. If you could get someone’s attention for five minutes of pictures and stories, Terminator-era Gennadiy Golovkin could win their hearts.
He was a mix of Ivan Drago and James Bond, with a tiny sprinkle of Borat-style goofball humor to make him extra charming. All you had to do was show someone Curtis Stevens laid out on the canvas, picking himself up with a wide-eyed sigh. Gabe Rosado’s mangled face, his corner screaming at his father that the fight had to stop or “your son’s gonna die!’ Five seconds of Daniel Geale’s face in slow motion, going through a lifetime of emotions as he went from thinking he was about to land a knockout punch, then experiencing Golovkin half slip it/half eat it as he fired off a counter punch that left Geale wobbling and dropped like a marionette with the strings cut.
“Very good boy.” “Respect to box.” “Big Drama Show.” “Give me my belts!” “Meat” as his favorite food. Highlight reel knockout after knockout after knockout. Doing pushups with his face. Golovkin spent a few years using HBO as the podium from which he’d issue a quarterly update on his one-of-a-kind entertainment value, just as I surrendered my wallet to a steady diet of live boxing.
When my parents downsized from their old house, they spent a few months living with my wife and me while shopping for a retirement-sized one. Golovkin was the gateway drug that got my dad interested enough to start coming over to my house late Saturday nights to watch fights, just like I’d gone to visit him early Sunday mornings to watch races.
My father is still alive. He has Stage IV cancer, which a gallows humorist will tell you is the second worst type of cancer after only Stage V — meaning, dead. But, as far as Stage IV cancer goes, he’s actually been quite fortunate. If you’ve watched someone go through it, you’d count my dad among the lucky ones. He had to get a port installed, but there haven’t been any complications. He’s had to carry around a little bag of pressurized poison for days at a time, but he’s holding up through it better than most. He’s had more surgery, but he hasn’t lost any organs. There are tumors in fewer places than when he started treatment, not more. He’s on a first name basis with a depressing number of oncologists, surgeons, nurses, and orderlies. But, at least he has the energy to make friends with them, unlike some of the other frequent fliers at his treatment centers.
One of the other reasons you might watch sports is because they can make for a great distraction, a short little respite from problems great or small. My dad was excited to watch “the Greek guy” with my brother and me. Thanksgiving this year came a day after his most recent round of chemotherapy. It was an exhausting holiday, but he got to enjoy it at home with his family. It was a gift, even though the side effects of his treatment are such that “you may as well just eat cauliflower, because that’s what pretty much everything tastes like.”
Dad couldn’t find the energy to get together with my brother the next day. We decided his physical condition made it a bad idea for him to come over and watch at my house, so we all got together where he could watch from his living room chair instead. He has little sense of taste and even less appetite, but he and mom were excited to put out snacks for my brother and me to enjoy. He can’t hold a cold beverage without pain right now, much less drink one, but they stocked the fridge with options for us.
When George Kambosos knocked down Teofimo Lopez in the first round, I jumped off of the couch and bounced around screaming in a manner very unseemly for a man my age. Fortunately, none of the neighbors were worried or annoyed enough to call the police. By the time Lopez responded with a knockdown in the 10th, everyone in front of the television was in agony right with me, sweating the possibility that the magical night was coming to a heartbreaking end.
There are reputable observers calling Lopez-Kambosos a short list contender for Fight of the Year. It’s an amazing outcome for a matchup that many treated as perfunctory or inessential during the nine month wait for fight night. It would be ludicrous for me to pretend I could look at it objectively enough to venture an opinion. I will say to anyone who favors a different fight for the honor that I have no objection. If they saw something that gave them more excitement and enjoyment than Saturday’s fight did, then I’m glad they had such a good year watching great boxing.
Likewise, I can’t reasonably offer a guess as to what the future might hold for Kambosos. The absurd chauvinist in me hopes that this is a late start to a mini Manny Pacquiao-style run of thrilling fights and ultimate enshrinement as a national hero. Maybe he’ll give us a run like Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, validating his shocking upset victory and going on to play stylistic rock-paper-scissors with other top men in his weight class. Even if this turns out to be the performance of his life, and no encore ever comes close, Kambosos has done something magical that will honor him forever.
The reason you watch sports might also have something to do with enjoying the vicarious thrill of a great accomplishment, but without the actual stakes and risks that often come with real life triumphs. Saturday night’s fight was a geyser of joy for me, my family, and Greek hyphenates all over the world. It was, like all the best sports memories, one of the greatest insignificant things I’ve ever experienced in my life.
I don’t mean that as any disrespect to Kambosos or Teofimo Lopez, both of whom obviously had a very significant milestone in their careers. For me, it was the best possible sort of insignificance. It was a fantastic moment when my dad, up way past his recent bedtime and drinking a room-temperature soda, smiled and told my brother and me how glad he was that all of us watched it happen together. It doesn’t go in the same category as hearing him give a speech at my wedding, or watching him officiate my brother’s wedding, or seeing him play with his grandkids. But, it was a much happier conversation than finding out whether a new doctor sizes tumors according to fruit or sporting equipment, or how and when the next surgeon will go about cutting pieces out of him.
Perhaps the oddest detour in my career was a brief but passionate romance with actuarial science. Because of it, I know that there’s somewhere between a 1-in-12 and 1-in-15 probability that, despite my age and relative good health, I will not live to see my youngest child’s 18th birthday. A bit troubling when I stop to consider, depending on when and where you may have put a bet down on him, that Teofimo Lopez was considered about as likely to lose this fight as I am to die before my kids are finished with high school.
Meanwhile, my father has been saying since this time last year that he plans on dancing at the weddings of both my daughters, many years from now. He’s dealing with the sort of illness that doesn’t get better overnight, and his path so far has not been an easy or pleasant one. But, he’s trending in the right direction, and hopefully he’ll be able to pull that “Tougher Than Cancer” shirt back out again next year.
Gennadiy Golovkin is scheduled to fight fellow middleweight champion Ryota Murata in Japan, four weeks from now. My dad needs chemotherapy, radiation, maybe more surgery. But the expectation is for him to watch that fight with me. Hopefully, his medical plan and the fight plan both stay on track and on schedule. Kambosos expects to fight again in Australia in 2022, and dad wants to watch that one as well.
I look forward to both of those fights, and hopefully many more. May everyone reading this also find great pleasure watching them, and in good company, too.