- Daniel Franco woke up from a coma after suffering a near–fatal knockout two years ago. Now, he's looking for answers on how to prevent a similar tragedy from happening to other fighters.
Daniel Franco’s dramatic story and battle against Roc Nation is told in a documentary called “Fighting Forward.” Watch the trailer above and get a free 7-day trial to watch the full feature soon on SI.TV.
ONTARIO, CALIF. — The beige sedan zipped down the California freeway, weaving in and out of traffic on a warm March afternoon. Daniel Franco knows these roads. Sort of. The GPS on the dashboard is there to remind him. He used to know the exits by memory. He used to know a lot of things.
A cameraman and a reporter tag along with Franco on this trip. He’s used to the company. Earlier this year, Franco signed on to be an Uber driver. He enjoys conversation, bantering back and forth with his passengers. He asks them what they do. They tell him. They ask him what he does. He tells them—and they don’t believe him. He encourages them to Google him.
“I hope it would show my highlights,” Franco said. “But it’s always the coma.”
On June 10, 2017, Franco, a rising prospect in the featherweight (126-pound) division, faced Jose Haro in Sloan, Iowa for minor regional title. Two fights earlier, Franco had been stopped by Christopher Martin, knocked down twice in the third round before the referee ended the fight. He returned less than two months later, in Mexico, where he scored an easy first–round knockout. The next month—78 days after the knockout—Franco stepped in against Haro, hoping to resume his pursuit of a world title shot. Instead, he was knocked down twice in the eighth round, the second the result of a crushing right hand that sent Franco crashing face first to the canvas.
Minutes later, Franco was on a stretcher. An hour later, he was in a hospital, undergoing surgery to relieve pressure on the swelling in his brain. Franco, said Dr, Matthew Johnson, the neurosurgeon who saw Daniel that night, had “a sizable subdural hematoma and a collection of blood between the brain and the skull and it was compressing the left side of his brain and pushing it over toward the right side, and that was causing significant increased pressure in his brain.”
“Without treatment within minutes that can be a life-threatening injury,” Dr. Johnson said. “Subdural hematoma carries a very high mortality rate, especially if not treated—there would have been no way for him to survive.”
For two weeks, Franco was in a medically induced coma. His family didn’t think he would make it. Franco didn’t, either. He underwent multiple surgeries and had a part of his skull removed. Today, his memory is spotty. Friends and family say his personality has changed.
“He’s different,” his father, Al Franco, said. “He’s mellow now. Maybe just enjoying life more. I don’t know. As long as he’s happy.”
Boxing is an unforgiving sport. The brain wasn’t meant to be rattled around the skull. Injuries happen. Death happens. For fighters, mental health issues are the cost of a career. For some, it’s worse than others.
For the most part, the public doesn’t see that. They see the fight. They see the knockout. They express horror at the violence of it. Then they move on. They don’t see the fallout.
This is a story about the fallout.
Al Franco didn’t want his kids to box. He did, as an amateur, before hanging up his gloves at 26. He taught Daniel, now 27, and his brothers, Michael, 31, and Nicholas, 29 so they would know how to defend themselves. He was hoping they would find boxing boring. He was hoping they would quit. They didn’t.
Michael, the oldest Franco brother, was the first to turn pro. Daniel took to it the most. “Like a fish to water,” Al said. Naturally aggressive, Franco enjoyed the violence of the sport. He racked up wins in amateur tournaments. There, he earned the nickname “Clark Kent.” “Because he looked like a kid that should be reading a book rather than throwing a punch,” Al said. In 2010, he turned pro. He went 15-0-3 to start his career. Roc Nation—eager to become a player in the boxing business—scooped him up. The Martin fight was supposed to be a stepping stone to world class competition.
Al Franco didn’t want Daniel to take the fight. In early 2017, Al didn’t want Daniel to take any fights. He had noticed a change in Daniel. The dedication to training had waned. Daniel had a girlfriend that was dividing his attention. Al wanted his son to quit. Education was big in the Franco household. As an amateur, Franco wasn’t allowed to compete in tournaments that would keep him out of the classroom.
During training for the Martin fight, Al said, he told his son to quit.
“I told him it was time to go back to school,” Al said. He pauses, the emotion overwhelming him. “The dedication I saw two years before wasn’t there. Other priorities started taking over his life. I saw that. I saw that.”
But Al knew: Quit now, and there could be no coming back. Fighters, especially young fighters, are beholden to promoters. Inactive fighters don’t get opportunities. Years earlier, Al worked with another fighter. That fighter injured his ankle and was forced out of a scheduled fight. According to Al, he didn’t fight again for two years. And deep down, Al couldn’t be sure if it was the Dad talking, or the coach. So he let Daniel fight. And he watched Martin—a light–hitting journeyman—knock his son out.
Roc Nation, Al said, wanted Daniel back in the ring, quickly. They arranged a fight in Mexico, to get Daniel an easy win. And they set up the Haro fight. In training, Daniel looked good, physically. Mentally, Al said, he wasn’t there. Late in training, Al said Daniel began questioning if they should take the fight. “He’s never questioned a fight before,” Al said. “He was always, ‘I can’t wait to fight this guy.’ He always had the mentality of looking big.” A friend of Daniel’s, Al said, had planted the seed that Daniel should back out and find another promoter. “The confidence you wanted to see wasn’t there,” Al said. “Mentally, there was doubt.”
Two weeks before the Haro fight, Al told Daniel he should quit. He told Daniel he didn’t have the right focus. He told Daniel that his relationship with his girlfriend was affecting his training. “It wasn’t her fault, because it’s his decision,” Al said. “But he was more involved with her than he was with what was going on in the ring.”
Daniel denied that his attention was divided. He said he was ready to fight. Al agreed to work with him. But he swore to himself that regardless of what Daniel did, he was done training him. “Maybe I should have stopped then and there,” Al said. “You question yourself. What can you do?”
The punch that changed everything was a straight right hand, a shot that temporarily turned Daniel’s body limp. From the corner, Al thought his knee had given out. He thought he saw his son grab for his leg when he hit the canvas. He got Daniel on the stool. And he heard the first slur. He called for the doctor. The doctor said they needed to go to the hospital.
In the ambulance, Al’s mind raced. He kept his composure for his wife, Teresa. But Al knew fighters who had slipped into comas. He knew fighters who had died. Shortly after being loaded into the ambulance, Daniel started seizing. On the 25-minute drive to the hospital (“A long, two-way road in the middle of nowhere,” Al said) he could only think the worst.
At the hospital, doctors told Al it was bad. They moved the family into a chapel. A chaplain was brought in. Doctors told him that Daniel had a brain bleed. They said they were going to operate. They pegged his chances of survival at 20%. Remembering the moment, Al begins to cry. “I honestly didn’t expect him to make it.”
A day passed. Then two. Daniel needed a second surgery, to address a second bleed. He remained in a coma. The Franco family stayed in the hospital. For weeks, Al flew out on Sunday and back on Thursday, needing to return to southern California for work. Slowly, Daniel came back to them. He opened his eyes. His vocal cords were paralyzed, making him unable to talk, leaving the family to wonder if he was permanently brain damaged. When he tried to talk, he could only gasp for air. A few weeks later, his voice came back. Daniel was back.
Daniel would survive, doctors said. But he was in for his toughest fight. There would be speech problems. He would have to learn to walk again. “The brain is unknown,” said Al. “Everyone is different. Rehab would be an arduous process. The Franco’s didn’t care. Daniel would survive. Said Al, “I got my son back.”
Often, this is where a story ends. The fighter is hurt. He battles for his life. He struggles to recover. He eventually does.
But there is more to the story. The recovery is expensive. Very expensive. In the weeks after Daniel’s injury, the travel costs piled up. Flights from California to Iowa were running north of $1,000. Hotel costs were close to $200 a night. The bills piled up. The Franco’s quickly burned through most of their savings.
Boxing is a dangerous sport, but it can come with limited medical insurance. Insurance depends on the state commission. In Iowa, promoters are required to purchase $10,000 of health insurance for each fighter. Daniel burned through that quickly. Promoters have the option of purchasing supplemental insurance. This show did not. The Franco’s had family insurance. That covered 80% of their bills, Al said, which totaled more than $2 million.
“Sometimes, when things don’t go right, you go to God and say “I’ll go to Church if this happens” or, you know, you make a deal,” Al said. “For me, it was that I would take care of all these bills. Of all these responsibilities. I did, and he’s back. It’s only money.”
It is, but it’s a lot of money. Al estimates his bills at roughly $12,000 a month. And as Daniel started to recover, he had a renewed interest in his education. Before signing with Roc Nation, Daniel was accepted at Arizona. As his brain healed, Daniel wanted to go back to school. Al was determined to pay for it.
In 2005, Al sold an auto recovery business he owned for 21 years. He wanted to open a gym. He had saved his money. He didn’t have any extravagant expenses. As owner of Warzone Boxing Club, Al earned a solid income. In 2015, he operated two locations. He sold one, intending to keep the other open for his pro fighters. In his late 40s, he had one eye on retirement.
Daniel’s injury changed that. Al, 51, opened a new location. He works every day, from 4 am to 10 pm. He keeps a cot in a back room, when he needs a quick nap. He had hoped to be retired at 45. He says now he will likely be keeping this schedule into his 60s.
“I wish I could be home right now,” Al said. “Just sleeping, watching TV and getting fat. But it’s not going to happen. I’ve been doing this since the incident. Working every day. Working, working, working.”
Initially, Al believed Roc Nation would help. At the hospital, a rep from the company told Al that Roc Nation would be there for whatever they needed. “That was comforting,” Al said. The Franco’s were asked not to hold a press conference. To not talk to the press, period. According to Al, the family was told that Roc Nation would handle the press conference, as well as a GoFundMe page for Daniel.
And then … silence. Emails were not returned. Five months after the injury, Daniel took to Instagram. Wearing a helmet to protect his skull, Daniel delivered a message to Roc Nation: I fought every time you asked. I never turned down an opponent. I sacrificed my life, my health, my future. I can’t even get a call?
The post went viral. The phone rang. It was Dino Duva, a boxing executive at Roc Nation. Take that down, Duva said. You know we’ll help you out. The next day, Duva called again. This time it was to ask Daniel to take the photo off his Facebook page. A call would come soon, Duva promised.
“I never heard from them again,” Al said. “Dino Duva called me to say they were going to call me, and that was it. Not a letter, not a get well card. Not a thing. All they did was remove him from their website, and that was it.”
Roc Nation did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Al Franco said he never wanted any money from Roc Nation. He wanted the company, whose official Twitter account has 475,000 followers, to push Daniel’s GoFundMe page. He hoped that Roc Nation founder, Jay-Z, with 3.1 million followers, would push it, too. He hoped Jay-Z’s wife, Beyonce (15 million followers) would retweet a link to it. When Roc Nation put on events, Al wanted the fighters involved in it to push the page across social channels. He called office numbers. He called cell phones. Duva. Roc Nation president Michael Yormark. Anyone.
“You get 10% of people to donate a dollar, that’s a lot of money,” Al said. “I never said, ‘Hey, you owe us money.’ I never said, ‘You need to pay for these bills.’ I asked them to share the page. They said they would. They said they would share everything. They never did. That’s all we ever wanted.”
Last month, Daniel formally filed a lawsuit against Roc Nation. In the suit, Franco alleges that Roc Nation was negligent for booking Franco in three fights in 79 days. It alleges that when Franco informed Roc Nation that he was ill in the weeks before the Martin fight, he was told he needed to go through with it, or he would have problems getting future fights. It alleges that the skull fractures and brain bleeds actually occurred during the Martin fight, and if an MRI or another brain imaging scan had been performed, they would have been discovered.
“The actions of Defendants were an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person or corporation would do in the same situation to prevent harm to its boxers,” said the lawsuit. “Roc Nation and other Defendants recklessly disregarded the health and safety of Franco.”
Said a rival promoter, “I don’t know if legally Roc Nation is responsible. But how they have treated this kid is one of the most despicable things I have ever seen.”
Daniel Franco can’t tell you about the fight. He doesn’t remember it. “Nothing at all,” Franco said. “Watching it, it felt like I was watching another person.” When he awoke in the hospital, he leaned over to his father. Softly, his vocal cords paralyzed, he whispered to Al that he had a dream that Haro had laughed at the weigh-in, saying he hated face offs. That happened, Al told him. A friend was in the room. Daniel asked him what happened. He was told he had been knocked out.
“It felt like it never happened,” Daniel said. “I woke up one day, and I’m not a fighter anymore. How would you feel if you went to sleep tonight, you woke up, you were in the hospital and half your head was missing? That’s how it was.”
What Daniel does remember is the struggle to get to this point. The surgeries. The rehabilitation. The antibiotics through an IV. The cognitive therapy. The infection in his brain because, Daniel said, “my body actually rejected my skull. The excruciating headaches that followed. “It sucked,” Daniel said. “I was in so much pain.”
These days, Daniel is following a new path. He is taking classes at Mt. San Antonio College, in Walnut, Calif. He earns money driving Uber. He offers private boxing lessons a few days a week. He loves working with clients—but hates being in a boxing gym. He dreams of becoming a neurologist. “Getting a degree, being educated, that’s my drive now,” Daniel said.
He wants to change boxing. He hopes to speak to the Association of Boxing Commissions about creating a national policy that requires any fighter who has been knocked out to be sidelined for two months, with no activity. He wants mandatory MRI’s and CT scans for fighters “so they know something is wrong before they go in the ring.”
“Yeah, people might lose money,” Daniel said. “But people are going to die. People are going to get severely hurt. People are going to become vegetables. It needs to change.”
On Roc Nation, Franco doesn’t say much. On a recent Instagram story, Franco wrote “Fuck Roc Nation” on a chalkboard on campus.
“It’s a business,” Franco said. “A dirty boxing business.”
Does he resent his former promoter turning their backs on him?
“I wouldn’t say resentment,” Franco said.
“Of course, I feel abandoned,” said Franco. “But it’s OK.”
Franco says he feels normal. His memory isn’t great. He has a tendency to ramble, to lose his train of thought. He writes things down a lot. He can’t run long distances anymore—he can literally feel his brain moving in his skull—but he still eats like he’s in training. Any impairment and inability to function at this point, Dr. Johnson said, is likely to be permanent. Daniel watches boxing, the adrenaline hitting when he sees a fighter get his hand raised in the ring. “That’s what I miss the most,” Franco said. “That feeling of like, ‘Yes, I did it.’ There are so many people there that are happy for you.”
He has been dealt a bad break. But he is here. His family is drowning in bills, but they have Daniel. To Al, Daniel is a miracle.
“I’ve heard that a lot,” Daniel said. “When I was in a coma, I was getting a lot of prayers from people all over the world. That was mind blowing. It was really mind blowing.”
Pausing, Daniel turned to an interviewer.
“Sorry, what were we talking about?”