BETHLEHEM, Pa. – If you’re traveling by car, the listed distance between Brooklyn, N.Y., and this quintessential Rust Belt city of 75,000 nestled in the Lehigh Valley is a mere 87.1 miles. If you go by estimates posted on the Internet, the trip should take no longer than two hours, but frequent periods of heavy traffic can make it significantly longer in actuality as well as perception.
For supporters of freshly minted professional heavyweight Mike Coffie (pictured with manager Randy Gordon), the travel time must have seemed like an eternity compared to what transpired inside the ring here Tuesday night at the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem. Coffie, the 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran, needed only 61 seconds to dispose of designated victim Larry Alexander (0-2), who went down like an anvil dropped into the ocean when drilled with a short overhand right from a guy who is maybe the next big thing in heavyweight boxing, and not just because he’s a smidgeon under 6-foot-6 and weighed in at an Incredible Hulkish 273.8 pounds.
Asked if his official introduction to his new profession was all that he thought it would be, Coffie said, “Well, it was fun while it lasted.”
That sentiment was shared by Coffie’s trio of trainers, Matt Happeney, Khoury Porter and Ramon Rivera, and most obviously Randy Gordon, who recorded the momentous occasion on his tablet and got action footage shorter than most television commercials.
Gordon hasn’t really been around the fight game since Cain slew Abel, but it might seem that way. Now the co-host of a twice-weekly Sirius XM boxing-themed show with former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, “The Commish” has put in a lot of years as the editor of The Ring magazine, chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and all-around lover of the pugilistic arts. This is his second go-round as a manager, having previously guided another larger, seriously muscled big man, James “Bonecrusher” Smith, to the WBA heavyweight title in 1986. Coffie might be as rough as sandpaper around the edges, but Gordon said his latest protégé, now 1-0 in the punch-for-pay ranks, is already a better fighter than Bonecrusher ever was.
“Bonecrusher was a very hard puncher, but I knew he had limitations,” Gordon said of what he had then and what he has now, or might, if all goes according to plan. “He was not anywhere near the fighter that Mike is. To me, Mike is a complete fighter. He’s fast on his feet. You wouldn’t think a guy 270 pounds can move like that. He can switch from orthodox to southpaw and back again like Hagler did. I mean, he can do everything.”
And if that sounds like Gordon has fallen head over heels for Coffie, like Romeo did for Juliet, consider this next comparison, which goes well beyond any parallels to the aforementioned Bonecrusher Smith.
“I was at ringside for some of Mike Tyson’s early pro fights,” Gordon continued. “I actually helped (co-managers) Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton get some opponents for Tyson. Mike had what I would call the `wow’ factor. You could see it even then. There hasn’t been a heavyweight to have that kind of `wow’ factor since that time, but Mike Coffie has that kind of ability in my opinion.”
Well, there is an American heavyweight, guy by the name of Deontay Wilder, who has generated a few “wows” since the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist turned pro with a two-round stoppage of Ethan Cox on Nov. 15, 2008. Now the WBC heavyweight titlist, Wilder was last observed scoring a first-round quickie over Bermane Stiverne, his 38th victory inside the distance in 39 pro bouts. That is notable because it marked Wilder’s sixth successful defense of the green WBC strap and it came in a rematch against the only man to have extended him the distance. Oh, and one more thing: one of Wilder’s sparring partners in training camp for that fight was the 2017 New York Daily News Golden Gloves champion, a neophyte of vast, untapped potential.
“Our sparring is very live,” said Jay Deas, who shares Wilder’s training duties with Mark Breland. “There’s no taking it easy. It’s very intense, it’s full speed. You have to be in shape and ready to go when you’re in there with Deontay. He doesn’t play around when he spars.
“We had heard good things about Michael. He’s a big, strong kid and we became interested in him initially because he can fight lefty or righty. At the time, we thought Deontay was going to fight (Luis) Ortiz, a southpaw. Then when we had to switch from Ortiz to Stiverne (after Ortiz tested positive for a banned substance), we decided to keep Michael because we already had him booked and we wanted to see what he could do. I was pleasantly surprised. He’s very strong, very game. He’s young in the game and learning, but he’s very imposing physically with a good skill set. I think he’s going to have a successful professional career. We’d like to have him back for future camps.”
Coffie likely would accept such an invitation, maybe because he can imagine himself as a future challenger to Wilder instead of as a sparring partner, although he also has worked in the camps of such ranked heavyweights as Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller and Adam Kownacki.
“I thought about that,” Coffie responded when asked if he considered his sparring sessions with Wilder, also 31, as a prelude to the real thing taking place somewhere down the line. “I thought about that every day we were in the ring. I critique myself a lot after sparring and I try to be as honest with myself as possible. I know when I do well and maybe not so well. I kept track mentally of what I was able to touch him with, and what he was doing against me. I’m going to think about all that whenever I’m able to get in the ring with him when it counts.”
Perhaps all this excitement about Coffie is premature. There have been other heavyweight phenoms of varying pedigrees who flashed onto the scene and flashed right off, guys like Duane Bobick and Courage Tshabalala and Jimmy Thunder. There is no getting around the fact that Coffie arrives with only 11 amateur bouts, but then International Boxing Hall of Fame inductees Benny Leonard, Joey Giardello and Dwight Muhammad Qawi didn’t have any and they turned out to be special fighters nonetheless. Much will be learned in upcoming months, with Gordon and his pet project racing the clock and the calendar to move up the ladder as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“I think I will try to do what they did with Mike Tyson back in the 1980s, where we would have our Mike fight as often as possible over the next year or two – 10 fights, 12, 15. If I can have him at, like, 12-0 at this time next year, he’d be in that conversation (as a fighter worthy of increased attention).”
It’s OK to dream along with Gordon because, let’s face it, the pool of attention-worthy American heavyweights thins out pretty quickly after Wilder. Raise your hand if you’re betting the farm that Miller, Kownacki, Dominic Breazeale, Charles Martin, B.J. Flores, Amir Mansour or Trevor Bryan, all top 10 world-rated by one sanctioning body or another, will soon emerge as worthy successors to Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, the standard bearers from the most recent golden era for homegrown big boys, which passed into history nearly two decades ago. If Coffie – who, despite his heft is not as fleshy as one might think; he’s just a very physically imposing dude – offers a hint of hope for the future, follow the advice of the man himself. It could be fun for however long it lasts.
At least one thing is absolutely certain. If you were to construct a back story about a fighter that checks off all the relevant boxes for intriguing the public, Mike Coffie is the prototype. Consider:
*He was a child of poverty and deprivation, one of 10 siblings removed from their drug-addicted mother and placed under the care of the State of New York, where he bounced from family to family in Brooklyn.
*The hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood from which he emerged is Brownsville, the desperate breeding ground that produced heavyweight titlists Tyson, Bowe and Shannon Briggs.
*He spent eight years in the Marines, with several deployments to combat zones in Afghanistan. The military has ushered any number of fighting men into battle of another sort, prime examples being future world champions Ken Norton and Leon Spinks (USMC), Ray Mercer (Army) and Steve Cunningham (Navy).
*With scant amateur experience, Coffie announced himself as a hot growth property when he upset the nation’s top-rated super heavyweight, Nkosi Solomon, to win the New York Golden Gloves. Well, at least most people considered it to be an upset. “I don’t want to sound too cocky, but even though there was a lot of hype surrounding (Solomon), I knew I could beat him,” said Coffie, who got into boxing only because a Marine buddy had registered him as an entrant in the 2016 Golden Gloves without his knowledge or consent.
*He has two sons with girlfriend Maria, five-year-old Ryder and two-year-old Elijah, whom he hopes to provide for financially and lovingly in a manner that his long-missing birth father and adoptive family did not. “Whenever I’m with my boys, I always try to come up with a better way than how it was for me when I was their age,” Coffie said. “You got to let your kids know you love them. All I knew coming up was being yelled at.”
Despite a nightmarish childhood and adolescence that drives others in similar circumstances into drugs, crime, incarceration or death, Coffie has never been in any kind of trouble, which bespeaks an inner strength and discipline that Gordon and Marshall Kauffman of King’s Promotions, who signed him to a promotional contract, believe will prove beneficial as his boxing career progresses. “In the Marine Corps, one thing you got to drop is ego,” Coffie said. “When I stepped into the gym the first time, I was like a blank canvas, ready to absorb whatever it was that my trainers wanted me to do. I didn’t question any of it. I was, like, `Show me how.’ And then I would practice it until I got it down.”
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