The Fight of Their Lives, Chapter 5: A Boxer’s Split Decision
At the provincical final Shavar Henry tests the limits of his fragile hand while Steve Rolls struggles to connect with his inner champion. Part five in a series.
Dec. 19, 2007
WINDSOR – In the Holiday Inn ballroom, Shavar Henry trots into ring with a self-assured swagger, but he’s a bit nervous.
He hasn’t competed in 14 months, and at 207 pounds he’s the smallest super-heavyweight at the provincial championships.
Across the ring, Oshawa’s Frank Rill waits, scowling. His headgear casts a menacing shadow over his face. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds he makes Shavar look like a middleweight.
The top two finishers here head to the nationals in Richmond, B.C. Semifinalists there return to Windsor in January for the national team trials. Winners advance to Olympic qualifying.
Beer’s flowing and though spectators aren’t drunk, they’re loud. Most haven’t seen Shavar since 2004, when he won the provincials for his age group and finished second in the country. He and his coach, 1992 bronze medallist Chris Johnson, have Olympic ambitions, but Shavar broke his right hand in a street fight last September. Two operations later the fist remains brittle, but his confidence is rock solid.
He thinks he’s too fast to be hit, and believes his hand will hold up.
The buzzer sounds. Shavar moves away from his corner, toward Beijing.
MINUTES AFTER his first bout, Steve Rolls and his retinue spill into the dressing room, ecstatic. Johnson claps him on the back.
“You’ve graduated,” he says. “You have beautiful hands, and if you let them go people gon’ go to sleep.”
“Steve, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you fight,” says assistant coach Shawn McWilliams.
“I’ll fight better tomorrow,” Rolls says.
Rolls, 23, began boxing at 16, and soon hopes to cash in on seven years of sacrifice. Wins at provincials and nationals would make him a favourite heading into national team trials in January.
And winning trials means money. Rolls holds a part-time job that gives him the time, but not the money, to train. His parents still send cash, but he’s been splitting time between his mom’s house and his friend’s couch since his lease expired at the end of October. The $900 a month he’d make on the national team would make him independent.
Johnson thinks Rolls can win a medal in Beijing, but Rolls struggles with self doubt and underperforms.
Last month, he dazzled at a national team training camp, but tonight he muddled through his first two rounds. Exasperated, Johnson warned Rolls his Olympic journey could end right here.
The words hit Rolls like a left hook to the gut, and finally he let his punches go. In the first two rounds he scored three points. In the last two he scored 24.
Tomorrow’s opponent, Jerome Gabriel, is a close friend, but Johnson offers a bleak prediction for him. He’s going to sleep.
* * * *
SHAVAR SETS a fast pace and Rill struggles to keep up. He slips Rill’s jab then fires a left hook.
Rill steps left, shuffles right, but can’t corner Shavar.
Johnson, though, thinks Shavar’s moving too much. He’s not taking shots, but he’s not attacking.
And he won’t throw the right.
Johnson worries Shavar’s scared.
Makes sense. In training he puts foam pads under his hand wraps, then wears 18-ounce gloves. But the extra padding is prohibited here, and everyone wears 10-ounce mitts. Shavar’s not sure how his hand will react to a real impact.
Early in Round 2 he peppers Rill with a jab and a hook.
Then comes the knockout punch, an overhand right that loops past Rill’s guard and crashes into his temple. Sweat sprays. Rill grimaces, sways, but doesn’t fall. The shot didn’t hurt him like it hurt Shavar.
The instant it lands, hot pain shoots from his knuckles to his shoulder. His arm goes numb. Rill rams him with a jab.
Shavar keeps moving, but his right hand is throbbing. His knuckles burn like they did when he first broke them. Rill presses forward. After three rounds Rill leads 9-8. Johnson implores Shavar to throw the right. Shavar leans forward and whispers in Johnson’s ear.
“I know,” Johnson says. He sighs. “I know.”
In Round 4 Rill keeps pressing, leaning, clubbing, winning. He’s up three points when time expires.
“My hand is f—–,” Shavar says, leaving the ring. “I’ve gotta get these things off.”
Fifteen minutes later he slumps in a dressing room chair staring ahead in silence.
“First thing you gotta do is take care of that hand,” he says.
“It’s so typical, what happened,” Shavar says.
“Let me tell you something about life,” Johnson says. “Life is hunger, and this should make you hunger even more. You did what you could.”
Shavar shakes his head and his eyes moisten. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He should have known his hand would crack, but he still didn’t expect it to. He thought 2008 would bring a spot on the national team, a monthly stipend and a trip to Beijing. Now it’s more surgeries, rehab and uncertainty.
“How many points did I lose by?” Shavar asks.
“Three,” Johnson says. “It’s hard to ask a man who’s not all together physically to do Superman things.”
“I tried,” Shavar says.
“Superman is science fiction,” Johnson says.
* * * *
SATURDAY NIGHT Steve Rolls wins his semifinal and a spot at the national championships. More importantly, for the first time in months he looks like a future pro.
When he lures Gabriel into a corner, then rocks him with a right hand, Johnson leaps.
“That’s how we do it internationally,” he shouts.
But before Rolls takes on the world he wants to conquer the province. Last year he beat Hamilton’s Stuart Boyd by a point for welterweight gold, now they meet for the middleweight title.
Boyd’s coach, Vinnie Ryan, is Boxing Ontario’s coach of the year. He’s also married to Boxing Ontario president Val Ryan, who once suspended Johnson for shouting her down at tournament. They’re cordial now, but beating Ryan’s guy would bolster Johnson’s claims that his fighters are the future of boxing in Canada.
Problem is, Rolls isn’t co-operating. He won’t punch. Maybe it’s the stakes. Or fatigue. Or his parents, who have come to see him fight for just the second time. Whatever the reason, he’s tentative.
At ringside Shavar Henry cups a bandaged hand to his mouth.
“Let your hands go,” he shouts.
Rolls and Boyd trade jabs, and two judges at ringside share a laugh.
“I hit the wrong button,” one of them confesses.
“So did I,” the other says.
It’s not clear which fighter paid for the judges’ mistake, but after two rounds Boyd has only three points. Rolls has just one. Johnson’s out of advice.
“You’re not giving everything you have, Rolls,” Johnson says. “If you leave here without giving everything you’re gonna kick yourself in the ass tomorrow.”
In a frantic third round Rolls swarms and ties the score and, in a wild fourth, Boyd runs. When Rolls punches, Boyd runs in to smother him. When Rolls is idle, Boyd moves away. They butt heads early, sending Boyd to the canvas.
Somewhere in the confusion Boyd scores three points. As seconds tick down crowd noise drowns out everything but Johnson’s mouth. Ryan calmly watches the scoreboard.
“Five seconds left,” Johnson shouts. “You need a point!”
Rolls fires a right hand to Boyd’s stomach.
Eyes shift to the scoreboard.
Rolls whacks Boyd again, forcing a standing eight count. No points.
At the buzzer it’s Boyd 9, Rolls 8.
Boyd raises his index finger. Rolls tosses his silver medal aside and storms away, convinced the judges robbed him.
Shavar walks by shaking his head.
“What a weekend,” he says. “Time to go home.”
* * * *
THAT NIGHT, Rolls drives to his mom’s place in Chatham, where he watches a DVD of the fight. When it ends he’s mad at the judges for not counting his punches; angry with Boyd, just because; and furious at himself for holding back. Then he hits `play’ and watches again. After the 20th time he phones Johnson.
He can’t stop thinking about the fight. He wants to know when he can start training for the nationals.
Johnson’s known Rolls nearly four years but never heard him sound so determined. Still, he knew this moment could come. At some point Johnson knew Rolls would grow sick of losing winnable fights. When that happened, Rolls would either let go of what’s holding him back, or he would quit.
Johnson has no time for quitters.
And Rolls had made his choice.
“If I fight that mother—— again,” Rolls said, measuring every word. “He won’t make it out the ring.”
When Johnson hangs up the phone he has goosebumps.