It was a birthday and a funeral.
Omar Henry’s family and friends were gathered in a back room of Apostolic Church of God in Hyde Park, snacking on roast beef sandwiches and chocolate donuts, and sipping iced tea. A video of Omar’s boxing highlights played on a TV in the corner. At 11 a.m. the group moved into the sanctuary. As stories were told, there were laughs and tears. Before it ended, a member of the congregation performed a Boyz II Men song.
It was Feb. 8. It was supposed to mark the start of a promising year for Omar, a boxer from Chicago who seemed teasingly close to fame and fortune. He was a talented fighter with an immensely charismatic personality. Last November, he was set to headline a card for Showtime — his first televised bout. But now, three months later, he was being eulogized by loved ones. His body would be buried 11 miles away at Mount Hope Cemetery in Morgan Park.
As a professional, Omar fought just 13 times in four years. Those who didn’t follow the sport would unlikely know his name, but inside boxing, he had amassed a large fan base and earned the respect of the stars; nearly everyone who saw him fight thought he was destined to be among them. He stayed in terrific shape. He avoided the common vices. He avoided the punches that too often lead to a boxer’s demise. He was 25.
I met Omar in the fall of 1998, at Chute Middle School in south Evanston. The metal bars lining the outside of the building made it somewhat resemble a prison, or at least we kids saw it that way at the time. Inside, the school was a racially diverse group of nearly 600 students.
He and I never became best friends, but we socialized and got along well. Occasionally, we would play soccer together at lunch (he was much faster than I was), or against each other in basketball during P.E. (I had a nice height advantage). I recall he was quick to tell a joke in math class and had an easy laugh.
By the end of eighth grade, most of us were feeling trapped in our school, yearning to experience whatever the world offered beyond those bars. But Omar could envision his life’s plan. He was focusing on the sweet science, not science labs. We’d find him practicing his jabs in the school hallways and outside on the sidewalks.
“We would just be walking somewhere, to class or to a party, and he would just get in a stance and start swinging,” Gerald Jones, a mutual middle school friend of ours, told me recently. “We were just playing around, but he would be saying, ‘Don’t mess with me. I’m going to be a boxer. I’m the next Roy Jones.’ We all laughed it off.”
Omar was born on the South Side to Puerto Rican parents, the youngest of five kids. He moved to Evanston when he was about 11 and stayed a few years before moving to Mt. Prospect. Then he went to in Houston to live with his sister, Shonda Wells, where his boxing really took off.
His sister encouraged him to stay occupied when not in school, and so he spent free hours at a gym called the Savannah Boxing Club. “He knew he was at home,” Shonda said at the funeral. “There was a sense of confidence about him when he started to box.”
At 5-foot-8, 154 pounds, Omar was an aggressive boxer with a brutal right hand, and he quickly became one of the top amateur fighters in the country. A four-time Texas Golden Gloves Champion and member of USA Boxing Elite Program, Omar ran up a record of 60-5 before signing with Top Rank Boxing in 2008. In his professional debut, he knocked out Terence Anderson less than two minutes into the opening round.
Thereafter, he was anointed one of the sport’s hot prospects. Observers noted he had the same fighting style as Miguel Cotto, the former light middleweight champ, and he served as a sparring partner for both Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather prior to their Cotto bouts. His popularity grew. Although he didn’t drink or smoke, he became a fixture in the Las Vegas social scene, rubbing elbows with athletes, music celebrities, even President Obama.
“He was made from the ground up and made the most of his opportunities,” said Matthew Hunter, another Chute classmate of ours. “Boxing was something he always wanted to do, but Omar also took time to enjoy every moment in life. But when he wasn’t fighting, Omar had a calmness about him that just put people at ease.”
Following a dispute with Top Rank in 2011, Henry switched to Don King Productions. Last June, he beat Tyrone Selders, a capable middleweight from Las Angeles, by unanimous decision, which ran his professional record to 12-0-1 with nine KO’s. The executives at Showtime were impressed, and tapped Omar to be the top-billed fighter for an event in South Florida promoted as “The Next Generation.” The fight was supposed to set Omar on a path for the junior middleweight title belt.
He arrived in Fort Lauderdale four days before the fight was scheduled. The day after he landed, he went for a run, but felt a sharp pain in his stomach and returned to his hotel. Trainers noticed his eyes, usually a deep-brown color, had started to turn yellow. He was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors initially diagnosed him with gallstones. He pulled out of the fight that evening.
On Nov. 16, the day he was supposed to be making his TV debut, doctors in Florida performed surgery to remove Omar’s gallstones. But over the next week, his condition worsened. After a second emergency surgery, doctors changed their diagnosis: Stage 4 gallbladder cancer. The disease had spread quickly through Omar’s body.
Taking to his Facebook page, he vowed to fight: “I will not go down for the count. I am a champion who has chosen to fight not just for myself but for those whose faith is believing in what you can’t see, and I will continue to fight till I knock this sickness out.”
The cancer continued to spread, but Omar remained hopeful after being transferred to the University of Chicago Medical Center, just blocks from his old neighborhood. Friends and family visited daily. He began chemotherapy at the end of December, a last-ditch effort to beat back the disease.
When, a few weeks later, he was transferred to Mercy Hospital, he set a final fight date for himself: “I got less than 1 month left until my 26th birthday February 8,” he wrote in a Jan. 9 message to his Facebook and Twitter followers. “Hopefully I live to see it.”
He died seven days before, on Friday, Feb. 1, at 6:45 a.m.
I went to the funeral a week later. There were nearly 150 mourners. Purple ribbon pins were handed out. The program had Omar’s smiling face on the cover. Puerto Rican and American flags draped the coffin, which lay in front of the stage alongside flowers and balloons. Stained glass windows lined the walls of the church.
Anyone who wished to share a story was encouraged to do so, and more than 15 people took the stage. His aunt told funny stories of the mischievous personality he displayed as a kid. Some Chute classmates talked about the fun we had goofing around in the giant field outside the middle school. A friend of Omar’s from third grade broke down in tears recalling how the two hadn’t spoken in more than a decade, only to bump into each other and instantly reconnect. People traveled from all over the country for the service, including some friends from Houston who brought a championship belt and talked about the thrill of seeing the young boxer in the ring, a smile on his face as he danced around opponents. Pastor David Williams spoke in his eulogy of the courage Omar showed in his final weeks, fighting against an opponent that couldn’t be knocked out.
The service ended, fittingly, with an a cappella performance of, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
As guests stood in the church lobby following the service, the Henry family piled into a pair of limos set to take them to the cemetery. One by one, the group walked out into the chill winter air. There was one of Omar’s cousins, who carried a bouquet of flowers, likely to be placed on his grave. Behind him was an aunt, who had in her hand a string of balloons of many colors. They read, “Happy Birthday!”
As I left the church and the cold air jabbed my face, I realized: Omar didn’t reach his birthday and never attained his goals as a fighter. Those things were beyond his control. In his too-short life, though, when it came to the matters within his control, he achieved greatness… he was a champion.