NEWARK, New Jersey – Michael Coffie was laying in bed, watching boxing, in the winter of 2016.
His roommate, Jhamal Fhipps, challenged Coffie to enter the New York Golden Gloves. Fhipps, Coffie’s corporal when they were active Marines, always wanted Coffie to box.
This time, Coffie’s friend wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“He was like, ‘I already paid the registration fee and everything, so you’ve gotta do it. You can’t waste my money,’ ” Coffie told BoxingScene.com. “I was like, ‘All right, but I don’t know how to box. I can fight, but I don’t know how to box. So, we’ve gotta find a gym.’ ”
Coffie didn’t have a trainer or a boxing gym at which to train. Worse yet, the Brooklyn native barely had a month before the heavyweight’s first fight in the novice division.
The 6-feet-5, 270-pound Coffie was practicing boxing by himself, in the aerobics room at a 24 Hour Fitness gym, self-taught from watching videos on YouTube. It wasn’t until he met a trainer, Khoury Porter, by happenstance at a CVS in Pearl River, New York, that he took any in-person instruction.
Two weeks later, Coffie won his amateur debut by knockout. A year later, he upset nationally acclaimed Nkosi Solomon in the New York Golden Gloves open final.
Coffie, who was already 30, then decided after an 11-fight amateur career that he was ready to turn pro.
Twelve fights and less than four years after his pro debut, he’ll headline a “FOX PBC Fight Night” tripleheader Saturday night at Prudential Center, the home arena of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. The 35-year-old Coffie (12-0, 9 KOs) will face Los Angeles’ Jonnie Rice (13-6-1, 9 KOs), a late replacement once veteran heavyweight Gerald Washington (20-4, 13 KOs) tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.
“I was just talking about this with a friend of mine,” Coffie said. “He’s been with me from the very beginning. Me and him, we had this conversation. I remember telling him that, ideally, I would fight my way to get noticed by PBC, so I could fight on a PBC card. And then eventually, maybe I could be in a main event. That wasn’t something I was talking about for the near future. It was long-term. It’s happening way faster than I expected.”
Most things will happen faster than Coffie expected due to his advanced age. The Orlando, Florida, resident still feels he has advantages over other heavyweights his age because he isn’t burned out from decades in the sport and has less wear and tear on his body because he only has a combined 23 fights on his amateur and professional records.
“It’s like fun to me because, again, I haven’t been boxing, period, for that long,” said Coffie, who served a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. “So, when I go to the gym, it’s still very much fun to me and I’m learning every single time I go. So, I never walk in the gym feeling like I know everything there is to learn. I never go into a fight saying, ‘I’m just about to get this guy out of here real quick, and then on to the next.’ I go into my fights assuming that they’re all gonna go the distance. It’s gonna be fun, though, going the distance, because I expect there to be big shots, I expect there to be blood, and that should be fan-friendly.”
Coffie, who fights from orthodox and southpaw stances, displayed power and impressive timing when he dropped Darmani Rock twice in his last fight en route to winning by third-round knockout. Philadelphia’s Rock (17-1, 12 KOs) was undefeated entering a scheduled 10-round fight FOX aired January 30 from Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall in Los Angeles.
“I think I’m progressing exactly how we planned it,” said Coffie, who is represented by Marshall Kauffman’s King’s Promotions. “In a lot of people’s eyes, they should look at [knocking out Rock] like it’s really good because there’s not a lot of guys with extensive amateur backgrounds, who’ve been pro for 3½ years, not a lot of them are taking these types of fights. Regardless of how you feel about Darmani Rock, I don’t see any of the other guys that are being listed as prospects having someone who’s 17-0 on their resume.”
The humble Coffie had hoped to knock out Washington on Saturday night to prove himself against an opponent who has lost only to former champions Deontay Wilder and Charles Martin and contenders Jarrell Miller and Adam Kownacki. The 39-year-old Washington lost each of those four bouts by technical knockout, though, whereas Rice has gone the distance with heavy-handed prospects Efe Ajagba (15-0, 12 KOs) and Tony Yoka (10-0, 8 KOs), a gold medalist at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“I would say the biggest difference to me is durability,” Coffie said. “I would have to say that Jonnie Rice is a little bit more durable than Gerald Washington. From the fights that I’ve seen, especially fights where he’s been in there with guys who’ve been considered punchers, he’s managed to go the distance with them. Where with Gerald Washington, that doesn’t seem to be the case. He goes in there, he puts forth an effort, but it doesn’t really work out in his favor, as far as, you know, like making it to that final bell. I see that Jonnie Rice has the ability to make it to the final bell, so it’s my job to, you know, put a damper on that.”
The 6-feet-5, 265-pound Rice has been stopped twice in seven years as a pro.
Russia’s Arslanbek Makhmudov (11-0, 11 KOs) beat him by 10th-round technical knockout in May 2019. Australia’s Demsey McKean (19-0, 12 KOs) also scored a 10th-round TKO victory over Rice in March 2020.
Washington would have provided more name recognition, but Coffie hopes an impressive performance versus Rice will lead to facing a more established heavyweight in his following fight.
“I know I’ve got a lot more to prove to the naysayers,” Coffie said. “To be honest with you, I feel I’ll always have something to prove to the naysayers just off of one simple fact, my age. That’s always gonna be a thing that gets brought up.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.