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Local boxer comes a long way to compete in professional fights

NATCHEZ — When Cleo Rice looked through the glass window while inside the UIC Pavilion in Chicago last Saturday, he knew he made it to the big stage.

“I was at mid-level, and when I looked through, I saw the arena and bleachers, I realized it was the biggest arena I’ve ever boxed in,” the Natchez resident said.

Rice, who has been boxing since the late ‘90s, was scheduled to face Mike Jimenez that evening in his first professional boxing match in several years, and his second one overall.

But since his fight was the fifth scheduled one that night, Rice tried to see if he could check out a few of the bouts that were taking place before his.

“I stayed in the dressing room for about an hour and half. When I learned I was the fifth fight, I wanted to try and see a few before mine, but I was told I had to stay in the dressing room. That caught me by surprise,” Rice said.

But that wasn’t the first surprise for Rice that evening. As the time for his fight drew closer, he was scrambling to find spare boxing gear since he had left his boxing gear in a bag back at the hotel.

“I realized this when I was in the cab halfway to the arena. I didn’t say anything, I just hung my head and was totally frustrated,” Rice said.

“In the couple of hours since I had arrived at the arena, I didn’t know if I was going to fight or not. About 15 minutes before the fight, though, they found me some equipment.”

When the match with Jimenez began, Rice said his approach was to pummel the towering fighter with a variety of punches.

“I had no strategy. I just decided I wanted to be aggressive and bring it to him, because he was a tall fighter — about 6-foot-4 and slim, so I wanted to get to his chest and be aggressive,” Rice said.

But Jimenez had the upper hand at first, tallying two knockdowns before Rice really got into the flow, he said.

“After the second knockdown, we traded punches again, only this time the effort on my part was much greater,” Rice said.

“My nerves settled down and I saw openings I wasn’t seeing before. I got him with a right cross, which leaned him to his right. After that, he leaned forward, and I threw an uppercut.”

But Rice was still unable to knock Jimenez down. After Jimenez tied him up, he was able to tally the third knockdown.

“Then I got back up, and we exchanged punches one last time, and he knocked me down the fourth time. At that point, my corner man wisely threw in the towel,” Rice said.

Even though he lost, Rice said there were some positives to take away from the match.

“I was pleased that I wasn’t tired during the fight. After the fight, I spoke to the commissioner of the event, and he complimented me on my heart and willingness to fight, and not giving up after the knockdowns,” he said.

“When I left from talking to him, I was walking away with my head slightly down, until someone in the audience yelled, ‘Way to go, Cleo!’ Everyone on that side stood up and began clapping, and I raised my hand (in response).”

Rice’s interest in boxing began when he was a child, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Arrick Rice.

“He picked up boxing through his neighborhood friends, and one day he invited me to come with him to the boxing club,” Rice said.

“I took interest in watching them spar in the rings and hit the bags. I told the trainer there I’d like to start boxing. When he asked me my age, I told him 8, and he told me to come back in two years.”

Unfortunately for Rice, the local boxing club closed down the following year.

“I was disappointed, but I made a vow to start as soon as it opened back up. Little did I know, it would stay closed my entire teenage years.”

At age 21, Rice was serving time in jail for a misdemeanor charge. While there, he heard through someone that another Natchez boxing club had opened. When he was released, Rice took up training at the club in 1996, and within no time he was competing in his first amateur boxing match.

Rice said he was dominant in that match, but a mental error cost him the win.

“I took a knee thinking I would get a 10 count, but in amateur you only get an eight count, and I didn’t know. That was my learning experience from that bout,” Rice said.

He wouldn’t get too many more opportunities to box as an amateur, however.

“I only had 12 fights in about a five-year period. In my opinion, the club was poorly funded, and I was only fighting once every blue moon,” Rice said.

After the club closed, Rice said he made a commitment to stick with boxing. Even so, there was about a five-year period where he didn’t stay active.

“I was lost for a while, with nowhere to turn. It was just a blank period for about five years where I did nothing, until I came up with the idea to train in Gulfport,” Rice said.

Rice followed through, and in 2005, he took up training with Warren Megues in Gulfport while he stayed with an uncle in Biloxi. More misfortune would follow, however, when Hurricane Katrina caused the residents to evacuate, setting him back until mid-2006.

After training for two years, Rice got his first professional fight in D’lberville in 2008.

“It was against a hometown fighter who was a sparring partner of mine. He won, and I was 0-1 in professional boxing at that point,” Rice said.

After that, Rice said he trained two more years, but the club wouldn’t schedule any more fights for him. This year, Rice moved back to Natchez to become his own trainer.

With his Chicago fight done, Rice is serving a 45-day no-fight period, since he was unable to continue his match because of a knockdown. Even when he’s eligible to fight again, Rice said he’s likely to take a break from matches.

“I haven’t had the proper training in some time, so I plan on getting back into a boxing gym and training the right way,” Rice said.

“I think I’ll travel back to the Gulf Coast, this time to D’lberville. I have to prepare properly.”

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