Jonnie Rice found out he would be fighting Michael Coffie on national television the same way and the same time everyone else did.
Rice was enlisted as a standby alternate for the scheduled bout between Coffie and Gerald Washington, a common practice particularly during pandemic-era boxing. Two weeks prior to the bout, Rice had checked in with Washington to wish him well, and Washington revealed to him that he wasn’t feeling well. Rice suggested that maybe he was just overtraining, offered some friendly encouragement and thought nothing more of it.
A few days later, five days before the bout, Rice was texting with fellow heavyweight Scott Alexander, the second alternate, who asked him: “Did you see the fight poster?”
Rice thought he meant a fight poster for Alexander’s upcoming bout, but Alexander clarified and told him to check his email. Inside was the press release and poster showing Rice in the main event on FOX against Coffie. Rice, who previously didn’t heed the warning from Washington that he might be fighting now had his requirements met for believing he had a fight—he’d seen it in the press, and he’d seen it on TV.
“I couldn't sleep, I literally couldn't sleep,” Rice told Boxing Scene. “This is on FOX. Not no FS1, FOX FOX. Like, you don't even have to have cable FOX. No wonder I can't sleep. So I was like well, just go in there and throw punches, that's what everybody wants to see anyway!”
Rice took that intrepid attitude to the ring with him and scored one of the biggest upsets of the year, scoring an emphatic fifth round TKO over Michael Coffie in the main event of a PBC on FOX broadcast from the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. It was an attitude and approach not previously seen from Rice, who had garnered a reputation stylistically as a spoiler, and professionally as an opponent for high level prospects.
That wasn’t the way Rice viewed himself, but it was the role he had been cast in by the sport. A power forward for the Winthrop Eagles, Rice spent four years in NCAA basketball before a brief foray in football led him to Michael King’s All-American Heavyweights program which produced Charles Martin and Dominic Breazeale. Rice had no prior boxing experience, but fit the mandate of being above 6’3” (he’s 6’5”), over 230 pounds (he’s an athletic and toned 265 comfortably), and having an NCAA background.
Without an extended amateur career, Rice has done the majority of his learning on the fly in the gym, often through sparring top heavyweights. Although the Venn Diagram of top heavyweights overlaps in many places in terms of who has sparred who, there are fighters who have sparred together and there are sparring partners, and they are treated much differently in the boxing business. Rice is used to fielding last-minute offers, low paydays, and the types of proposals fighters with more leverage would never even have to entertain.
But it was recently that the 34-year old Rice truly started to use the time he was spending training with the very fighters he was chasing in the sport for his own ends. Rice relocated from South Carolina first to Los Angeles, then to Las Vegas in order to “be around boxing all of the time.” After stints with other trainers, Rice settled down with Clarence “Bones” Adams and Rodney Crisler, who now team up to coach him.
Crisler, who has previously worked with heavyweights such as Hasim Rahman and Sam Peter and is one of many hired guns who continue to work with Devin Haney, saw potential in Rice and started spending extra time with him.
"He's got a good chin, he can box, he can move, there's a lot of things that he's got that a lot of boxers don't have," said Crisler. "He's athletic, really athletic. He can do anything a little guy can do. Jonnie's one of the most powerful punchers out there, he just doesn't let his hands go."
In September of 2020, Rice took a short notice fight, fittingly, against a man he had recently sparred, Efe Ajagba. While the bout didn’t make for great television, particularly in the empty Top Rank bubble, Rice went all ten rounds with Ajagba without ever really being in danger. That performance, which might have solidified the boxing public’s reputation of Rice 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 on his elbow, ice on his shoulder (because) Jonnie was making him miss good. I told Jonnie, once you make guys miss like that, then you can really let your hands go,” said Crisler.
The biggest hurdle was convincing Rice of what he believed—or put another way, getting Rice to believe in himself. Rice is very forthcoming about his anxieties, and is humorously self-deprecating in a way most fighters wouldn’t allow themselves to be--he’s even dabbled in stand-up comedy.
Ultimately, Rice found himself frustrated with the opportunities he’d received—bouts with Ajagba, Arslanbek Makhmudov, Tony Yoka, Demsey McKean—and having not come away with a victory. After receiving, according to him, around $60,000 for the Ajagba fight, Rice vowed to never fight for less than that. In abiding by that, he says he turned down an opportunity to fight Darmani Rock, whom Coffie ultimately knocked out on FOX. Rice came to the conclusion that while looking out for himself financially and professionally were important, there would be some opportunities that might have to be taken regardless of the payday if he wanted the chance to change the narrative of his career.
“I've been meditating, soul searching, evaluating myself. I've had some big opportunities, I've fought four undefeated guys, why do I keep losing? You've got to really dig deep and be honest with yourself. In order to get more out of yourself, you have to know yourself a little better, embrace why you failed so you can excel,” said Rice. “Change the goals you have, make them deeper. Are you just going to be alone with your belts when you finally get them? Sometimes you can just lose fights with the wrong mindset, and that's also what happened. We often make excuses really fast, and those excuses will satisfy us really easily. I had to realize that I was making a lot of excuses, and I'm done with that.”
The turning point for Rice, according to both him and Crisler, came via a series of sparring sessions with top heavyweight contender Michael Hunter in the two weeks prior to the Coffie bout. Crisler described those sessions as “confidence openers” for Rice, and says that his newfound offensive moxie against Coffie was “because of Michael Hunter.”
“When you spar a guy like Michael Hunter, it makes you better. It takes you to a point where in order to be in the ring with him, your skills have to grow or he's going to demolish you,” added Rice. “It was a huge turning point.”
Two days after his last ten round sparring session with Hunter, Rice was assured of his primetime TV bout against Coffie, and suddenly his new confidence and old self-doubt were squaring up with one another.
“I was in a very relaxed state. When someone tells you that you're going to fight in a month or two months, you have time to really process it. You have time to process those feelings of worry and doubt, you can set goals. When someone tells you you're going to take a fight in four days, you're like, what? Even though you're ready physically, you're not ready mentally,” said Rice. “Any time I had those feelings of self-doubt, I just told myself you know what, I'm gonna go in and do what I did in sparring.”
If you listened closely enough during the bout, you could hear Crisler yelling things like “gimme the Hunter” and “gimme the Haney” during the bout, reminders of his moments in the gym that he believed Rice ought to replicate.
Rice was nearly unrecognizable from the mostly passive defensive fighter who had appeared on national television before, but familiar to those who had spent time in the gym with him in the past. Almost instantly following the knockout win, Rice’s social media accounts blew up with congratulations from Hunter, Haney, and more.
Now Rice has both a performance of his own and an emotion he wants to replicate as well.
After the victory, Rice once again couldn’t sleep, kept awake by sheer adrenaline. He watched The Hunger Games for two hours the plane from Newark to Las Vegas before passing out for the final two hours.
Finally at peace, finally convinced it was all real.
“You feel like…we want more than that. We want more of that,” he said.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman