The Ballad of Jonnie Rice

Back in July Jonnie Rice stepped in to replace Gerald Washington (who had covid) to fight undefeated prospect Michael Coffie.  This was supposed to be Coffie’s ‘gatekeeper’ fight, the win that would propel him into the upper echelon.

We remember Washington.  He defeated such men as Robert Helenius, Eddie Chambers and Ray Austin on his way up.  He made it that far, but then stalled out, being stopped by Wilder, Kownacki and “Big Baby” Miller.  Now he mans the door – if you want to break into the top ten, you have to go through him (or others like him).

But Jonnie Rice is not a gatekeeper.  He is a journeyman, a professional opponent, a sparring partner. His record the night of the Coffie fight was 13-6-1.  Coffie was his third undefeated opponent in a row, and he had lost the last two. 

The luster of the evening must have been somewhat tarnished in Coffie’s eyes.  He was going to fight a man who had been in with the very best, and thus raise his own stock.  But instead he found himself relegated to knocking out yet another chump, a journeyman, a tomato can.  Maybe he started at a psychological disadvantage, thinking he had very little to gain.

Meanwhile Rice recognized that this was an opportunity. While he had gone the distance with Ajagba, and was competitive, he later criticized his own performance. “I didn’t take the risk” of opening up offensively was how he characterized it.  In other words (mine) he was fighting like a sparring partner. Before the Coffie fight he vowed not to do that again, saying “It’s time for me to beat one of these guys.”

As you know, he did just that, stopping Coffie in the fifth round.

He earned $55,000 for that fight. He said that wasn’t enough for him to quit his job (bouncer).  But after he won the rematch, he got a three-fight deal.  He has quit his job, and for the first time, at the age of 34 he is a full-time boxer.

How many guys, in their thirties, after losing two in a row, just pack it in?  How many knuckle-down, saying “this is my last chance” and train harder?  Maybe that’s a fifty/fifty split.  The boxing world is full of tough guys, and not a lot of quitters.  But even tough guys have to look at the facts and weigh the pros and cons.  Everyone eventually gets to that place.

Many carry on when we wish they wouldn’t.  Tyson kept fighting past his prime. He said he needed the money.  Muhammad Ali never said why he couldn’t stop, he just couldn’t stop. 

How rare it is, when a 34 year old with a mediocre record and back-to-back losses knuckles down and makes for himself a whole new career.  If he keeps winning the competition will get tougher and the purses will get larger.

Jonnie Rice will fight on.  “But for how long?” you ask. 

Three fights long. That’s how long.

And God bless him.  He has given us all a thrill.  We love to see a fighter get up off the canvas and turn things around.  How much more when the man’s career seems to be over and yet he rises to new heights?

I remember, as we were taking our seats one night, hearing the ring announcer open his remarks by saying “Ladies and Gentlemen, for your entertainment, a night of professional boxing…” That phrase kind of startled me.  It was a little jarring to hear it described that way. I don’t like to think of boxing as entertainment, but in truth, it is.  I want it to be something more, the way that a symphony is more than a pop song, a sonnet more than a limerick.

It made me feel a little sordid, like an ersatz Nero watching the gladiators. 

I admire the skill, agility, craftiness, toughness and artistry of boxers, and their strength of will, their “heart”.  I’m a straight guy, but I am not unaware that many of these men (like Rice) are fine-looking individuals.  I admire this quality too. 

I am also aware of the enormous sacrifices they make, and the huge risks they take to present this spectacle to me.  To call it “entertainment” feels like a discount, an insult.

For every fighter we see on TV there are hundreds we don’t see, men that never make it that far. Blue collar men, and some drunks and ne’re-do-wells too.

They too contribute to the spectacle.  They are the rubble, the ballast that televised boxing is built on.  Without losers there could be no winners.  For every 10 – 0 prosect, there are ten men with a black eye and a concussion. Rice surely looked to be one of those before the events of last year.

And all these men too deserve our respect and our gratitude.

Rice is not yet a star, or even really a prospect.  All he has done thus far is earn for himself a chance at a better life.

Foreman and Ali were stars. I count them among my heroes.  The fame they achieved in the ring put the spotlight on otherwise exemplary lives.  They showed us how it is done.  Life that is.  They had their faults, surely.  But they both lived out their convictions.  In that they were examples to follow. 

We don’t all get to be examples.  We don’t all get Dragons to slay or mountains to climb.  I wrote about this before.  If you scroll way the hell down you can find a post entitled “The Big One” that talks about that.

Rice’s achievement, of course is much smaller, and so far is really only a potential achievement. Maybe a dragon with a small “d” has been given him. 

His story seems more like an endorsement of that cherished canard: “Never give up and you can make your dreams come true”.  We all like to cling to the belief that we are somehow in control of our destiny.  We look at Rice and say “See?” He did it! I can do it too!”

That’s still a fairy-tale, but when the Ballad of Jonnie Rice is written, I hope it ends on a high note.

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