Fighting a war within
Fight is a word Tonzel Prince understands all too well.
As a kid living on the mean streets of Hackensack, N.J., during the 1970s; as a young kickboxer who competed professionally in arenas around the country; as a U.S., Army engineer and demolitions expert; and today as a protective service officer for the Department of Homeland Security, Prince has been in a myrid of battles and has lived to talk about them.
However, the day he received startling news about his health, his greatest and most challenging battle began to rage within himself. One day while exercising to stay in shape, he suddenly had to stop.
“I was at work. We had just run a mile and a half, and I began my pushups,” he recalls. “But every time I did one, it felt like a knife stabbing me in my side. The pain got so great, it reached the point where I couldn’t do anymore.”
Prince’s administrator thought that he might have pulled a muscle and suggested he visit a doctor. But an MRI test revealed something ominous. “They found out that all the lymph nodes in my body were swollen. They were calling it lymphoma.”
Following a biopsy and further examination of the nodes, his diagnosis was clear. “I wound up getting cancer. I had seminoma, the same cancer as Lance Armstrong. They told me on June 25, 2009, the same day Michael Jackson died,” remembers Prince.
In a fight for life
Aggressive chemotherapy treatments via catheter soon followed. “They put a PICC line in me, just inches away from my heart so that it could pump the medicine throughout my body,” he said.
While in the hospital, Prince thought about his life, his career in law enforcement, his days in the boxing ring, and his wife Tamara and children Elijah and Sarah. He wondered, What will the future hold? Prince found comfort by reflecting deeply on an earlier time when he had found Christ through The Salvation Army.
“Two things helped prepare me for this huge fight; my faith in God and the discipline I learned from being in the boxing ring,” he said. “I knew how to talk to God, and I knew how to keep my mind focused. I also knew how to fight.”
When he was just six years old, Tonzel and his family moved from Orangeburg, S.C., to Hackensack N.J. Upon arrival at his new home in the projects, he was immediately impressed by a boy who would become his friend. “I’ll never forget it; the first person we met was Danny Turlington.” Danny was close in age to Tonzel. “The first thing Danny said was, “Hi, guys. My name is Danny. I live upstairs!”
Tonzel, the youngest of six siblings, was moved by Danny’s approachability. “Now, people are friendly in the South, but not as friendly as Danny was.” He invited Tonzel and his family to church at the local Salvation Army corps. “It was about two blocks down the street from where we lived,” Tonzel remembers. He also met Danny’s sister, Anita, who would become a lifelong friend and spiritual guide.
“The area where we lived wasn’t the best of areas, but it wasn’t the worst either,” says Prince. “The one thing my mom and dad always did was, they kept us in church.”
A fight on multiple fronts
While there, he learn what he calls two kinds of church education. “There is the education I learned from man, which became my religion; and there’s the education I learned from God, which is what I live; I learned to live it. It helps me make good, strong decisions.”
Those decisions kept young Tonzel safe from the lure of ruthless street gangs, debilitating drug addiction, and the consequence of jail time or fatal encounters with the police. “I tried to keep myself out of the crowd and my dad would keep me in some sort of Salvation Army program. Most of the guys I grew up with, wound up in jail or on drugs.”
At 16, Tonzel and his brother joined the karate and boxing classes at the corps. “We were always doing something to keep ourselves busy.” Those classes led him to become a kickboxer.
However, at his first professional fight, he discovered the greater battle raging within him and decided to allow God’s Holy Spirit to win.
“It happened in Bayonne, N.J., and I lost the fight,” Prince remembers, even though he had delivered a crushing blow to his opponent’s right eye. The immediate swelling and bleeding around his foe’s eyelid alerted Tonzel of a possible fracture. “I cracked a bone in his right eye socket. I thought, I don’t want to hurt this guy anymore.”
But because his adversary continued to throw punches, the referee prolonged the fight. “Then he kicked me down, but I said to myself, I’m not getting up. Jeffery, my trainer and a five–time Golden glove champion, said to me, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You are a boxer. You just have to do this!’ But I stayed down and allowed the ref to count me out.”
Down, but still in the fight
In his life outside the ring, a failed marriage represented another count against Prince. Clearly, he was down, but not out. After a stent in the U.S. Army as a combat engineer and demolitions expert who also emptied minefields and built bridges, he moved to California with his brother.
For the next eight years, Tonzel continued his kickboxing career under his professional name, “Tony Prince.” He also competed in Arizona and Hawaii among other venues.
Eventually, Prince remarried and started a family. But when the cancer hit, his ultimate battle began. “Fighting another person is easy, but when I have to fight myself, you know, especially fighting my mind, it is very hard,” he said.
Prince realized that his greatest weapon in this battle was God’s word. “I remember that I learned in Isaiah 54:17, ‘No weapon formed against you shall prosper,” (NKJV). I thought, This cancer is not going to prosper. I’m not going to die. Basically, I kept telling myself that. I was committed to claiming that victory and I had to keep on doing it.”
Prince relied totally on God. “All these things came from being in the church. It is an education that I had to live. It’s the difference between having religion and being in Christ.”
A fighter’s lifestyle
Today, Prince has been cancer free for 12 years. “For me, you know, just being positive is huge because there is so much negativity going on in the world. I want to be one of those people who others see as a positive influence.”
Such results are clearly evident. He and Tamara, who he met in church, have been married now for 26 years. In addition to Elijah and Sarah, the Princes have four grandchildren.
Prince will be 60 in December, but still enjoys sparring in the ring with men half his age. “They want to be professional fighters and I continue doing it as a lifestyle. It keeps me going, keeps me healthy. I’m trying to avoid heart disease, diabetes, and all those sorts of things.”
As retirement nears, Prince’s plan is to offer Tonzmart.com, an online product and apparel business to consumers. “At the time I was fighting the cancer, the idea entered my head that, after I’d finished all the treatments, one day I would open a business rather than depend on Social Security.”
A new arena and challenge
Motivated by the lesson learned in church from reading the parable of the talents in Matthew 25: 14–20, Prince has made an ongoing investment to establish the website, which is available now. “I started it with no money down; just money I was putting in it myself. I pieced the business together by doing one thing at a time.”
Major Anita (Turlington) Stewart fondly remembers Tonzel. “I grew up with him in the projects of Hackensack. I invited him to The Salvation Army, and he became a junior soldier. Trouble and fights followed him, but he taught himself to kickbox and became a professional at it. His fights aired on television and he has many associations with celebrities.
“Now he is married with two beautiful children living in Dixon, California. His faith is stronger than ever. The least likely to succeed is now a respected leader and Christian in his community. He is a wonderful trophy of grace,” says Stewart who today is retired from officership and is enjoying work as a life coach. Her husband John is a recovery specialist at a psychiatric medical facility. They live in Liverpool, N.Y.
Says, Prince, “When I look back on my life, I just thank God that I’m still here.”
by Warren L. Maye