Fightback - Sakima Mullings in brave battle to save vision and career
Sakima 'Mr Smooth' Mullings has seen off many fierce opponents on his way to becoming not only the first-ever two-time Wray and Nephew Contender Series champion, but also the World Boxing Council Caribbean Boxing Federation Welterweight champion. However, the 36-year-old now faces his fiercest opponent yet as he fights to maintain his vision and his career.
Mullings, joined by Canadian boxing promoter and friend Tyler Buxton, invited The Gleaner to the Stanley Couch Gym in central Kingston. The ring in the middle of the complex, where boxers, young and old, hone their craft on a daily basis, was stripped down to its bare essentials of just the wooden flooring and untethered ropes. While there was no fight taking place inside the ring, there was one inside Mullings' head as he wrestled with the anxiety of what he had to share.
He has been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition affecting the retina in his left eye, which also causes sensitivity to light. He had been aware of the condition since early last year but kept word from the public because he was initially confident he would have done surgery, had a quick recovery, and been back in the ring before questions were raised about his absence. The symptoms became serious soon after his sixth-round technical-knockout win over Edmund Declou in an exhibition bout last March to launch the 2018 Contender Series. But he said that the fight itself was not a contributor.
"It didn't happen from one blow in a particular fight, or in training, or one particular incident," he said. "It's something that deteriorated over time. I have a high predisposition for it because I was born with RP.
"I started noticing a little bit of light sensitivity in my eyes, so I got checked out by the doctors to see what was going on. They let me know that I had a tear of my retina."
He went to Cuba, where he was told some of the best eye doctors in the world practise, in early September but was actually sent to the wrong hospital and could not get the procedure done. He returned home and, on the advice of relatives and his team, did his surgery in November at the University Hospital of The West Indies.
These visits to various doctors also took a toll on the boxer mentally as he shared his frustration of thinking he had found a solution to the problem, only to see symptoms recur.
"It's tough, man," he said with a sigh. "Boxing is a thing where you have to develop a certain type of mentality to do it. The number of doctors I've been to, when they are consistently telling you," he said with a pause for thought, "that you have to really consider a new career path after dedicating your life to something, it's really hard to accept.
"It's been a long journey, and there's been a lot of ups and downs in terms of getting over this. Every time that I felt like I've made progress, that I had the right procedure done, that I've beaten this and I'm gonna put it behind me, there's always been another complication and another step that we've had to take to move forward."
KEY TO RECOVERY
When competing, Mullings is clad in black trunks with the words 'Cadence' and 'Melody' across the back in gold. While these may describe his smooth rhythm, they are actually the names of his two daughters: Cadence, 12 years old, and Melody, a year and eight months. They have been a key in his fight for recovery.
"The only thing more important to me than boxing are my daughters," he said. "Cadence is old enough to understand, so we've had long talks about what's going on with my vision. My quality of life is definitely important to me in terms of preserving my vision so I can watch my daughters grow up. That's why I've taken everything the doctors have said seriously. I take my medication, I make my visits. Whatever they say, I execute it to the best of my ability so that I can preserve my quality of life so I can be there for my daughters."
Mullings' vision from his right eye is fine, however, he can only see objects directly in front of him, while those appearing on his left are now blurry. Doctors told him that surgery will not restore his full vision but will prevent it from deteriorating. While competing in his current state is unthinkable, he is hoping to make a quick return to the ring after a successful operation and recovery period.
"In terms of the timeline that's laid out for me now," he said, "when I have my surgery done, there's a six-to-eight-week recovery period, and then from there, I should be cleared by the doctors to begin training again and to be able to move forward with my career."
Buxton, who has seen a lot of injuries in his time as a promoter, is confident in Mullings' ability to overcome.
"I was wondering, 'Why is he so quiet?' Why is there nothing coming up for him?' and if something was wrong," Buxton said. "It's not uncommon anymore, and it's not career-ending like it used to be. If he follows the procedures and does what he has to do, it can be fixed. What I told him is [that] first and foremost, it's his health. He has to make sure that it's 100 per cent. Doctors need to approve that it is healed properly. He's coming to the end of his career. This is the time to take those big fights, take that big step up, and see exactly if he can win a world title. But first and foremost, it's his health. It's a tough fight. If he does what he has to do, I believe the doctors will get him back in the ring and set up that comeback fight."
Mullings' next check-up is on January 22, and a surgery is expected on the 25th. However, depending on what is found in that visit, the date of the operation may change.