Rhino is the One with the Horn, Right?

BY Rick Folstad ON January 21, 2003
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Why don’t we call this fight “Felonious Fury in Memphis,’’ or “Night of the Ex-Cons,’’ or “Sing Sing Saturday Night?’’ The name should hold meaning. It should grab you by the throat, slam you against the wall and make you listen. It should be a catchy name, one that reminds us of who is fighting and why.

When Clifford “The Black Rhino” Etienne (24-1-1, 17 KOs) meets Mike Tyson (49-4, 43 KOs) on Feb. 22 in Memphis, you can be sure the winner will have done hard time, spent a thousand nights or more listening to the cell door clang shut just before they turned out the lights.

Tyson has spent time for rape and Etienne for armed robbery when he was 17.

That’s why, if you’re going to watch this fight at home on Showtime, you should take the kids aside before the opening bell and quietly explain to them that not all pro athletes making big bucks on TV are role models. Some are ex-cons.

But while Tyson still appears to be a dangerous man outside the ring if not inside it, Etienne is the kind of guy they like to make movies about. He’s Huck Finn, Rocky and the Birdman of Alcatraz all rolled into one. His is a Hollywood-type story that’s already been told a hundred times, a poignant cliche everyone’s heard and still likes to hear.

You don’t make up stuff like the Clifford Etienne story. You don’t have to. He’s the bad kid with the natural gifts who went astray, paid for it in prison and eventually turned things around. Now he likes to cook, play the horn and read to his little girl before bedtime.

In a story-book world, he goes on to win the heavyweight championship of the world.

In reality, he has to first get past Tyson.

A high school football star who was recruited by a number of big-time schools including LSU, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, Etienne used to hang out with that notorious gang known everywhere as, “The Wrong Crowd.’’ Convicted of armed robbery shortly after he was old enough to drive a car, he was sentenced to 40 years, eventually serving 10 years in prison in Louisiana.

That’s where he discovered there was a way he could knock guys out without worrying about being frisked and taken downtown to be booked. Going against boxers from other correctional facilities, Etienne was 30-0 when they finally opened the gate and set him free. He then started attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, made the Dean’s list, got married, started a family, hugged his mom and dad, turned pro and won his first fight with a knockout in 31 seconds.

Drama, tragedy, redemption. How about Cuba Gooding Jr. as The Black Rhino?

“Prison is a thing I had to do,’’ Etienne says now, looking back on his incarceration and how far he’s come.

It’s questionable whether Tyson feels the same way about his time behind bars.

Known for his ability to punch, Etienne is not recognized for his ability to box. He’s no Chris Byrd. Don’t expect dancing against Tyson. Expect back-alley stuff. Elbows. Heads. Knees, if they can get away with it. Loud, ugly sounds. Two Peterbilts in a head-on collision.

Neither fighter took ballet or believes that slipping a punch can be as great an art as landing one.

As for the significance of the fight, there isn’t much. If Tyson wins, they say he’ll get a rematch with Lennox Lewis, which no one in their right mind would pay to see.

If the Black Rhino wins, he'll move up in the standings. But more important, he can someday bounce his grandchildren on his knee and tell them he beat Mike Tyson.

He just doesn’t have to tell them what year.

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