Professional boxer Rafael Vazquez with his daughter, Kaylene, who was diagnosed with autism at 19 months. (Photo: Rafael Vazquez/Instagram)
For professional boxer Rafael Vazquez, the fight doesn’t end when he leaves the ring. In fact, the athlete faces his greatest obstacles at home, where he is caring for his wife, Sandra, who was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer for the second time, and his 8-year-old daughter Kaylene, who has autism.
“God won’t give you anything you can’t handle,” Vazquez, who will face the biggest professional fight of his career on Saturday, tells Yahoo Parenting. “And throughout this journey, I’ve learned to be a better father.”
On August 1, Vazquez will fight on the non-televised undercard of the Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, an event he is anxiously anticipating.
Boxer Rafael Vazquez will face the biggest fight of his professional career on August 1. (Photo: Rafael Vazquez/Instagram)
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Vazquez started boxing at 7 years old. “I competed in the Junior Olympics, but then at 19 I got caught up in the street life,” he says. “I’ve been in and out of jail, I sold a lot of drugs on the street when I was younger. That kind of hustling, it was the only thing I knew growing up. It got to a point where I had to go to a methodone clinic, but I will be six years clean in October.”
One of the biggest inspirations for Vazquez, who now lives in Queens, New York, to get clean was his eight-year-old daughter – the youngest of four. At 19 months old, Kaylene was diagnosed with autism, a disorder Vazquez admits he and his wife knew nothing about at the time. “As a parent, you want the best for your kids, so when we found out what it was, I was broken,” he says. “But as my wife and I started learning more, I decided it was time for a change. I knew I needed to be home, I needed to be closer to my family. I was sick and tired of living the street life.”
The diagnosis also motivated Vazquez to get back into fighting professionally. “We found out we were not the only ones going through this, that more kids than just Kaylene had it,” he says. “That was one of my motivations – I don’t have an education, but I know I am a good trainer and a good fighter. I thought, ‘Let me try to do one fight.’” In 2011, he faced his first professional match and today the super bantamweight fighter has 16 fights under his belt —12 of which were knockouts — and only one loss. And when he steps into the ring, he does so wearing Autism Speaks gear, which he hopes will help raise awareness about the disorder. “When I step into the ring, I want people to know that I’m not just fighting for myself, I’m fighting for all kids with autism.”
Vazquez with his wife, Sandra (Center), and three daughters, (from left) Chastity, Shana, and Kaylene. (Photo: AD.AM GRIT Photography)
While Vazquez built his career in the ring, his wife Sandra held down the fort at home. “I provided the money and she took care of the house — she cooked and washed clothes and cleaned and did errands and paid bills,” he says. “It’s not easy to take care of four kids, a house, and a daughter with autism.”
But in 2013, Sandra was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She underwent chemotherapy, and her cancer went into remission — until she was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly afterwards. More chemotherapy put that cancer into remission, but a month ago, her cervical cancer returned. Because she is still so weak, Sandra hasn’t started a new round of treatment, Vazquez says. So for now, he splits his days between caring for his wife, his daughter, and his burgeoning career. “It’s not easy,” he says. “My day starts at 6:30, when I get Kaylene up to brush her teeth, wash her face, and I help her use the bathroom, cook her breakfast and make her lunch, and get her on the bus at 7:15,” he says. Kaylene is non-verbal and attends a public school for special needs children, where Vazquez says she’s been making significant progress. She is very attentive, can respond to commands, make eye contact, and will point to what she wants to eat — her favorite food is strawberries, Vazquez says. “After getting Kaylene on the bus, I make my wife breakfast, wait for the home attendant to come to care for her, and then take a nap. By 12:30 or 1, I start cooking dinner, then head to the gym for training. A therapist comes to work with my daughter from 4-8, and my 19-year-old daughter helps give her a bath. Then I come home, help get her into bed, and get ready for the next day.”
Boxer Rafael Vazquez with his daughter, Kaylene, who has autism. ( (Photo: Rafael Vazquez/Instagram)
It’s a routine that some might find stressful, but Vazquez considers a blessing. “When I changed my life around, and I learned the struggles of being a father, I also learned everything I missed when I wasn’t around,” he says. “Now I’m trying to catch up. A real father is a guy who is there when the kids need you, when they wake up in the morning. It’s not about making a phone call once in a while, but being there through the hard times. Life is a roller coaster, but it’s a blessing, and I feel like God gave me a second chance at life.”
And when the pressure does creep up on him? “Sometimes I wake up stressed out, and then I see my daughter’s smile and I think ‘Wow, what am I stressed about? Look at that smile,’” he says. “She jumps out of bed in the morning and I’m like ‘Wow, that’s a blessing.’ If I’m ever depressed, she puts a smile on my face.”