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Beware The Black Rhino Heavyweight Clifford Etienne found his calling in prison. Now he stalks a title

Feb. 19, 2001
Feb. 19, 2001

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Feb. 19, 2001

Beware The Black Rhino Heavyweight Clifford Etienne found his calling in prison. Now he stalks a title

The black rhinoceros is a great, archaic, blundering beast
that's as hard to stop as a rockslide on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Except for the blundering part, so is Clifford Etienne, the
6'2", 220-pound prizefighter known as the Black Rhino. "From the
opening bell, I keep charging, charging," says the WBC's
fourth-ranked heavyweight. "No matter what I get hit with, I
keep on coming. The only way to stop me is to kill me."

This is an article from the Feb. 19, 2001 issue

In the two and a half years since his release from captivity in
the Louisiana penal system, the 30-year-old Etienne has won 19
straight bouts. Like a caged rhino, he spent 10 years behind
bars, for armed robbery. "He's not just the most dangerous
heavyweight contender today, he's the only one I'm concerned
about," says Emanuel Steward, trainer of champion Lennox Lewis.
"Rhino's a perpetual-motion machine, one of the few heavies
willing to go the full three minutes of every round. Prison
disciplined him and taught him never to be intimidated or quit."

Spooning mashed turnips into the mouth of his infant daughter,
Jacol'e Deshone Rhinette, on the patio of his Baton Rouge
ranch-style house, Etienne looks anything but dangerous. He's
immaculate in black corduroys, black combat boots and a black
T-shirt on which he has airbrushed a "rhinor"--half rhino, half
boxer. "I was blessed to be locked up," he says earnestly. "I
found my talent."

He found his handle there too. "In prison," he says, "you need a
nickname to describe the way you fight." A fellow inmate
suggested Rhino. "Why not Black Rhino?" asked Etienne. No such
thing, said the inmate. They went to the prison library and
looked it up. "It's an endangered species," said Etienne. "Like
me."

His trainer, J.C. Davis, compares him with the young Joe Frazier.
"They pressure opponents the same way," says Davis, who helped
train Evander Holyfield, "but Cliff has more ring smarts, and
he's busier." Uncommonly so. In one eight-round decision, Etienne
threw more than 800 punches.

Smokin' Joe could afford to pace himself. "He had a murderous
left hook," says matchmaker Don Elbaum. "Rhino jabs, jabs, jabs."
Etienne, he insists, is more in the mold of Harry Greb, a
middleweight champ of the 1920s who wore out opponents with
superior stamina and endurance.

A linebacker at St. Martinville (La.) High, near his home in New
Iberia, Etienne was recruited by LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma and
Texas A&M. That changed a month before the start of his senior
season. Etienne and four friends were arrested for holding up
customers at a Lafayette shopping mall. "I did the wrong thing,"
he says. "Hung with the wrong crowd, made the wrong choices."

For wronging society, the 17-year-old first offender drew a
40-year sentence. He consoled himself with food. Before bed he'd
eat three or four Scooby-Doo sandwiches--tuna, oysters, fish
steaks, sardines, pickles, onions and potato chips jammed between
slabs of Wonder bread. "No lettuce or tomatoes," he says. "That's
filler."

Morose and weighing 290 pounds, the lawbreaker turned jawbreaker.
In prison he started sparring, then training. He won his first
three-round bout and 22 of the next 23, all against other
inmates. The guy who taught him to fight was Billy Roth, director
of the Baton Rouge Police Athletic League. Roth passed the word
to New Orleans city councilman Eddie Sapir, a sports agent whose
clients have included light heavyweight champ Willie Pastrano and
baseball manager Billy Martin. Sapir enlisted retired New Orleans
police officer and sheriff's chief deputy Les Bonano to promote,
and Rhino Promotions was born.

With good behavior, Etienne's stretch was cut to 10 years. He
charged straight from the pen to the ring, winning seven of his
first 10 pro bouts by knockout. He may have lacked a crunching
punch, but he had unshakable confidence and took on opponents he
wasn't supposed to beat.

The riskiest was in November against Lawrence Clay-Bey. Etienne
performed minor rhinoplasty on the unbeaten 1996 Olympian,
reshaping his nose with a barrage of combinations. Though neither
boxer dropped, Rhino earned a unanimous decision and the respect
of ref Jay Nady, who screamed, "F------ fight of the year!"

The next pug in Rhino's path is Fres Oquendo, 27, who's 20-0, on
March 23 in Las Vegas." Getting a title shot is just a question
of patience," says Rhino. "When they lock you away for 10 years,
patience is all you have left."

COLOR PHOTO: ERIC RISBERG/AP "I keep on coming," says Etienne (left). "The only way to stop me is to kill me."