The Fight of Their Lives, Chapter 6: End of the Road?
RICHMOND, B.C. – Francy Ntetu marches forward, convinced he’ll crush the smaller man with his heavy hands.
“Allez, Francy!” shouts a spectator in the sparse crowd at the River Rock Casino.
He fires. Steve Rolls dips and throws his own right – THWACK! – then glides safely away.
Rolls, 23, has dedicated the last seven years to making the 2008 Olympics. To qualify for national team trials next month he needs to reach at least the semifinals here at the national championships.
But Rolls and his coach, former Olympic medallist Chris Johnson, didn’t come here for bronze. They want gold, despite numerous obstacles.
Rolls is the smallest middleweight here and bulked up to weigh in at 160 pounds. Other guys trimmed down to reach 165.
Then the draw pitted him against Ntetu, the gold medal favourite. A powerful 25-year-old, Ntetu joined the national team in January and competed at the world championships in the fall.
But tonight Rolls befuddles him. He suckers Ntetu into a corner, then vanishes when Ntetu rushes him. Ntetu bashes his fists together like cymbals, grits his teeth and growls. He turns around and Rolls feints a right, then smacks him with a left hook.
This is the boxer Johnson wants to see: technical, tactical and, above all, relaxed.
Rolls lost the provincial final by one point and left Windsor. Ont., bitter. He hit the gym hard, hoping for a rematch against provincial champ Stuart Boyd. In training, Johnson bolstered Rolls’ fragile confidence and tonight Rolls shows none of the self-doubt that often derails him. Just the skills that convinced Johnson he’s a future world champ.
Rolls’ speed keeps frustrating Ntetu. He shoves Rolls to the canvas. He throws elbows. He loses the crowd’s support.
Somehow, it’s tied after three rounds, but the audience thinks Rolls is winning.
Ntetu wades in and Rolls potshots him with straight rights.
Time expires with Rolls ahead by two. It’s the upset of the tournament and Ntetu knows it.
In the dressing room he stares Rolls down.
“Good job running,” he says.
Rolls turns away and packs his bag, thinking already of Thursday night’s quarterfinal.
It takes 26 seconds.
Two sizzling right hands to the temple leave Nova Scotia’s Malcolm McDonald stooped in a neutral corner, knees quivering. The referee ends the fight. Rolls heads to the semis and, he thinks, to national team trials.
Friday morning Rolls struts through the dressing room before the weigh-in. Chin up, shoulders back, he shadowboxes in short bursts. Tonight he’s fighting in the main event.
He was once so skittish in big fights people called him “The Roadrunner.” Now, in the biggest tournament of his life, Johnson has new nicknames for him.
He’s become a crowd favourite and even people outside his circle notice a change. As Rolls walks past again, a coach from Ajax remarks about his newfound confidence. He can’t see anyone here beating Rolls.
“That kid’s holding all the cards,” he says. “All he’s gotta do is flip that ace over.”
Flip it over and validate seven years of sacrifice. At 18, he left Chatham to train in Ohio. He was recently accepted into a paramedic course, but put it off to give boxing a shot. He needs this win.
Johnson, himself a three-time national champ, needs the win as much as Rolls does. Maybe more.
In 2001, Johnson nearly died in the ring from brain trauma. He was supposed to make the biggest payday of his career – $15,000 – but wound up pocketing just $510.
Johnson returned to Atlanta with nothing, sleeping on an air mattress in a tiny apartment. Around Christmas 2001, a friend talked him into hawking bogus gift cards for quick cash.
Johnson was busted, but never finished serving community service. Three years later, he had built a small stable of fighters when the old warrant surfaced and he was booted from the U.S.
In April 2004, broke, embarrassed and back in Toronto, he took a job at a Parkdale gym, training fighters for $20 a day. Then Rolls joined the gym. Johnson saw a talented kid seeking structure. He learned Rolls had been given up for adoption as an infant and sensed he needed a father figure.
Suddenly Johnson’s life made sense. He’s convinced he survived that subdural hematoma because he was destined for greatness as a trainer, not as a fighter.
He thinks God wanted him return to Canada and develop a boxer who would surpass everything he had achieved.
And he thinks Rolls is that fighter.
Heading into the semifinal he’s more sure of it than ever. It’s God’s plan. God doesn’t make mistakes.
Steve Rolls walked into Friday night’s semifinal against Quebec’s Schiller Hypolite sure he had secured one of the four spots at next month’s national team trials, the last step before Olympic qualifying. He’s in the final four at national championships and had just defeated the national member.
But only a win here can guarantee a chance to fight next month.
As the opening buzzer sounds, Rolls is beyond confident he’ll get it. He looked sharp in last night’s quick knockout, while Hypolite looked sloppy winning a four-round slugfest.
Even after Hypolite built a five-point lead in Round 1, Rolls figured he’d eventually pick him apart. He’d never felt this confident. Or indestructible.
He can describe the left hook screaming toward him, arcing past his guard in Round 2. He just can’t explain why he didn’t duck.
Rolls’ knees buckle. The referee steps in and counts to eight and lets the fight continue. Rolls remains calm even after he swallows a right that wobbles him for a second standing eight count.
No need to panic, Rolls thinks. Just keep boxing and you’ll break the guy down. Never mind that left hook, the one that …
A third standing eight. Automatic stoppage. On the verge of a national title in his first fight at a casino, Steve Rolls held all the cards. And he folded.
Hypolite goes to the gold-medal match. Rolls goes home, but he still has a chance at national team trials.
“I don’t know.”
Rolls and Johnson eye each other across a small room. Teammates Jeremy Young and Joyce Findlay sit silently. So does assistant coach Shawn McWilliams.
Outside the door, Hypolite celebrates with his friends. Inside, Rolls’ tournament is over but the fight’s just beginning.
“What now?” Johnson asks.
“I don’t f—in’ know,” Rolls says. “It’s not setting in yet.”
“It better start setting in. You got knocked the f— out by a bum,” Johnson says. “A bum! My son could beat that kid. Now whatchu gonna do about it?”
“If that m—–f—`s a bum, what’s that say about me?” Rolls says. “I wanted to win nationals this year.”
“You wanted to win provincials, too,” Johnson says. “Now whatchu gonna do about it?”
“You want me to tell you right now?”
“What do you mean? You’re a f—-n’ fighter. You go to box-offs and you knock him the f— out. Or you gonna quit like a little bitch?”
The question hangs in the air like a stench.
“F— boxing,” Rolls says finally. “I’m done.”
“That’s right,” Johnson says. “That’s all I need to hear.”
But it’s not. He explains to Rolls what this year was supposed to mean, for both of them. That Rolls is supposed to surpass him. That, yes, life will floor you, but you can’t stay down.
“What the f—? It’s life!” Johnson says. “Deal with the m—–f—! Either you die from it, or you get stronger. I was in Atlanta, starving, but I still found the strength to keep going.”
“I love boxing,” Rolls says. “Love it more than anything, but I can go to school and do stuff too. This ain’t for me.”
“Maaaaan, shut the f— up,” Johnson says. “Let’s go to box-offs and knock this m—–f— out.”
They eye each other across the small room. They stand, but stay behind as everyone else leaves. The door stays open a crack.
Rolls moves toward Johnson. He sobs, softly at first, then louder. Johnson closes his arms around Rolls and pulls him tight. The door eases shut.
Rolls leaves town early Saturday morning, sure that winning bronze at nationals earned him a spot at national team box-off.
National champion Andrew Gardner and runner-up Hypolite qualify automatically, while Boxing Canada selects the final two entrants. They invite Ntetu to take the third spot because he’s the current national team member.
And the fourth goes to Toronto’s Richard Reittie, the 2006 national champ. Reittie didn’t make the national team in 2005 or 2006, and last year Ntetu beat him by a pair of lopsided decisions at team trials. At this past national championships, Reittie lost his opening round bout by 16 points, but Boxing Canada executive director Robert Crete said Reittie’s results at past national championships qualify him, and he’s sure the four best middleweights in Canada will compete in Windsor next month.
Johnson protested and says Boxing Canada assured him Rolls would be an alternate, but when the two alternates were named later, Rolls wasn’t on the list.
This week Steve Rolls returned to the gym. He’s no longer sure if he wants to turn pro and he’s considering enrolling in college this September, but in the meantime he’ll keep training. Johnson wants him to box as an amateur for another year, make the national team and then turn pro.
In the gym on a recent afternoon, Johnson sits at his desk, watching his 3-year-old son, Omar, shuffle around the ring, shadowboxing. He shoves his imaginary foe into the ropes, then belts him with lefts and rights. When the opponent returns fire, Omar ducks and counters. Johnson watches, enthralled.
“Somewhere out there, there’s a kid who hasn’t thrown a punch yet,” Johnson says. “And he’s gonna be Omar’s first fight.”
He smiles and shakes his head.
Omar keeps punching.
Copyright 2007 Toronto Star