Omar Figueroa Jr. felt weighted down, sluggish. His hands weren’t working. His legs weren’t working. His thought process shut down. He wondered why. The former WBC lightweight titlist had not been fully in control of himself outside the ring for some time, which translated to how he performed inside the ring. The 32-year-old suffered his second-straight defeat in May 2021, when he was stopped for the first time in his career, knocked out by Abel Ramos in the sixth round.
It’s when Figueroa realized something was going on internally that was beyond boxing.
His life was twisting in the wrong direction. The buttons that he used to push inside his head seemed broke. That alerted him to seek help. It’s when a slew of mental health issues surfaced, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar disorder. Finding out that ADHD was hereditary answered a lot of questions.
When Figueroa enters the ring on Saturday night against Sergey Lipinets, a late replacement this week for Adrien Broner, who fell out due to mental health issues, he’ll be a fresher, newer version of himself on the Showtime Championship Boxing card (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) in the 12-round junior welterweight feature bout in a PBC event from the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
Figueroa (28-2-1, 19 knockouts) has been a shining light in mental health awareness. Because of the platform that he is on, he feels obligated to spread the importance of mental health.
SOOOOOO hyped for this! https://t.co/agyvBdnSTp
— Omar Figueroa Jr. (@OmarFigueroaJr) August 19, 2022
Figueroa is from a proud, traditional Mexican heritage.
“It’s very hard to gain credence for mental health, like everything was an excuse, and recently with Ryan Garcia and Danny Garcia each came out and said it, it’s very real,” Figueroa said. “I live through it. I know. Being from the background I come from, my father (Omar Figueroa Sr.), for example, believes me, but he doesn’t fully understand when I tell him I’m having a bad mental health day. Or he doesn’t care to understand. Even my mom and my siblings don’t always understand. It seems like you’re making excuses. Being open about it, us being fighters, I think is a huge step towards understanding mental health.
“It’s why it’s important for me, Danny, and Ryan to speak up about it, because there are people like us who go through these things that don’t feel validated. I feel like the more we speak out, the more we bring it to light and be opened to speaking about their feelings to get out of those dark places. It’s not pretty. Life is hard. It’s really, really hard. The coward’s route is to hide it.”
Because of this revelation, Figueroa admits the focus for this fight has been greater. It’s rekindled his love for boxing. Having grown up the way he did, with boxing ingrained in him at a young age, he grew rebellious against his father, the sport. He hated boxing. He loathed himself for no reason. He says he hated his father most times and he hated life.
“It’s no way to live,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is that I got a lot of that hate out of the way. I realized that I was the problem in a sense. All of this was in my head. The negative feelings towards myself, the negative emotions, because I got diagnosed last August 2021. That was a life-changing month for me.”
This started one idle afternoon last summer when Figueroa was sitting on his couch at home, in Weslaco, Texas. He says he used to joke with himself about PTSD, though admits he was ignorant about it. He was under the impression PTSD was a mental health diagnosis only soldiers could have. He was unaware regular people can be afflicted, too.
He clicked on a thumbnail of a PDSD video on YouTube. He began relating a little too much to it. So, Figueroa thought he would click on another thumbnail regarding ADHD, which he thought only occurred with children. He found a grown man in his 40s talking abut being diagnosed and that got him thinking.
“That convinced me that I had to go get checked,” he said. “I was diagnosed in August 2021. I went to the doctor’s office, and we talked. The doctor already knew me, so when we spoke for a while. That facilitated the process. He basically told me that I was screwed up (laughs). Talking about it made it easy. Being open about it. Being honest. It made me understand that there are things that happen that we can’t help. These fluctuations and feelings are something we can’t help. It’s the chemicals in our brains that just go haywire, especially with the ADHD. We’re not in control of what the hell we’re feeling most of the time.
“Me being vocal about it with my team has especially been such a game-changer, because if I’m having a horrible day, or if I wake up in a s—ty mood, or if I don’t get enough sleep, because I’m a horrible insomniac, I talk to my team and change things up. We look after that now. We look after my well-being and my brain. That’s made the biggest difference in my camp, I think.”
The conversations with his father are easier to explain. He tells his father that it’s not that he doesn’t want to work out, or want to be in a bad mood, or feel horrible, but it’s what his mind is directing him to do now. Omar Sr. is more understanding.
“There were a few days, especially in the beginning of camp, when I asked my mom, ‘Can I give you a hug please?’ She would say, ‘Yes, of course.’ We would hug it out. Hugging helps,” Omar Jr. said. “Like I said, it’s about being honest, and being open, and whatever people might think, I didn’t care about any of that. I have to look after my brain and my mental health.
“My father has not apologized to me over the things that happened in the past. What has changed is he comes at me with a softer tone. I’m also a grown-ass man who demands respect. My father, to his credit, has calmed down a lot and he is trying. He’s changed a lot, too. At least there is that.”
The biggest change in Figueroa’s personal discovery is that he’s learned to give himself a break. Elite athletes in any sport are almost always their harshest critics. They all live with a tiny voice inside their heads that’s constantly demanding, constantly pulling and yanking, and constantly demeaning.
“That’s right,” Figueroa said. “I’ve learned to be patient with myself, and that’s the advice I would give, to be loving with yourself, be forgiving with yourself, and just take it easy on yourself. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. I’m a better fighter after the Abel Ramos loss. That fight was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That set me on this course and pushed me to really look into my mental health.
“I look at myself and know there was no reason for me to lose that fight. It’s not meant to take anything away from Ramos. But there was n way I was going to win, considering the mental state that I was in. It forced me to take a real look at myself.”
Lipinets (16-2-1, 12 KOs) is a test. Broner was the bigger challenge.
When Broner pulled out earlier this week with the reason mental health was the cause, it infuriated Figueroa.
— Omar Figueroa Jr. (@OmarFigueroaJr) August 15, 2022
“We knew it was a possibility (that the fight wouldn’t happen),” he told The Ring on Monday. “What really ticked me off was his excuse to use mental health, to try and pull the mental health card, because like I said, we’d been hearing stories about him screwing around, and going out and drinking, and partying, and not taking camp seriously. So, I don’t understand why he doesn’t man up and come clean that he f—cked up, instead of trying to pull the mental health card, because I feel it undermines what me and a lot of people have gone through and are going through. It’s a constant daily struggle that I have had to deal with throughout this camp.
“I hope Adrien Broner gets help. I know the impact he can make because he has millions of followers on social media. I’m challenging him in a way to help the mental health community and to help himself, too. He definitely needs some help. I hope he gets it.
“But this has been insulting to me very much so, and not just me, but I have people that have reached out to me on social media that have thanked me for being honest and open about my mental health struggles and how they can relate.
“To those who have opened up to me, it’s like a slap in the face to all of us.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.