Father's liver ailment spurs ex-champ's comeback

Two years ago, Danny Romero Jr. wasn't exactly where he wanted to be, but at least he started to feel like he was on his way back.

"Kid Dynamite," as he was sometimes known, hadn't held a world championship belt since 1998, and was coming off his third straight loss in a major title shot. So he took what he could get and was damn glad to snag the minor-league International Boxing Association's vacant super bantamweight title by defeating Trinidad Mendoza.

The victory didn't make headlines around the world, yet the result was the sort that could vault Romero, who was only 28, back to prominence.

Danny Romero Sr. was in his son's corner that night, just as he had been for the previous 49 prizefights and the countless amateur matches before that. Since Danny Jr. began boxing at 5 years old, Danny Sr. was watching over him.

Before that fight with Mendoza, however, the Romero family started to notice something was amiss with dad. He wasn't quite all there. He was only 48 years old, a mechanic by trade, but a boxing trainer in his soul – a man's man who got married at 18 and devoted his life to raising four children behind the virtues of hard work, clean living and boxing.

"Things weren't right," said Romero Jr., who will end a two-year hiatus on Saturday night, when he fights on the undercard of the Felix Trinidad-Winky Wright title bout in Las Vegas.

"He was always a big guy to begin with, but he looked like his weight ballooned up. He would lose focus in his own home. But we decided to go ahead with the fight and get a checkup right after."

The distinguished Albuquerque, N.M., family figured it was something routine, something remedied with a few pills or a shot or a change in diet. Maybe it was a bad strain of the flu. Maybe it was minor imbalance.

"I went to the doctor, and she did some blood work," Danny Sr. said. "That's when they found it. They still can't figure out how I got it."

The doctor told Romero Sr. he has a rare liver disorder, a form of cirrhosis that would kill him without a transplant.

"It was like getting hit with a wicked right hand you don't see coming," Romero Jr. said. "It was crazy because if you know the man he's one of the straightest people you ever met, no drinking, no partying. For him to have this problem was nuts."

The best guess from doctors was the condition was genetic, but there was no questioning how it could ravage his body if they didn't treat it.

"They said point-blank, 'All of his internal organs have been affected,' " Romero Jr. said. "He was going quick. We were told if things don't get right, he'd pass away."

The liver is involved with nearly all of the body's biochemical processes, and the Romeros received a cruel lesson in the organ's importance.

Everything Romero Sr. does has been impacted by his illness.

"It was killing my family," Romero Jr. said. "It affects his liver and kidney directly, but also his brain. He had memory loss, confusion, things like that. When he would try to put a sentence together, it didn't work. He would walk to the kitchen in his own house and we would find him standing there in the middle of the kitchen, confused and very upset with himself."

Romero Sr.'s weight rose at first. He is 5-foot-7 and weighed a robust 198 pounds – "Everybody used to call me big Dan," he said – before he got sick and inflated to about 210 pounds. He soon shriveled to 128 pounds in a matter of two months, and is at about 140 now.

He is too weak to walk, and needs assistance to get into bed.

His wildly erratic bilirubin – a pigment in the bile – and potassium levels sometimes give him an ashen complexion. Danny Jr. described it as "so gray it will look like he's dead."

He has developed osteoporosis, once breaking four ribs merely by coughing.

His immune system is virtually nonexistent.

His condition has gotten so dire he has been placed on 24-hour watches to prevent a fatal system crash.

"It's been a test," Romero Sr. said. "How much more I can take, I don't know."

On the outside, Romero Jr. tried to be a rock for his father and his family.

"All of a sudden he took the role that I had on my family," Romero Sr. said. "He took it upon his shoulders. He takes care of all the paperwork that had to be done and the doctors. He's a pretty sharp guy."

But Romero Jr. insisted it's a thin veneer. Beneath the surface, he's a wreck.

"I never knew how big of a crier I was," Romero Jr. said. "My mind was all screwed up. I was sitting around not knowing what I was doing or who I was. I lost control of everything. My 10-year-old daughter was taking care of me more than I was taking care of her. My life was in shambles. I couldn't watch fights because between my dad and me that was our thing together."

Doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver have somewhat stabilized Romero Sr.'s condition through medication and treatment. He takes three tablespoons of medicine per day and gets an infusion of albumin once a week to maintain his kidney function. A shunt in his jugular vein removes the excess bile from the blood flow to his brain.

But he won't survive without a transplant. He was placed on a recipient list that includes Colorado, Nebraska and parts of Idaho and Wyoming – but about 17,000 other patients in that region need a liver, too.

One week, he deteriorated rapidly enough to raise him on the priority list from No. 15 to No. 4.

"My blood type wasn't matching with any of the cadavers coming in," Romero Sr. said.

The situation became so bleak, Romero Jr. decided to return to the ring to give his father some happiness in his final weeks.

Boxing long had been the family pastime, and since young Danny figured he had done all he could as a caregiver, the least he could do for his father was be a joy giver.

"Wheeling your father around in a wheelchair – one of the saddest points is when I would take him to boxing matches," Romero Jr. said. "I put my career on hold because I gotta take care of my pops. I had to take him out of his chair and put him into bed and then massage him to get him to sleep.

"At that moment we felt he was at the end. I don't want to sound too dramatic, but that's what we thought. He said 'Look, you have to do this. It's what we set out to do. Let's finish this. Let's do it.' "

Said Romero Sr.: "We just talked and said that even if something drastic happens he still has to go on with his career. He still has to go on."

Romero Jr. began to train in earnest, but his layoff made it hard to shed the weight. He couldn't shed the anguish, either. Promoter Don King twice scheduled fights that eventually were scrubbed. Romero Jr. just wasn't ready mentally.

That changed in December.

After extensive testing, a family match was found for a live donor transplant. Oldest son Balone Romero had been eliminated immediately due to previous gall bladder surgery. Danny Jr. was ruled out – and learned some disconcerting information about himself – because of scar tissue buildup on his liver and other organs from boxing.

But Juan Romero, the youngest of the three sons, was discovered to be a sound candidate for the live transplant procedure.

"When we found out, we were all pumped up," Romero Jr. said.

Sixty percent of Juan Romero's liver will be extracted and given to his father. Family attorney Steven Pacitti said both livers are able to regenerate fully through medication.

"I said 'no' right away," Romero Sr. said. "He's got a family, and I don't want to put him through it.

"The success rate for the donor is 100 percent. With me, it depends on if I reject it or not. It depends on how much damage has been done, and they won't know that for sure until they open me up."

The surgery has been scheduled for May 26.

"He's very excited about it," Romero Sr. said of Juan. "I keep telling him, 'It's not like you're giving me a fingernail.' "

Although he won't be barking out instructions to his son Saturday night – this will be Romero Jr.'s first fight without his father in the corner – Romero Sr. will make the trip to Las Vegas to see the fight. Romero Jr., the former IBF flyweight and super flyweight champion, will take on Alex Baba.

"I've been in Danny's corner since he was 5 years old," Romero Sr. said. "I've been able to separate father and son throughout his career. But now do I stay calm? Do I yell? What do I do? I'll have to figure it out when I get there.

"All I know is Dan is in tremendous, tremendous shape. He looks real good. He knows how to fight. All he had to do is worry about the guy in front of him. Don't worry about the corner. Don't worry about me. Don't worry about anything else."

Romero Jr. is being trained by big brother Balone, uncle Henry Chavez and former Army coach Donald Wrenn. They worked out in Colorado Springs, Colo., allowing the elder Romero to be close to his hospital in Denver.

Romero Jr., who won his first championship when he was 20 years old, still has a few years of boxing left in him. He's 44-5-1 with 37 knockouts. Baba is 21-7 with 16 KOs, but there surely will be bigger targets for Romero Jr. down the line if he looks good in his return.

"Nobody's ever seen him as a mature man," Romero Sr. said. "He accomplished everything as a young man. Now he has all that man muscle and it just would have been a waste."

Romero Jr. always thought he and his father were close, but he said this ordeal bonded not only the two of them, but also the entire family.

"This brought us to a whole different level of love and respect," Romero Jr. said. "We're more than father and son, more than brothers. You can't get no closer.

"My return to boxing symbolizes somebody who has given me more strength. Seeing him getting past this [illness], ain't nothing can stand in my way. It doesn't matter who I fight."

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.