Invisible Pain

Let me tell you something that 99% of the people in my life don’t know about me. I wake up every single morning in pain.

Every. Single. Morning.

Some days are worse than others, but whether it’s my back, my head, my knees or my elbows, some part of me is hurting the moment I open my eyes.

Yes, I’m a professional fighter. But, no, it’s not from the punches. Or the grueling training. The source of this pain? An autoimmune disease known as ankylosing spondylitis. (Say that three times fast.)

It was about three years ago that I was diagnosed with AS. The disease is a form of arthritis that causes inflammation that leads to moments of severe, chronic pain as well as fatigue. The severity of the pain varies from day to day, person to person, but it can be devastating both physically and mentally for anyone, let alone a professional athlete who pushes his body to the limit every day.

Like so many people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I spent years seeking some explanation for the constantly changing but relentless symptoms I was suffering.

For me, this agonizing, frustrating struggle began on just another normal day in the gym. It was late 2012 and I was training at the Plex gym in Houston, working under my trainer at the time, Ronnie Shields. I was 11 fights into my pro career, undefeated, working as hard as I could to climb up the rankings. I remember that morning, hot and muggy, the gym buzzing. I was sparring, just like always, when in the middle of a round my back gave out. I torqued wrong or something and it felt like I got hit by a sniper, and I just dropped to the canvas.

I couldn’t finish the workout. I could barely get up. Just like that I went from undefeated young kid on top of the world to shuffling around like I was 80 years old. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake the back pain. I had to cancel my next fight. Then the headaches started. From there, it was like a domino effect of pain and misery.

I spent the next 18 months out of the ring — during what should have been the prime of my career — going to doctors and specialists all over the country, trying to learn what was wrong with me.

In my heart, I knew that boxing didn’t cause this condition, that something else was going on. I was experiencing pain, fatigue and headaches on a daily basis. But finding out just what it was would prove to be a harder struggle than any I had faced in the ring. The thing was, that for so many years my whole identity had been boxing. I’d been a champion in the amateurs, I was winning in the pros, I was getting acclaim, doing Subway commercials and raising money for charity. I received love and validation through boxing. Honestly, I began to feel worthless. I fell into a depression.

I’ve learned that this is something so many AS sufferers experience. To be told again and again that there is nothing pathologically wrong with you, even as you are battling the pain day after day. On average, it takes three to five years for people to get properly diagnosed.

For me, it was less than that, but it still felt like an eternity, an endless trek through the unknown. I was in and out of hospitals, losing hope that the pain would ever go away. I will never forget the day I sat in the doctor’s office after receiving this news.

The first question out of my mouth was, “Can I still fight?” The doctor’s answer was yes … but that it wouldn’t be an easy road.

That was a bittersweet moment. While it was daunting to learn that I had this disease, it was also a relief to know the root cause of all the mental and physical pain that had plagued me for so long. I could now develop an attack plan to combat the pain, instead of continuing with what seemed like the blind speculation of trial and error.

From that point on, my life became an endless series of procedures and therapies, more than any young person should have to endure. So why, in the face of all that, have I chosen to continue to pursue my boxing career and put myself through even more pain? The best answer I can give is this: Simply put, I don’t know what the future holds for me, but my dream since I was a little boy has been to be a world champion — a world champion.

Whether I achieve this goal or not, I know one thing: One day, when I am lying on my deathbed and looking back at my life, I want to know that, regardless of the outcome that I went for it. I gave it everything I had, put all the chips on the table and gave it my all.

I remember reading once about a survey done on people of all different races, religions and nationalities who, nearing their final years, were asked to reflect on their lives. What the survey found was fascinating: A vast majority of the people regretted the things they didn’t do, more than any of the things they did do.

At 20–0 and currently ranked seventh in the world by the WBO, I know that I still face a very tough journey to win a world title. I know that. However, I also know that I have already put a tough road behind me. Regardless of what my future holds, in and out of the ring, I will tell you this: I never want to be one of those people regretting the things they didn’t do, the dreams they never went for and the chances they never took.

So I fight on. My last bout was in September. I won by a first-round TKO. Now I can’t wait to fight again. I am excited about taking a big step up in my career and making 2018 a breakout year.

Still, even as I look ahead, I know I need to talk about everything that has happened to me. Let me tell you why I am sharing my story. I came across an article in the August 26, 2013 issue of The New Yorker entitled, “What is wrong with me?” by Meghan O’Rourke. To be honest, I laughed at first when I read the title. As I read on, however, I was amazed by how much this woman’s story and symptoms were similar to mine. Let me tell you what happened as I read her story.

I cried.

I’ve endured a lot of pain in my sport but this was different. It was really the first time I had read something so close to my heart and something that spoke to what I had been personally struggling with for so long. It felt good to know I wasn’t going crazy and that someone else was feeling the same things. One passage in particular stood out, a post on Facebook from another sufferer that O’Rourke quotes:

“It’s so frustrating that I have such good days, then I wake up and out of nowhere I feel like death. I’m sad, my head hurts and I feel like I could cry and I’m angry with everyone. I call it my ‘black hole’ … I’m in the ‘black hole’ now, honestly I’ve learned how to hide from everyone. How truly sad is that?”

After reading that I felt terrible but relieved at the same time. I know exactly what those days feel like and especially what it feels like to hide those feelings from the world.

But there is always a silver lining.

If this disease has taught me one thing it is this: gratitude.

As awful as some days are I am extremely grateful for the good days and, most importantly, for the friends and family in my life who have supported me through the highs and the lows. I can’t even tell you how many doctors’ rooms I have sat in with my dad … too many to count.

When I received my acceptance letter into Notre Dame — my dream school, which I worked so hard to get into — he was there. When I jumped on the ropes after getting a third-round KO in front of 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden … he was there. And when I sat in a doctor’s office begging for relief from the pain … he was there. Dad, for those moments and everything in between I am eternally grateful.

I am lucky to have an incredible trainer and assistant trainer, Jamal Abdullah and Julian Chua, who are a huge part of my success. In addition, my little sister, mother and girlfriend have each been there for me — just to talk, as well as to scour the Internet for the best doctors, holistic pain remedies and procedures out there. Gabe Rangel, my best friend and current strength coach, is a former Special Forces Marine. He has literally been in my corner for every one of my fights since we met. He was in combat and has gone through and seen more things than any human should. With that perspective he has always been there to help me mentally and physically build my strength and endurance when I feel broken down. I am extremely grateful to have these people in my life.

I am not writing this for any type of sympathy. I know many other people who have dealt with much worse. However, if even one of the estimated 50 million people in the United States living with an autoimmune disease reads this and feels the same thing I felt after reading Meghan’s story, then I will be happy. Sometimes when you are in pain it helps to know that you are not alone.

I call this disease the “invisible pain” because, in many ways, when you are dealing with these symptoms they are not recognizable to the naked eye. Anyone who deals with this type of pain and fatigue knows how exhausting and mentally taxing some days can be.

But I am a fighter. Literally and figuratively.

It is how I choose to live my life in and out of the ring. I firmly believe that mindset is everything. On fight night you will see me with a huge smile on my face. But very few people know what it took, day in and day out, to get me to that moment. I have gone through a lot of pain and dark days in the past few years of my life.

But all I know is that when I step through those ropes on fight night and the crowd is screaming, the lights are hot and the cameras are on….

I feel alive.

I get to show people the culmination of all my hard work. I get to have fun and perform at the highest level. I get to prove those people wrong who didn’t think I was strong enough, fast enough, talented enough. But most importantly I get to prove myself wrong — wrong on all of those days in the past when I was down, depressed, convinced I wasn’t good enough.

This career and life I chose won’t be easy, that’s for damn sure. But I’ll always remember what my dad told me when I was a little boy.

Nothing worth having comes easy.

If you are battling with an autoimmune disease, I want to hear your story. You are my inspiration to keep fighting. Please send me a note or comment through my Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.