The Fight of Their Lives, Chapter 3: The Fight and the Fright
A provincial champ last year, he’s on a squad selected to help Canada’s national team prepare for the world championships. He’s here to spar with Windsor’s Adam Trupish, the reigning welterweight national champ.
For Rolls, a Chatham native training in Mississauga, sparring’s not a problem. With no judges and no pressure, his punches flow like poetry and he looks like an Olympian. He’s chased that dream for seven years. But in competition, it’s different. Dogged by stage fright, Rolls sometimes freezes when stakes are high.
They’re higher than ever today, as he lances Trupish again.
To qualify for Beijing, Rolls must defeat Trupish, a 2004 Olympian. Trupish lost in Athens and refused opportunities to turn pro. He wants redemption in Beijing.
Nobody keeps score, but national team coaches watch closely. If Rolls stands strong against Trupish he won’t just prove he’s an Olympic contender. He’ll earn a victory over fear.
The session unfolds like a debate – Rolls cleverly arguing he’s Canada’s best welterweight, Trupish rebutting with sheer volume. Rolls sticks and moves, Trupish stalks and swings. He bulls Rolls into a corner and hooks hard to the body.
At 28, Trupish brings nearly 200 bouts of experience into the ring. He also brings a black eye from yesterday’s session with Rolls, who spins him then throws three body shots.
Pop, pop, POP!
Rolls fires four more and Trupish launches an overhand right that sends Rolls staggering across the ring at the buzzer.
Point. Counterpoint. Time.
* * * *
Early in Steve Rolls’ fights, opponents run from him. Wary of his speed and skill but unsure he’ll use them, they circle, trying to read him.
If his head’s in the fight, he usually leaves them two options: a loss on points or loss by stoppage.
But if it’s in Steve’s World, anything can happen.
There, fear of failure collides with fear of success. He second-guesses every move, paralyzed by questions.
What if I can’t hurt this guy?
What if he can hurt me?
What if I don’t give my best effort?
What if I do and it’s not good enough?
Self-doubt forms a shell his coach can’t penetrate. Fights he should win big become slim victories. Slim victories become frustrating losses.
Rolls is one of Canada’s best welterweights, but he’s lost his last two fights. His coach, former Olympic bronze medallist Chris Johnson, thinks Rolls would have blown out both opponents if he had just let his hands go.
Sometimes Johnson wishes Rolls were more like Shavar Henry, the heavyweight he coaches who, like Rolls, hopes the provincial championships will vault him into Olympic contention.
Johnson sometimes doubts Henry’s dedication, but can’t question his confidence. Where uncertainty defines Rolls’ bouts, Henry, a national junior silver medallist in 2004, brings a sense of inevitability. He’s sure he’s faster, stronger and smarter than his opponent, and plans to prove it once the bell rings.
He’s so self-assured that despite taking a year off with a broken right hand, he wants to move up in weight.
Right now he’s 12 pounds above the 201-pound heavyweight limit and would rather stay strong and fight super-heavyweight than weaken himself by cutting weight. He’ll face guys 30 pounds heavier, but doesn’t think they’ll touch him. And if his hand holds up, you may as well crown him champion.
That’s what he believes, anyway.
As the debate rages, Steve Rolls is the fearless fighter he wants to be; the boxer his coaches wish would show up when it counts. He blends offence and defence, mixes movement and pressure, and takes shots without flinching. Right now he’s getting the best of a four-time national champ.
He backs Trupish into the ropes and wings a left hook. He pauses, worried the punch landed low.
“Sorry, man,” he says, without backing up.
“Naw,” Trupish says, bobbing, weaving. “You were okay.”
Suddenly Trupish springs forward with a left hook. Rolls rocks back and Trupish’s fist whistles past his chin. Rolls steps in and smashes his face with a straight right.
Point. Counterpoint. Time.
Most days, Rolls slinks into the gym late in the afternoon. He’ll say hello to Chris and Shavar, peel off layers of baggy clothes, and warm up in silence.
Rolls speaks volumes when he spars, but might not utter 10 words all afternoon.
But his parents, Gary and Barb Rolls, say Steve loved the spotlight as a child. They even bought him a guitar, and when he wasn’t writing songs he would sing them in the living room. Barb says Steve has a beautiful voice, though she hasn’t heard him sing in years.
The Rollses adopted Steve at six weeks old. Born in Hamilton, he went from the delivery room to a foster family to the Rolls home, where he joined one of Chatham’s most established African-Canadian families. Neither Steve nor his folks have met his birth parents. They only know his mother was in college. They’re not sure Steve’s biological father knows he exists.
But it’s clear his natural parents blessed him with long arms, uncanny reflexes and a knack for sports.
Problem is, none held his attention. At 11 Steve was his baseball team’s MVP. Then he quit.
Same with soccer and basketball. But at 15, just when it seemed Steve wouldn’t stick with anything, a friend suggested he try boxing. Since then it’s been his life.
After graduating from high school he joined a gym in Akron, Ohio. Found them online, packed up and moved. A rash decision but Barb supported it, happy Steve had found a passion. Gary, however, was skeptical. He didn’t think living in sleepy Chatham gave Steve the street smarts to survive down south.
In Akron, Steve did odd jobs for his coach and competed across the midwest, but without the proper visa he couldn’t work a legitimate job. Without money, he returned to Canada, moving to Toronto in 2004. He joined a gym in Parkdale, where he met Shavar and Johnson.
The coach says he recognized Rolls’ talent right away, and pushed him to maximize it. When he pushed too hard, Rolls left for another coach. They reunited last month.
A bronze medallist in 1992 in Barcelona, Johnson swears Rolls has the talent to reach the podium, but he’s not sure Rolls believes it himself.
Rolls and Trupish had never sparred before this week, but as the session ends each has made his point. Rolls, quicker and slicker, dominates from long range. Trupish, stronger and cagier, wins exchanges inside.
Rolls circles left and lashes Trupish with a jab. Trupish slides right and clubs Rolls’ ribs. Rolls stops and drives a right hand between Trupish’s gloves.
Later, they stand silently at ringside. Rolls removes his headgear. Trupish unwraps his hands.
Next week, Trupish heads to Chicago for the world championships. He’ll make the Olympics with a top-eight finish. Next month Rolls returns to Windsor for the provincials. A top-two finish sends him to the nationals and, he hopes, a showdown with Trupish.
The veteran won’t just give Rolls his Olympic spot, but he gives credit. He taps Rolls on the shoulder and tells him he’s got a great jab.
Rolls grins and thanks him.
Point. Counterpoint. Time.
Next: Boxing is therapy for Chris Johnson, who wouldn’t let let a life-threatening injury dull his passion for the sport
Copyright 2007 Toronto Star