Boxing champion looks to ‘bring belt back to Vallejo’

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

At 8 p.m. last Thursday night, 28-year-old Ryan “Rhino” Bourland — Global Boxing Organization light heavyweight champion — was at the Pro-Faction Martial Arts and Fitness gym in Benicia training his last student of the night.

The champion has been training for the past eight weeks in preparation for his first title defense fight at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento on March 17. This will be his first time defending the belt since his win over Gilberto Rubio on Nov. 11, which he won by technical knock out, or TKO, when the referee stopped the fight in the sixth round.

His routine varies day-to-day, but he typically starts training at 7 a.m., runs five times a week, spars several times a week and trains with his strength and conditioning coaches two to three times a week. On top of that, he meets with his boxing coaches six times a week for boxing training. Bourland aims to be well-prepared for the upcoming six-round fight.

When he’s not training, the 28-year-old Vallejo native occasionally puts in hours at Wickens Construction, his uncle’s construction company in Vallejo, where he used to work 14-hour days and made “good money” before he decided to cut his hours and focus on boxing two years ago.

“It was a huge sacrifice,” said Bourland. “I believe that one day I’m gonna get to the top and make more money. Right now everything goes into my gas tank.”

Bourland, who started coaching at Pro-Faction Martial Arts and Fitness in Benicia in December 2015, never passes up a chance to be in the ring. “I can be in Oakland in the morning and Sacramento at night; I’m all over the place training,” said Bourland. “I’m trying to train with the best people in boxing.”

Bourland trains with four coaches: he trains with two boxing coaches five or six times a week and with two strength and conditioning coaches four times a week.

His main boxing coach is Mario L’Esperance, a retired boxer with a 18-6-1 record who was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame November 2016. L’Esperance, who has trained fighters like Leslie Smith, Jake Shields, Jesse Reid and sparred with Floyd Mayweather’s uncle Roger when he was champion from 1983 to 1985, became Rhino’s full-time trainer about a month ago and is in the process of moving from Pleasant Hill back to his hometown of Vallejo in order to be closer to his student.

L’Esperance, who met Bourland through his uncle, believes the champion has the potential to earn a world title. “He has the heart of a lion,” said L’Esperance. “He pushes and pushes and pushes; if I say do 50 situps, he’ll do 150. If I say do 500, he’ll do 750. He’s a hard worker; he’ll do everything you ask and a little extra.”

Bourland, or “Rhino,” which his friends, family and trainers call him, was given his nickname by his grandfather when Bourland was a baby. The name stuck when he got into boxing because it fit his aggressive fighting style and ability to take a punch.

Bourland went professional approximately three years ago and with a 11-1 record, is ranked 160 in the world, according to BoxRec, a database that calculates professional boxing records.

However, his ascension to the championship was rocky, having joined boxing as an “at-risk youth.” Growing up in Vallejo, Bourland frequently got into fights. When he was in sixth grade, his parents decided to put him into boxing as a way to help him channel his aggression. Bourland’s father Cary said he was a boxing fan and thought the sport would teach his son discipline. When he began to land amateur fights, Cary switched him to a different gym in Vacaville, where he drove him everyday after work and school. “I’ve never missed a fight,” said Cary.

However when Bourland was 14, his parents divorced and Cary said he started “acting up.” He quit boxing, got involved with drugs and alcohol, gained weight and landed in juvenile hall 15 to 16 times by the time he was 18. Cary said Rhino frequently “got into it with the cops” and was tased several times.

It was during his six-month stint in rehab at age 20 that Bourland reconnected with boxing due to an unlikely coincidence: the owner of the facility had a sticker on his car of the gym that Bourland trained at previously.

Bourland said the rehab owner saw his potential after talking to his coach and gave him the opportunity to get back into boxing. After making him run a track every day for a month to prove himself, he told him that if he promised to do well, he’d let him sneak out every night to go to the gym. Every night he walked to the gym and trained, cutting over 100 pounds during his six-month stint at the facility.

“Rhino is like a rhino, he works hard, he’s someone that doesn’t stop,” L’Esperance said. “He’s very aggressive and I love that, that’s what fighting’s about. You want to watch Rocky [Balboa]? Come watch Rhino.”

After getting out of rehab and fighting two more amateur fights, his coach suggested that he “go pro.” Bourland signed up to go professional through the California State Athletic Commission, the entity that regulates amateur and professional boxing. He paid to get his license and obtained the necessary medical check-ups, which are extensive and include eye, heart and brain evaluations, according to Bourland.

“Looking back I think I hopped in a little early,” he said. “A lot of guys get amateur fights before they turn pro, sometimes hundreds.” Bourland had only 12. “It’s a whole different level [than amateur]. Some of these guys don’t work, all they do is train all day for years. It’s serious.”

Experience is an advantage Bourland anticipates his opponent Alfredo Contreras, 13-19-2, according to BoxRec, will have over him at the March 17 fight. “This is a pretty tough fight,” said Bourland. “It’s a big step up for me; I’m ready for a step up.” Contreras has nearly 40 professional fights and has fought five world championships, according to Bourland.

Allie Warnshuis, Bourland’s girlfriend of more than two years said she’s nervous for the upcoming fight. Despite the fact that he’s only lost one, Warnshuis finds it hard to watch his competitions because she doesn’t want to see Bourland disappointed. “You see someone working their ass off and to see it come crashing down with one little decision is tough,” she said.

While mixed martial arts fights seemingly dominate the airwaves, Bourland doesn’t watch MMA, which he compares to street fights with few rules. L’Esperance believes there is room for both boxing and MMA in the industry. “It’s like changing the kind of food you eat,” he said. “It’s a different kind of fighting.”

Bourland has noticed an uptick in fighting opportunities but said it can still be difficult to line up fights for some, an opportunity that depends on who you know in the industry.

Bourland has become a local celebrity in his hometown of Vallejo. He appeared with the championship belt on a float in the city’s December “Mad Hatter” holiday parade and over the past week has been stopped several times by fans asking for photos and autographs, which he found surreal.

“I never thought I would get this far,” said Bourland. “There’s a lot of people that never thought I’d get this far either and I proved a lot of people wrong. I’ve sacrificed everything, quit my job and everything. I believe that if I just keep working hard, I’ll make it. I’ve got to bring this belt back to Vallejo.”