By Jake Donovan
Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse. The phrase was originally coined by novelist Willard Motley, though often attributed to actor James Dean – who fittingly (though tragically) lived fast and died young.
So too, did Omar Henry, an unbeaten prospect who succumbed to a sudden battle with gall bladder cancer. The Puerto Rican talent was just one week shy of his 26th birthday when he was pronounced dead on Friday, February 1.
His last days as a prizefighter were spent in hospital beds – initially under care at Broward Health Medical Center in South Florida in mid-November before being admitted to University of Chicago Hospital in December. The latter location allowed him to be surrounded by loved ones in his birth city, having also called Houston home as well as significant time spent in Oakland.
His last days actually preparing for a prize fight were what led to the discovery of cancer.
After several lapses in activity, Henry’s career appeared to finally hit its stride last November. The former amateur standout was to headline a Showtime ‘Shobox’ card in South Florida, near the home base of promoter Don King, with whom he signed in mid-2011.
Henry arrived into South Florida from his Oakland training camp on November 13, 2012 - three days before fight night at Gulfstream Park in Hallendale, Florida. Once settled in, the unbeaten fighter decided to go for a jog, a common Fight Week ritual that allowed the charismatic fighter to further become one with the city in which he was fighting.
Instead, a discovery was made that at the time was believed to have saved his life.
“He had been diagnosed with gall stones and an enlarged liver,” Alan Hopper, vice president of public relations for Don King Productions, informed at the time. “The emergency room physician, after viewing images of his liver, asked Omar if he had recently been in a car accident. Omar told him he had not.
“The doctor then told him he was lucky he didn’t go into a prizefight on Friday in this condition as his liver could have easily been ruptured during such an encounter. He has been told by his physicians he will have emergency surgery this afternoon or tomorrow to correct his ailment.”
Surgery was performed at the Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where Henry remained for a short time. At the time, he sensed but refused to believe that his boxing career was over.
As time went on, his quality of life rapidly deteriorated while the cancer continued to spread. Aspirations of one day becoming a world champion were soon reduced to wishes of just making it to his 26th birthday, which would have been on February 8.
The day is now instead reserved for when the family plans to offer viewing and funeral service for the deceased.
Between now and then, it’s time to remember the life he led, which was to the fullest extent.
A product of the famed USA Boxing Elite program in Marquette, Michigan, it was obvious from early in his amateur career that Henry possessed the type of talent that screamed ‘future star.’ An amateur run of 60-5 included four Golden Gloves championships while training out of the Savannah Boxing Club in Houston, one of two cities he called home while representing the United States as proudly as he did his Puerto Rican heritage.
Henry never made it to the Olympics, but seemed to get a significant jump on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Boxing team by turning pro shortly before the Beijing Games began. While the Americans were on the verge of Olympic boxing futility (one bronze medal, an abysmal output shamed only by the 2012 Men’s squad that came home empty handed from London), Henry was just getting started. He signed with promotional giant Top Rank and was co-managed by Cameron Dunkin, who many will insist boasts the best eye for talent among anyone in the sport.
Ten of Henry’s 13 pro fights came under the Top Rank banner, most of which came in his home state of Texas. Henry quickly made a name for himself, for his dazzling style and uncanny fighting resemblance to Puerto Rican superstar Miguel Cotto.
“When we first used him, he was a kid that always carried some confidence,” said Brad Goodman, as told to Boxingscene.com columnist David P. Greisman.
Goodman, one of the top matchmakers in the sport, put together all 10 of Henry’s fights during his first two years in the sport. Eight fights ended in knockout, none lasting longer than four minutes. The two fights that went the distance also saw his opponents hit the deck.
It wasn’t a product of careful matchmaking, but what Henry brought to the table.
“[W]hat I remember the most about him was his punching power,” Goodman recalls. “You rarely see guys that were one-punch guys, and he was definitely one of those guys. When we used him, he scored some spectacular knockouts.”
“He was a very talented guy. He was a great puncher, and that's what I remember most about him. He was a real devastating puncher."
He was also a fighter who craved the limelight as much as he craved a knockout, giving true definition to his name Omar, whose origins trace back to the term ‘eloquent speaker.’
Henry’s name and face often appeared in celebrity circles, enjoying his newfound fame without much of it being achieved in the ring. In fact, during his first two years as a pro, Henry became best known for declining an offer to spar with then pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao.
Henry’s services were sought in late 2009 as Pacquiao attempted to once again make boxing history – gunning for a title in a then-record breaking seventh weight class as he set his sights on Miguel Cotto. Henry had already gained a reputation as a “Cotto clone,” making him the ideal sparring partner for anyone preparing for the Puerto Rican star.
The offer was generous, but the timing was off – Henry was putting the student in ‘student-athlete,’ attending Ace Central College in Houston, where he majored in political science while doubling as a prize fighter.
The declined offer was well-received, though his actions soon thereafter eventually saw his last days as a Top Rank fighter.
Shortly after Pacquiao’s win over Cotto came what would amount to nearly three years of failed negotiations between the Filipino star and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Henry eventually made himself part of the story for all of the wrong reasons. Rumors circulated in mid-2010, spread by the fighter and his camp that he signed with Mayweather adviser Leonard Ellerbe. This did not sit well with the Top Rank brass.
The prank came just more than a month following his 10th pro fight, a four-round, two-knockdown shutout of Hilario Lopez. The fight took place on the non-televised undercard of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr’s points win over John Duddy in the Mexican’s own first fight back following a suspension for use of a banned diuretic.
While Chavez Jr’s career was just restarting, his opponent’s came to a halt. Duddy decided to call it a day, walking away from the sport. At the time, Henry didn’t realize the brakes would slam on his own career as well; he wouldn't fight again as his career was put on lockdown until receiving an unconditional release from Top Rank in 2011.
Despite the downtime, Henry still found a way to live the superstar lifestyle, even if he never quite became one. Social media posts featured the still promising prospect toasting the town with some of the biggest names in music, movies and sports.
Living fast was the only way Henry saw fit to pass the time while riding the pine until splitting with Top Rank. His time spent as a free agent first came with the claim that he was done with boxing and would set his sights on the wonderful world of mixed martial arts. Due consideration prompted the fighter to come to his senses and stick with boxing.
The reality check eventually led to his signing with Don King in 2011. A statement from the promoter’s office claimed at the time that “Henry is now ready to achieve the greatness that so many have predicted for him.”
The three fights under the DKP banner never really gave a chance to finish that story. Henry scored a 1st round knockout in his first promoted fight by King, which came on the undercard of Devon Alexander’s controversial points win over Lucas Matthysse. A technical draw on the undercard of the rematch between Abner Mares and Joseph Agbeko left Henry with just three rounds fought on the year, which came after a 12-month hiatus.
2012 appeared to finally be the year in which everything would click for the still unbeaten talent. Only one fight came within the first six months, though it was his time spent as a sparring partner that drew the most attention.
The ‘Cotto Clone’ label proved to work to his advantage. Free of schedule conflicts, Henry relocated to Las Vegas from March ’11 until the May 5 showdown between Mayweather Jr. and Cotto.
Mayweather Jr. acquired the services of Henry, to properly prepare for what eventually turned into a competitive but clear decision over the three-division champion. The hard work put in during training camp allowed the sport’s biggest star to shine in the end.
“My brother helped me train for the Cotto fight,” Mayweather Jr. stated while publicly offering his condolences through his Twitter feed. “He was tough to train with.”
Mayweather Jr. knows a little something about living under the bright lights. The sport doesn’t boast a flashier fighter than the unbeaten pound-for-pound king. It was only natural that even in just two months they spent together, the two were able to form an everlasting bond.
“Omar was making his dreams come true,” he further commented. “He was on his way to becoming a superstar until cancer came in the way. It’s not fair.”
Mayweather was the most famous fighter with whom Henry trained, but wasn’t the only one who felt blessed for the time shared with the one-time potential star in the making.
“I got the opportunity to work with Omar a few times during my training camps in Houston,” former Kermit Cintron stated, as passed along by Boxingscene.com columnist Lyle Fitzsimmons. “Got to know him pretty well, too, in and out of the gym. He was a very motivated, hard-working fighter in the gym. He had such great boxing skills.
“I would not have been surprised if he had (become) world champion by end of this year or early next year if he wasn't sick. Very sad to see him go so soon. His career had just started. He will not be forgotten. RIP Omar."
Cintron’s time spent with Henry came while both trained under the watchful eye of noted trainer Ronnie Shields. His passing was taken hard by several other fighters from Houston.
“[I’m] still struck by the death of my old sparring partner Omar Henry,” stated unbeaten 154 lb. prospect Jermell Charlo, who along with twin brother Jermall proudly represent Houston. “Sad day of boxing… lost a really good friend.”
Charlo wasn’t the only local fighter who considered Henry a close friend.
“You are in a much better place. God needed you,” rationalized Marlen Esparza, a local amateur flyweight who captured an Olympic medal as part of the first ever women’s U.S. Olympic Boxing team in the 2012 Summer Games. “R.I.P. Omar Henry, a great fighter (and) a good friend. I can’t believe you are gone, but (you are) in a much better place. We will all miss you.”
Henry managed at least one fight out of the time spent helping others prepare. The bout - a shutout of Tyrone Selders - aired on Pursuit TV and came as part of a show which celebrated King’s 40-plus years in the sport.
The performance was impressive even if against a pedestrian opponent. Still, Henry gave it the old college try, gunning for the knockout round after round in efforts to deliver to his promoter a performance befitting of what the evening represented.
“This guy is a legend,” Henry said of King, shortly after the fight. “He’s been around longer than I’ve been born and still influential. We’re going to make history together. I’m taking it all the way.”
It comes with great irony that the last fight of Henry’s career was the only win in which he failed to floor his opponent. Still, it was quality work that gave him some much needed rounds; the 30 minutes of action was longer than the combined total of his previous six fights.
It was enough to convince the brass at Don King Productions that he was ready for the next level. The promoter worked feverishly to get Henry on a larger platform, which led to plans to headline on an edition of Shobox last November.
Looking back at the chain of events, it’s clear that his big moment was sadly never meant to be. The opponent changed twice - first Juan de la Rosa, who abruptly pulled out and was replaced by Juan Ubaldo Cabrera. The latter was the one ultimately left without a dance partner when Henry was forced to withdraw from the contest.
“I went for a run and began to experience strong pains,” Henry recalled at the time, as told to Alan Hopper. “I said to myself, ‘What is going on?’ I came back to the hotel and a friend told me my eyes were yellow. I didn’t want to go to the hospital but I knew I had to go.
“I was diagnosed with gall stones and an enlarged liver. My liver was so swollen that the doctor asked me if I had been in a car accident. When I told him I had not been in a car accident, he told me that I was very lucky to have not participated in a boxing match in this condition. He said I could have easily ruptured my liver if I entered the ring at this time.”
He was considered lucky at the time, but his situation would only worsen. Just last month, Henry’s status reached Stage Four Gall Bladder Cancer.
“Looking back, I guess there were symptoms back in California, but when you’re in training there are always aches and pains that you try to ignore," Henry theorized at the time. "As disappointed as I am right now, it does help that the doctors said I would have risked my life had I not learned about my ailments."
During his fighting days, Henry was a large super welterweight who walked around closer to the light heavyweight limit. As recent as a week before his passing, Henry shrunk down to 130 lb., having already endured a less-than-productive round of chemotherapy.
A second attempt came on Monday, but the outcome even at that time looked bleak.
“I can’t lie; it’s not looking good for him right now. He’s still fighting. One day at a time,” expressed William Martinez at the time. Martinez is Henry’s cousin, one of several family members who remained by his side from the moment he checked into the University of Chicago Hospital last December until his last days while in a hospice station.
Positive thoughts were offered by the Henry family, requesting prayers and support though knowing the fighter had only a short time left. Barely able to talk, Henry revealed one last dream to the public.
“I just want to live to see my 26th birthday,” Henry said, which was two weeks away at the time. If he could blow out his birthday candles, then anything was possible.
“I’m coming back by the end of the year,” Henry promised.
His name would only be heard again in the ring. The most recent edition of ESPN2 Friday Night Fights – fittingly staged at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion – offered a ten-count, while those in his life continued to come to grips with the tragic news.
“This is a real human tragedy for a young man of just 25 years and so much energy to have his life taken away,” promoter Don King said in a statement. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The life Henry led was well worthy of celebrating and honoring. Sadly, we weren’t given much time to celebrate it, though knowing Omar Henry, not a second of it was spent living in regret, despite his own public - though largely unnecessary - apology for his planned Showtime fight falling through.
“I’m sorry but this was definitely out of my control," Henry said in November. "When I recover, I promise to come back better than ever to let everyone know I am worthy of their continued support.”
Through good times and bad, he enjoyed everything life had to offer – enough to where he fought as hard as he could until the very last moment when it was all taken away.
In life and now in death, Omar Henry remains worthy of our continued support.
A special thanks to Boxingscene.com staff members David P. Greisman, Lyle Fitzsimmons and Nina Mariah Donovan, and Don King Productions VP of Public Relations Alan Hopper for contributing to this story.
Jake Donovan is the Boxingscene.com Managing Editor, Records Keeper for Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and a voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox