SAN DIEGO — A smile cuts through the tears as Pearl Gonzalez recalls the memories of her dad taking her to school in the working-class Chicago neighborhood in which she was raised.
Anthony Gonzalez wasn’t a perfect human being. He experienced the depths of heroin addiction and the disintegration of his marriage to a crack-addicted wife before he turned his life around and made something of himself.
His daughter, Pearl, was his everything. His motivation to be a better person. His motivation to be a real father. His motivation to make sure that his tomboy daughter channeled her relentless energy into something productive, so that she’d avoid the pitfalls he’d experienced in his life.
“He held my hand, I held his hand in the car going to school until I was in eighth grade,” Gonzalez said. “I know that sounds weird, but he would hold my hand and he would always open the door for me and take me to the movies and he would give me a rose on Valentine’s Day and give me chocolate on my birthday.”
If others might find it a little strange that Mr. Gonzalez insisted on holding his little girl’s hand well into her junior high school years as he took her to school, so be it. Pearl Gonzalez was her father’s pride and joy and he was never going to let her forget it.
“As strong as he was, he was always very kind and gentle,” Gonzalez said. “And to this day I will not allow any man to treat me any less than that.”
This is the story of a good man who loved his daughter with every fiber of his being, and of the daughter who wants to live the rest of her days honoring her father’s memory after he left this world far too soon.
Pearl’s sixth sense told her that she should stick around her dad’s house a little while longer when she came home to Chicago for a visit back in May.
After being cut from the UFC late last year, Gonzalez had decided to commit full-time to Manolo Hernandez’s 10th Planet San Diego gym, the home of competitors like the pioneering Liz Carmouche and Bellator flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, which has distinguished itself in recent years as one of the top women-focused platforms in the sport.
Family back home in Chicago was important, of course, but an MMA fighter has a limited window upon which they can make their mark. And if Gonzalez, who was cut from the UFC late last year after losing both of her fights in the company, was going to make the most of her remaining opportunities, she needed to be all-in on her career.
“I failed in the UFC and I had to make some adjustments in my life,” Gonzalez said. “So, my husband got stationed in Japan (with the Navy), that’s where he lives now. Whatever I was doing in Chicago didn’t work, so I decided to move out to San Diego alone and I don’t have family here, so I can just focus solely on my fight career.”
The proof she made the right call was provided by her results in the cage. The former strawweight is 3-0 in Invicta and has reinvented herself at flyweight, where she’s on the short list of contenders for the vacant championship.
But when she made time to come home to Chicago and visit, not long after she defeated Barbara Acioly via first-round armbar at Invicta FC 29 on May 4, something told her she should stick around awhile.
“I didn’t really want to stay in Chicago for that long,” Gonzalez said. “My family is plagued with drug addiction and it’s hard to be home. I didn’t want to stay too long. I mentally want to worry about my career, right? But something told me I needed to stay and spend time with my dad but especially for his birthday, and so I stayed. I made it very special, I stayed probably three nights at my dad’s house which is more than usual. I spent a lot more time than I usually did with him.”
Anthony Gonzalez had watched his daughter’s victory over Acioly “a thousand times,” according to Gonzalez, and considered his visit from his daughter to be an extra-special birthday gift.
Nothing seemed amiss when he dropped Pearl off at the airport for her return to San Diego and then reported to work at a local Firestone branch, where he had worked as an auto mechanic for 22 years, ever since he had cleaned up his life and took in Pearl, who had been bouncing around among other family members after her parents’ marriage fell apart when she was nine years old.
Then disaster struck during his shift in the form of a catastrophic asthma attack. The elder Gonzalez was unconscious with his inhaler in his hand by the time the fire department arrived. Cardiac arrest had set in, and it took seven attempts to revive him and get him to a local hospital, where he ended up on life support.
Pearl got the bad news as soon as her flight landed in San Diego, and she was immediately back en route to Chicago.
“As soon as I got the call that he was not well and I had to go home, on that plane ride home I had anxiety and I had these emotions, ‘I don’t know if I can handle this,’” Gonzalez said.
With her world suddenly turned upside down, Gonzalez found herself in the default posture of any fighter worth their salt: Her brain went into fight-week mode as she hoped for the best for her dad, but prepared for the worst.
“I just remember taking a deep breath and putting my fight face on,” Gonzalez said. “The week we were in the hospital with him, that whole week I was on fight mode. The whole thing, butterflies, adrenaline when his heart rate would drop, it was the same feeling I would feel on fight week, so that’s what I ended up doing was just put my fight face on and got through it.”
There was some optimism early on that Anthony Gonzalez might come out of his ordeal. But as time passed, it became clear too much brain damage had occurred after his cardiac arrest, and he was eventually declared brain dead.
By the time she had to make the call to pull the breathing tube and let her father pass, Gonzalez had already fully channeled the same drive that made her into a competitive fighter into a determination to live the rest of her life in a manner which honors his legacy.
“I had my mindset when I accepted that I was going to have to say goodbye to him, that I was going to have to use this pain and emotion in a positive way,” Gonzalez said. “I felt like it was my duty, it was owed to my father and my family that it doesn’t matter what we go through, you have to use it as something positive no matter how painful it is to me.”
The healing road after the loss of a loved is rarely a straight path. There are good days and bad. Sometimes you smile in appreciation of pleasant memories. Others, those same remembrances can cut like a knife.
Some of the most turbulent times occur when you least expect them, when something routine occurs that instinctively makes you want to reach out and connect, only to realize all over again that they’re no longer there.
Gonzalez had one such hard-to-predict moment one evening this autumn when she lost both sets of keys to her car. She recalled with a mix of emotion how much she had grown to rely on her auto-mechanic dad on car-related matters, and how she wanted to reach out and have him bail her out of her jam.
“I lost two sets of car keys,” Gonzalez said. “My dad worked at Firestone my whole life, and he would be like, ‘Pearl, let me show you how to change a tire,’ and I’d say, ‘No Dad, you can change the tire. I have you, I don’t need to!’ So with my car I’ve always been able to get away with being, ‘Dad, I need your help,’ he’d do everything for me.
“I was having a tough day. I actually went to the beach to pray and ask for answers and ground myself, and I had the best shadowboxing ever and I was having a great time and I realized my keys fell out in the ocean,” Gonzalez continued. “And it’s like 10 o’clock at night and I’m like, ‘F*********ck.’ Normally I call my dad and he figures it out, and now I can’t call him. Even now, I still haven’t dealt with my car. It’s just something hard to get over not having him here. It’s very tough.”
Sometimes, even people who have the best intentions can get annoying, too. You hear one too many times from a friend that the person you lost is watching over you, and you don’t want to hear it anymore.
“My biggest thing when my Dad passed away, I felt so alone,” Gonzalez said. “He’s gone. And everyone was like ‘he’s with you’ and I’m like ‘I don’t f*cking feel it,’ and that’s the most painful thing I could feel, was not feeling his presence, feeling him with me. Everyone is like ‘he’s guiding you’ and I’m like, ‘no he’s f*cking not, don’t tell me that.’”
But then it all started to click. Maybe she really did feel his presence after all.
After all, it wasn’t until late in the game that Anthony Gonzalez fully realized the name his daughter had made for herself in the fight game. Pearl made unwanted headlines when the New York State Athletic Commission got overzealous about her breast implants and nearly forced her off her UFC 210 fight with Cynthia Calvillo in Buffalo, but fans stuck around to watch her fight on her own merits, and dad started hearing about it at work.
“He was my biggest fan and he was a little nervous for me toward the end because of the level that I was reaching,” Gonzalez recalled. “And then it was kind of cool because he didn’t have any social media and he didn’t understand that world, and then he started, the people around, his customers would be like, ‘Oh my god, you’re Pearl Gonzalez’s dad!’ And he was like ‘hey you’re famous’ and I was like ‘yeah, kind of, Dad.’ And he was so blown away by that.”
The father who had done everything with his daughter from shooting hoops to teaching her to punch so she could defend herself was there to see her win her fight on May 4. Pearl takes solace in knowing that even if her dad wasn’t around for all the journey, he had come to understand that his baby girl had found success.
“He got to see that fight, he was so proud of me. He re-watched it probably 10 times that night. He was like, ‘I’m so proud of you, you look so good right now.’ That meant a lot. He got to see. I wasn’t as mentally strong and successful in the UFC, but he at least got to see. Obviously today I am much happier in my career and stronger than I was even in May, but at least he got to see that change, you know? To see me happy and see how focused and determined I was to become a world champion and a superstar. That’s my goal.”
The realization that her father had fully understood her place in the sport and was around to see her rebound after she had gotten cut from the UFC was the missing puzzle piece for Gonzalez, one which enabled her to channel into her father’s memories and once again feel his presence as she went back about pursuing her career goals.
“It’s the most intense feeling that I’ve ever felt on my life,” Gonzalez said. “Going through the cycle of life firsthand, watching my dad leave this body, leave this earth, and going through this? I’m not scared of death today. I’m not scared to fail anymore, and I also feel like because the most important man in my life, the only man who will love me with no conditions, unconditional love, is gone, that I have to work even harder to make sure I am a success and I do not fail.”
Anthony Gonzalez left this life to the sounds of his favorite song, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” If that sounds a little unusual, too, stop that thought in its tracks: Pearl wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“When I took the breathing tube out of him, I had ‘Highway to Hell’ playing and I had on my AC/DC shirt on for him,” Gonzalez said. “It was pretty special. That’s going to be my walkout song for my title fight. I promised him on his last breath I was going to become a world champion. I will use this pain to become a world champion.”
Gonzalez took a major step toward fulfilling this goal when she returned to get cage for her first fight after her father’s passing, at Invicta FC 31 on Sept. 1. With her father’s picture on her corner banner, Gonzalez made a statement in Invicta’s flyweight division and scored a one-sided unanimous decision victory over a very tough Diane Firmino, then gave an emotional interview dedicated to her father afterwards, one which showed all the up-and-down emotions which she’s been through.
“There are days, I’m human, and it hits me hard,” Gonzalez said. “But for the most part it is my fuel today to be better every single day. Every day I pray to him and I tell him I am going to utilize this day to be better. The motivation was different in this camp. The emotional ups and downs were intense. But as soon as I got that fight locked in, I knew I had to get my emotions under control and focus on the fight and save that emotional roller coaster, and it’s not easy.”
Perhaps the victory over Firmino will end up as step one in a glorious redemption tale, a road that leads to an Invicta championship, and a second chance at the UFC as a brand-new fighter at flyweight, able to pull off the sort of run which didn’t happen the first time around.
It’s an audacious plan, one she might or might not achieve, but the point is Gonzalez has the vision to set the plan and the courage to give it her best shot.
Was Anthony Gonzalez a saint? No. But when he had his good, long look in the mirror about where his life had taken him and pondered the type of man he wanted to be, he decided to be a figure of strength, stability, and support for his daughter. And if nothing else comes from the pain Gonzalez has felt with the loss of the man who made her the person she is today, she hopes other men will at least follow his example as a father figure.
“I think that my Dad did such a great job of instilling a strong mindset, instilling that I can do anything,” Gonzalez said. “He gave me the confidence. If I can give any advice to men in general, to install that confidence in their daughters and sisters, give them the courage. We don’t have that courage that men do. If you can help instill that in women and young girls especially, it’s so beneficial. The mindset is everything.”