Goosehead, Richie (Profile)

STANDING IN HIS modest home on Manitoba's Sagkeeng First Nation reserve, Richie Goosehead crouches into fighting stance. Knees bent beneath him, feet shoulder-width apart. His head pulled in behind his curled left fist. With his right, he throws a slow-motion punch, rolling his hand so the knuckles point to the floor. "I'm going to hit him with the hardest right hand he's ever seen," he says, smiling.

This is how Goosehead imagines it, the knockout that might change his life for the better. In his mind, he has danced and ducked and grabbed for three rounds. And then, with his opponent frustrated, angry and tired, he sees his opening and pounces with an overhand right. "I keep telling myself, he's just a human and he's got a chin just like everybody else," he says. "I think if I can put my right hand right on the chin, I think I can put him down." He pauses and adds: "But I might be the only one who thinks that."

Yes, Goosehead is all alone in his optimism. Everybody else thinks this 36-year-old father of seven, part-time artist and entirely unaccomplished pro boxer, is going to get pulverized two nights from now, when he steps into a ring in Winnipeg with Eric Esch, better known in the boxing world as "Butterbean." With a record of 67 wins and three losses, Esch weighs in at a hefty 391 lb., compared to Goosehead's 278. He has knocked out 52 men in the past 10 years, not including the dozens he has pummelled into unconsciousness in non-sanctioned fighting events like the "Toughman Competition," and on Japan's K-1 kickboxing circuit.

Nothing in Goosehead's history suggests he has a chance. His pro record is seven wins, 16 defeats and a draw. He has lost his last six fights in a row. And yet, when given the chance to box Butterbean for four rounds and US$2,500, he leaped at it. It's the most money he's ever made boxing. To the world outside the sport, it seems a ridiculously small reward for risking one's life trading blows with a man like Esch (who will earn US$15,000 for the encounter). But this is how thousands of boxers around the world, just like Goosehead, scrounge a living. They are paid to show up, put on a good show, and take a beating for about $200 a round on average. And while it's easy to think of these fighters as unfortunate casualties of an unforgiving business, Goosehead doesn't see it that way.

Like hundreds of anonymous sluggers who have come from nowhere to etch for themselves a small place in boxing lore - names like Chuck Wepner and Buster Douglas - Goosehead still lets himself dream of a single, shining moment in the ring. Even after all this time and all those losses, he still longs to prove he's a fighter and not just another punching bag for hire.

CLIMBING OUT of his red 1988 Dodge Caravan, Goosehead looks like the kind of guy you might cross the street to avoid. Just over six feet tall, with a barrel chest, dark glasses and goatee, he has shaved his hair into a close-cropped mohawk. His black T-shirt says "I LIKE PAIN ... what's your excuse?" It seems like more than an idle boast.

The eldest of eight siblings, he grew up in Winnipeg's tough north end, raised by his single mom. In school he focused mainly on proving his toughness to classmates. The family moved to Edmonton when he was 12, where he poured his energy into playing hockey and into painting, a talent he discovered after being tutored by a friend. He dropped out after just one day of high school, and never learned to read or write properly. "I just knew school wasn't going to teach me anything that I was going to need to live my life," Goosehead explains. "A doctor told me once I had a kind of dyslexia, so that might've been part of why I had problems with reading. But I'm smart in other ways."

Goosehead dabbled in amateur BOXING in his late teens, but it wasn't until his mid-20s that he got serious about the sport, as a means to get his spiralling life back in control. In his early 20s he was hit by a car and, during his long recovery, ballooned to 340 lb. He spent 90 days in jail in 1991 for assaulting three men. And by the mid-1990s, he was already father to two sons. He needed to get back into shape and to make some money, and boxing fit the bill.

In January 1995, he made his pro debut - a four-round loss to a local fighter named Patrick Graham. Over the next few years, with almost no real training or experience, Goosehead took a string of lopsided beatings from far more seasoned pros, such as former Canadian Olympic silver-medallist David Defiagabon. In need of money, he faced one trial by fire after another, and he usually got burned. "In my whole career I've never had a fight I was supposed to win," he says.

Four years ago, looking for a new start, he moved back to Sagkeeng, about an hour north of Winnipeg. There, he shares a subsidized two-bedroom home with his girlfriend, Nadine Fontaine, and their two daughters Tamika, 4, and Tanishia, 10 months. A few times a week, he drives to a nearby junior high school to teach kids the basics of boxing in an after-school program. To supplement the $300 monthly welfare cheque, Goosehead does odd jobs and occasionally sells one of his paintings for a few hundred dollars. And, of course, he fights.

He insists, however, it is not a need for money that's driving him to take on Esch, but rather, a need for redemption. After nine years of failure and disappointment, he has a chance to be the kind of man those kids at the junior high can look up to. With a good showing against a famous fighter like Butterbean, he can finally silence all those voices that say he's nothing but a hack. "To win this would be the biggest thing in my life," he says. "I'd like to prove everybody wrong. Even people around the reserve here, I know they say 'This guy's gonna get knocked out.' It's about making a name for myself. So my kids can be proud of their dad, and when I'm an old guy they can say, 'My dad was a tough guy.' And if I beat Butterbean, what a story my kids can tell, you know?"

STORIES OF BRAVERY in the boxing ring can come at a grievous cost. Brad Rone would attest to that. The Las-Vegas-based heavyweight amassed a pro record of seven wins and 41 losses over his 14-year career. Like Goosehead, he fought for the money and because his options were few. But we'll never really know how Rone felt about his profession because on July 18, 2003, he collapsed in the ring in Cedar City, Utah, and died a short time later of heart failure. It was later revealed Rone accepted that last fight because his mother had died in Cincinnati a few days before, and he needed money to travel home for her funeral. Instead, they were buried together. Tragedies like Rone's death are rare these days, thanks to boxing's improved medical oversight. Still, the list of boxers killed or crippled in the ring is long, as Goosehead is only too aware. He doesn't want to end up like so many of the punch-drunk former greats he sees on TV.

It's a constant worry for his family. Nadine deals with her fear by helping Goosehead train on the heavy punching bag that hangs in the middle of their tiny living room. When he fights, she's in his corner giving him water and tending to minor injuries. Goosehead's mother can't watch him fight, though. "It's harder for my family than it is for me," he says. "But yeah, I worry - you have to."

He has good reason to worry. Marcelo Aravena, another Winnipeg-area fighter, has faced both Esch and Goosehead. He scoffs when asked if the local fighter might pull off an upset. "I never felt [Esch's] full right hand because I always ducked it," Aravena says. "But in the third round he caught me with a jab, just a jab, and I saw a flash of white across my eyes. This guy has power. Goosehead won't even last a round."

The day before the fight, rumours are circulating that Goosehead will take a dive, or perhaps not even show up for the match. Promoter John Vernaus confides that he has prepared another local fighter for the bout, just in case. Esch refuses to make predictions, but makes no bones about his style. "My job is to make the crowd happy by beating people up," he explains in his Alabama drawl. "The object is to hit the other person until he goes unconscious. It's a rough game."

WHEN FIGHT NIGHT arrives, a crowd of close to 3,000 jams into the Winnipeg Convention Centre, drawn by the promise of violence and cheap booze. A broad array of bikers and blue-collar rowdies, surrounded by an army of police, take in six fast-paced and sometimes bloody matches leading to the main event. Between fights, The Tex Pistols, clad in red rhinestone vests, entertain with a mix of oldies rock, twangy country and polka.

In the shared dressing room, Goosehead silently tapes his hands while Nadine fills ice packs. Another boxer returns from the ring and says he feels like he's been hit by a truck. "Well I'm gonna feel like I've been hit by a semi," Goosehead says with a chuckle. Nobody else seems to realize he's kidding.

When midnight rolls around, the power chords of AC/DC's TNT are replaced by the sounds of native drumming and pow-wow chanting as Goosehead makes his way to the ring escorted by close to a dozen Ojibway dancers in full regalia. Butterbean follows, in his trademark stars and stripes trunks, to the country-rock standard Sweet Home Alabama. Esch looks like a whale perched atop two tree trunks.

The bell rings to begin the match and Goosehead sticks to his strategy. He jabs and moves and refuses to let Esch corner him. The big man scores some glancing blows, and drives his gloves into Goosehead's ribs when they clinch near the ropes. But Goosehead avoids all his flailing haymakers. The fight moves slowly and the crowd begins to boo. When the bell rings to end the round, Esch fixes his opponent with a withering glare.

In the second round, Goosehead is still circling, when Esch gets frustrated. He drops his hands to his sides, daring Goosehead to engage him, but he won't take the bait. Finally, Esch takes the initiative and lands some heavy punches to his opponent's ribs and head. Still, Goosehead doesn't go down. It's the halfway mark and Goosehead is still standing, against all odds.

About a minute into the third round, Esch drops his hands again and taunts Goosehead. When the big man takes a step forward, Goosehead unloads a heavy right hook that crashes into the side of Esch's bald head, sending a plume of perspiration into the air. Esch smiles and nods as if to say, "Okay, good shot." The bigger man again seizes the upper hand and lands several punishing blows, but near the end of the round, Goosehead fires another right to the head. This time, Esch doesn't smile.

With three minutes to go, Esch storms from his corner to finish off his opponent. He lands two hard body blows, and bright red welts begin to appear across Goosehead's ribs. Esch bowls him into the ropes, Goosehead loses his footing and goes down, quickly scrambling back up. Esch unloads wild punches harmlessly over a ducking Goosehead, but he lands several shorter punches. And then, another right hand from Goosehead brings a spontaneous yell from the crowd. As the final seconds tick away, Esch pounds his gloves into Goosehead's blocking arms. And then one more right from Goosehead lands solidly on Esch's jaw. The crowd roars. The bell rings. It's over.

Afterward, Esch complains mildly that Goosehead refused to slug it out. "But give him credit, he fought smart," he says. On the scorecards, two out of three judges rule the bout in favour of Esch. One scores it a draw. Butterbean is awarded his 68th career victory, and yet Goosehead is still smiling. He returns to his corner, gets down on one knee, and asks Nadine if she will marry him. With tears in her eyes, she says yes.

MORE THAN 40 minutes later, the crowd has spilled out of the arena and into the surrounding streets in search of one more drink before last call. The band has packed up and gone home. But Goosehead is still standing in the auditorium in his trunks, surrounded by friends and family, laughing, hugging and shaking hands. The doubters said he wouldn't survive a round. They whispered that he'd get scared and take a dive. But in the eyes of many, including one judge at ringside, he gave as good as he got. He proved them all wrong. "I hit him with some big right hands, just like I said I would," Goosehead says laughing. Standing with his new fiancée, Goosehead adds quietly, "This is pretty much the best day of my life."

The record will show this was the 17th loss in an unremarkable career. And yet somehow, standing in the fading glow of the ring lights, as the Butterbean road show pushes on to its next stop, Goosehead looks like the boxer, and the man, he always wanted to be.

Maclean's October 11, 2004