The Rock’s Fight Plan for Life
BRIAN GAUVIN PHOTOGRAPH
Seated in front of a white Apple laptop in a Lakeview coffee shop, former professional boxer Mike “The Rock” Ricca, 36, peruses a draft of his first written “fight plan.”
An ex-cruiserweight (10 wins-1 loss-1 tie), Ricca has just banged out a brief motivational manifesto for New Orleans youth, at the request of this column.
In an age of school “lockdowns,” prolific drug use and cyber-bullying, Ricca seems uniquely qualified to impart fresh advice on how teens can stay out of trouble and succeed in academics and athletics.
A fitness center manager and part-time high school coach since hanging up his gloves in 2006, Ricca is the same single father whose bookish and bespectacled young son, Hayden, accompanied his dad to gritty boxing gyms and Uptown coffee shops four years ago.
Today, Hayden, now 11, sits slouched in a café chair with a Disney Classic book, as his father ponders a sentence of his “fight plan.”
“The most unique thing about Mike to me is that he seems to give a lot back to kids,” Ricca’s boxing promoter “Jimbo” Stevenson said in a 2006 interview that noted Ricca’s reputation in local boxing gyms as a doting father and Little League coach who rarely, if ever, cursed.
“He always puts his child first, which is pretty admirable for a young single guy who could be out running around,” Stevenson said. “I have had fighters who had a family support officer show up at their fights, waiting to take their checks.”
Stevenson also marveled that of the 40 fighters he handled in his career, Ricca was one of only two to earn a college diploma while in the ring.
A native of Lakeview – a predominantly white, conservative, middle-class neighborhood – Ricca’s all-local troika of personal role models features NOPD detective Patrick Conaghan and two iconic black professionals – renowned boxer Percy Pugh and University of New Orleans history professor Dr. Raphael Cassimere Jr. “All three [men] have been father figures to me,” Ricca says.
Cassimere inspired the boxer to obtain his history degree from UNO in 2001. Pugh, of the 9th Ward, was Ricca’s corner “cutman” for much of his adolescent, amateur career. “He never criticized me and always gave me his time,” Ricca says of Pugh. “During one fight, Percy Pugh stopped a cut I got between third and fourth round. I went on to win a TKO (technical knockout) in the fourth round of a six-round bout.”
At 18, Ricca won a junior middleweight Golden Gloves state championship.
The young fighter honed his skills at a NOPD-sponsored boxing program at Milne Boys Home, begun in the mid-1990s by NOPD Sgt. “Jack” Fournet and Conaghan.
Ricca discovered boxing by bus. When he was 12, he and a friend took the Canal Street bus to a gritty boxing gym on South Broad Street, operated by Leslie Bonano, then chief deputy to Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles C. Foti Jr.
Boxing offered a refuge for a young boy growing up in a family-oriented Lakeview without a father around.
Like thousands of young males from broken homes in New Orleans, Ricca recalls a childhood marred by a father’s drinking, gambling and explosive bursts of domestic violence. As an only child, he quietly recalls, “I was always glad to see the NOPD – they were coming to stop the violence.”
One time, however, cops came to the Ricca home, bringing grim news.
At the age of 3, Ricca recalls, he irritated his half-brother “Teddy,” 18, by repeatedly pushing his toy lawn mower into the front wheel of the older youth’s motorcycle. Teddy called for their mother to intervene, then rode off, Ricca recalls.
On a Saturday morning, New Orleans police arrived at the Ricca house to inform his parents that Teddy had been found gagged and beaten to death.
Today, Ricca is an enthusiastic advocate of “strong” community policing, and ongoing efforts to reform public education and the New Orleans Recreation Department.
His “fight plan” for kids is a modified strategy of a training program he devised to help himself recover from a series of personal losses after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
Experienced at pressing a fight despite a broken nose, Ricca applied 20 years of such boxing lessons to rebuilding his life after the storm – and the sudden deaths of two close friends on the New Orleans Police Department.
NOPD spokesman Sgt. Paul Accardo, 35, committed suicide on Sept. 2 by shooting himself. Nearly three months later, Officer Chris Doyle, 25, died of ulcerative colitis.
“It was a ‘one-two punch’,” Ricca recalls.
Accardo and Doyle were longtime friends who traveled to see Ricca’s pro fights in casinos around the Gulf South.
Ricca stood in Accardo’s wedding. He also was apparently among the last to talk with the policeman by cell phone, shortly before Accardo’s death. “The question is – why? It’s a question I’ll never have answered,” Ricca says.
Weeks after Accardo’s suicide, Chris Doyle, who often played video games with Ricca’s son, died suddenly – the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 2005.
Ricca grieved as he struggled to rebuild from the storm.
At the end of 2005, he crafted his comeback plan.
Training for his first professional fight after Katrina, he dedicated it to officers Accardo and Doyle, stitching their names in blue on his white trunks.
On July 28, 2006, Ricca won the six-round bout at the Belle of Baton Rouge casino, by a unanimous decision.
“It was the fight that meant the most to me,” Ricca says of his memorial bout. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t say a prayer for Paul and Chris.”
He retired shortly thereafter. In November 2007, he underwent surgery for a broken upper pallet.
Ricca is a fighter – not a writer.
But he knows words have power to inspire and motivate.
His fight plan for kids uses the lexicon of boxing to encourage excellence in athletics and academics alike.
“Ask yourself, ‘How will I become victorious?
“Get rid of words like ‘if’ and ‘maybe’. Eliminate excuses,” Ricca writes.
He urges young readers to make sure they have “positive people” in their “corner” to help them recognize their “full potential.”
“I always stress the parallel between academics and athletics because kids are focused more on athletics, and it’s easier for them to visualize winning the race than passing a test,” says Ricca, now manager of the Delgado Community College Fitness Center, and a track and field coach at Lusher Charter Senior High.
“I tell them if you beat your (sports) time by one second or a minute accomplish something. Just like in a test, if you get a 90, then a 91 on a test.”
Kids from divided families need “stern but caring” coaches and teachers in their “corner,” the fighter continues, “people who will be there for them – and be there on time.”
Ricca looks over his shoulder, eyes to his son Hayden, now contemplating a lighted showcase of frosted, beckoning cakes.
“I do things for my son my father never did with me,” Ricca says, including out of town Saints game every year.
“I act the way I want him to act. Be a gentleman. Be well cultured. Never hit a woman … I want him to look up to me.”
At the moment, Hayden remains transfixed by a carrot cake.
“Dad? Can we go now,” he pleads. “I’m hungry.”
“In a minute, son,” Ricca replies. “In a minute.”
By Mike Ricca
1. Game plan
Set your goals. This is the most vital step.
You must formulate a game plan on how to win. Whether you are a competing in a sport or aiming for a higher grade in school, ask yourself – “How will I become victorious?”
Get rid of words like “if” and “maybe.”
You must be strong mentally before you can prepare yourself physically.
Sit in front of the class. Pay close attention to the teacher. Take good notes. Avoid distractions that will keep you from winning, both inside and outside of school.
A fighter must always stay focused. You must prepare yourself mentally so that if your nose gets bloody, you get a cut or suffer a broken bone, you’ll stay focused on your goal – winning the fight.
That’s being mentally strong.
2. Training program.
Set short-term goals and long-term goals.
The long-term goal is winning the “fight” and “ace-ing” the test.
In boxing, your short-term goal includes winning each round. In school, your short-term goals should include attending class and doing homework each day.
3. Who’s in your “corner?”
To help you prepare for a fight you must pick the right people to be in your “corner.” In boxing, these people are your coaches and a “cutman” – someone who helps stop the bleeding.
The people in your corner also help you with your training program – getting you in shape physically and mentally.
Surround yourself with a positive team of people who will help you reach your full potential.
Positive and negative attitudes are both very contagious. But you can’t reach your full potential with a negative person. (As a boxer, I don’t want a trainer who’s going to say – “You know, Mike, I really don’t think you can win this fight…”)
Once your team is in place and training begins, you must give 110 percent everyday. That is the only way to be successful. If not, know that your opponent is a step a head of you.
You do not want to lose because you were not prepared – then you will have only have yourself to blame.
4. Maintain a positive attitude.
Training and homework is repetitious and boring at times. That is why you must be strong mentally. Stay focused. Remember, your long-term goal – victory!
Training is over. The fight is here. Now is the time to put your plan into action.
Be prepared to give 110 percent.
Anything less is failure. (Remember you know deep down if you have fully prepared).
You are focused on your goal and know how to accomplish it. There is no other option other than to “do it!”
Nothing ever goes as planned. That is why you must prepare yourself for the unexpected.
In the ring, your opponent may be faster, stronger or switch from a conventional stance to a southpaw stance. In school, your teacher may suddenly hit you with a pop quiz.
Whatever comes at you, you must be prepared. Always have backup plans for winning. In between rounds and classes, you and your coaches need to evaluate your fight plan to see what is working and what is not.
If you lose a round, you must learn not to make the same mistakes (e.g. keep your right hand higher to block the left hook). Double-check your spelling and grammar before turning in a paper for school.
Always be prepared to go the full distance in school or in the ring. You should still be going strong in the 12th round or at the end of the school year.
If a knockout (or an “A” in school) comes earlier than expected, it is not luck. You won by being fully prepared and training hard.
There is no luck in boxing.
The fight is over. All your hard work has paid off; you are victorious.
If you get knocked down or get a disappointing grade, know that your only option is to get up. Perseverance is an important trait of any fighter or leader.
A true fighter will never drop out of school or lie down and take “the count.”