Jonnie Rice found out that he would fight Michael Coffie the same way on national television, and at the same time as everyone else.
Rice has been enlisted as a standby alternative for the planned fight between Coffie and Gerald Alexander, a common practice particularly during the pandemic-era boxing. Two weeks before the fight, Rice had reported to Washington to wish him well, and Washington informed him he was not doing well. Rice suggested that maybe he was exercising too much, gave him friendly encouragement and thought nothing of it.
A few days later, five days before the fight, Rice texted fellow heavyweight Scott Alexander, the second lieutenant, asking him, “Did you see the fight poster?”
Rice thought he meant a fight poster for Alexander’s upcoming fight, but Alexander clarified and told him to check his email. Inside was the press release and poster that Rice showed at the main event on FOX versus Coffie. Rice, who had previously ignored the warning from Washington that if his criteria were met to believe he was having a fight, he could fight now – he had seen it in the press and he had seen it on television.
“I couldn’t sleep, I literally couldn’t sleep,” said Rice Boxing Scene. “It’s on FOX. Not no FS1, FOX FOX. You don’t even need to have FOX cables. No wonder I can’t sleep. So I thought to myself, just go in there and punch in, everyone wants to see that anyway! “
Rice took that intrepid take on the ring with him and scored one of the biggest surprises of the year by scoring an emphatic fifth-round TKO over Michael Coffie in the main event on a PBC on FOX broadcast from the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. It was an attitude and approach Rice had never seen before, who had built a reputation for style as a spoiler and professionally as an opponent for high-profile prospects.
Rice didn’t see himself that way, but it was the role the sport had given him. As a power forward for the Winthrop Eagles, Rice spent four years in NCAA basketball before a brief foray into football took him to Michael King’s All-American Heavyweights program that spawned Charles Martin and Dominic Breazeale. Rice had no previous boxing experience, but he did qualify to be over 6’3 “(he’s 6’5”), over 230 pounds (he’s an athletic and well-trained 265), and have an NCAA background.
Without an extensive amateur career, Rice did most of his learning in the gym, often sparring with top heavyweights. Although the Venn diagram of the top heavyweights overlaps in many places, there are fighters who have saved up together and there are sparring partners, and they are treated very differently in the boxing business. Rice is used to handling last minute deals, low paydays, and the kinds of proposals that more leverage fighters would never need to entertain.
But it was only recently that 34-year-old Rice began to really use the time he spent training with the fighters he pursued in the sport for his own ends. Rice moved from South Carolina to Los Angeles first, then Las Vegas to “be boxing all the time.” After stints with other coaches, Rice settled with Clarence “Bones” Adams and Rodney Crisler, who are now teaming up to coach him.
Crisler, who has previously worked with heavyweights like Hasim Rahman and Sam Peter and is one of many recruits who continue to work with Devin Haney, saw potential in Rice and began spending extra time with him.
“He’s got a good chin, he can box, he can move, there are a lot of things that a lot of boxers don’t have,” said Crisler. “He’s athletic, really athletic. He can do everything a little guy can do. Jonnie is one of the strongest puncher out there, he just won’t let go of his hands. “
Fittingly, in September 2020, Rice battled a man he’d recently saved with, Efe Ajagba, on short notice. While the fight didn’t make for great television, especially in the empty top-rank bubble, Rice went all ten rounds with Ajagba without ever really being in danger. That feat, which may have cemented Rice’s boxing crowd as a career b-side, did the opposite for his coach. It actually convinced Crisler that he was capable of more.
“When he fought Efe, people didn’t really see Efe after the fight. He had ice cream on his elbow, ice cream on his shoulder (because) Jonnie missed him well. I told Jonnie, if you miss guys like that, you can really let go of your hands, ”said Crisler.
The biggest hurdle was convincing Rice of what he believed – or in other words, getting Rice to believe in himself. Rice is very forthcoming with his fears and is humorously self-deprecating in ways most fighters wouldn’t allow themselves – he’s even tried his hand at stand-up comedy.
Ultimately, Rice became frustrated with the opportunities he had been given – fights with Ajagba, Arslanbek Makhmudov, Tony Yoka, Demsey McKean – and that he didn’t get a victory. After claiming about $ 60,000 for the Ajagba fight, Rice vowed never to fight for anything less than that. By sticking to it, he said he turned down an opportunity to fight Darmani Rock, whom Coffie eventually knocked out at FOX. Rice concluded that while it was important to take care of yourself financially and professionally, there would be some opportunities that would have to be seized regardless of payday if he wanted the chance to change his career.
“I meditated, searched for souls, evaluated myself. I’ve had some great chances, I’ve fought four undefeated guys, why do I keep losing? You have to dig really deep and be honest with yourself. To get more out of yourself, you have to know yourself a little better, understand why you failed, so that you can excel, ”said Rice. “Change your goals, deepen them. Will you be alone with your belts when you finally get them? Sometimes, with the wrong attitude, you can just lose battles, and that’s what happened. We often find excuses very quickly, and those excuses will satisfy us very easily. I had to realize that I had a lot of excuses, and I’m done with that. “
The turning point for Rice, according to both him and Crisler, came in the two weeks leading up to the coffie fight through a series of sparring sessions with top heavyweight contender Michael Hunter. Describing these sessions as “trust-openers” for Rice, Crisler says his newfound offensive moxie against Coffie was “because of Michael Hunter.”
“If you spare a guy like Michael Hunter, it makes you better. It takes you to a point where your skills need to grow to be in the ring with him or he will destroy you, ”added Rice. “That was a big turning point”
Two days after his last ten round sparring session with Hunter, Rice was assured of his prime-time TV fight against Coffie, and suddenly his new confidence and old self-doubt went together.
“I was in a very relaxed state. If someone tells you that you’re going to be fighting in a month or two, you have time to really process it. You have time to process these worries and doubts, you can set goals. When someone tells you that in four days you are going to be picking up a fight, you think what? Even if you are physically ready, you are not ready mentally, ”said Rice. “Every time I had these feelings of self-doubt, I just said to myself, you know what, I’ll go in and do what I did in sparring.”
If you listened closely during the fight, you could hear Crisler screaming things like “gimme the Hunter” and “gimme the Haney” during the fight, memories of his gym moments that he believed Rice should replicate.
Rice was barely recognizable from the mostly passive defensive fighter who had previously appeared on national television, but was familiar to those who had spent time with him in the gym in the past. Almost immediately after the knockout win, Rice’s social media accounts exploded with congratulations from Hunter, Haney, and others.
Now Rice has both an accomplishment of its own and an emotion that he also wants to replicate.
After the win, Rice couldn’t sleep again, kept awake by the adrenaline. He watched the Hunger Games for two hours on the plane from Newark to Las Vegas before passing out for the final two hours.
Finally in peace, finally convinced that everything was real.
“You feel like … we want more than that. We want more of that,” he says.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman