IONIA -- As 2004 began, Rydell (Rock 'n' Rye) Booker appeared poised for fame and fortune.
He had grown up on Detroit's east side and learned to box at Cannon Recreation Center. By his 23rd birthday, he had an unbeaten record, a growing fan base and his sights on a televised fight against James Toney for a version of the heavyweight championship.
Now three months shy of his 26th birthday, Booker sits locked away from any shot at glory. The spotlight? Maybe on a clear day, when the sun reflects off the razor wire outside his cellblock.
For his own safety, he must downplay his pugilistic past in prison. "The message was, they didn't care if I had fought Mike Tyson," Booker says. "They weren't scared of me."
This is a story of how somebody one punch from glory serves a 12-to-30-year sentence on drug, weapon and assault charges at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia, about 40 miles northwest of Lansing. Last week, he met with the Free Press for his first jailhouse interview of a life turned upside down.
Booker said he spends his days working out, watching TV or reading about the legal system, while trying to avoid trouble with other prisoners.
As a Level IV security threat, one below maximum, he's a close-custody inmate -- someone serving a long sentence and considered an escape risk. Bellamy Creek holds common thieves, white-collar criminals, armed robbers, rapists and murderers.
In dark moments, Booker said, he realized he might be imprisoned until 2035 -- the full term of his sentence.
"Sometimes, I wish it was over with," he said, his eyes watering. "I'd rather be dead than in here right now."
Life inside the box
When he was free, Booker began his day late. He'd be in the gym, under the watch of his Grosse Pointe manager, John Carlisle, by 4 p.m. Carlisle sometimes publicly called Booker lazy and unmotivated.
In prison, Booker still has a problem getting an early start. He skips breakfast during the week, eating it on Saturday only, when the prison serves waffles and sausage.
He does eat lunch and dinner -- usually chicken or fish and vegetables. When others are eating breakfast, Booker says he does push-ups and works on his case file.
Shortly after he arrived at Bellamy Creek, Booker says he heard through the grapevine that there were inmates who knew he was a boxer and didn't care about his reputation. To avoid confrontation, Booker says he keeps mainly to himself, associating with about four or five inmates to play cards. He doesn't shadow box in the exercise yard -- "I'm allowed to in my cell but not in the yard," he says. And while weights are available to prisoners, boxing bags aren't.
"If you look for trouble here," Booker says, "you'll find it. But I'm staying away from negatives."
His imprisonment began just over a year ago at the St. Louis Correctional Facility in the small town that bills itself as the "Middle of the Mitten." He got to know his "bunkie," his cellmate. "He was pretty cool," Booker says. "We motivated each other." About a month ago, he was transferred to Bellamy Creek. He doesn't know much about his new bunkmate, with whom he shares a 6-by-9 cell.
"He doesn't know I'm a boxer," Booker says. "We haven't talked much."
He gets five visits a month.
"It's been kind of slow lately," he says. "But my girlfriend supports me, and so do my aunts, my grandmother and mother and father. But my dad has to work and can't get to see me as often as he'd like."
Then he whispered: "My mother and grandmother take it the hardest. I'd prefer my mother not come and see me. I see the hurt in her face. I feel it when she hugs me."
Booker's ex-Teamcannon teammates, Rubin Williams and Leo Nolan, moved to Florida to fight. Booker has talked to Williams.
"We chat every now and then," Booker says. "I think a lot about our fights. My toughest bout was against Uriah Grant. He beat Tommy Hearns. I won on points."
Stunned and saddened
The plunge to life's basement has left Booker stunned and saddened. But, like so many in prison, he maintains his innocence -- that he is a victim of circumstance.
"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says. "My teacher at school used to say, 'Don't forget where you come from -- just change your environment.' Well, I never forgot where I came from -- I just didn't change my friends. I'm not guilty of the crime, I'm guilty through association."
Booker is appealing his sentence. He wants to believe he will be released and resume his boxing career.
"I've got to keep sane -- I can't let this get the better of me," he says. "I believe in God -- I went to church. I'm down, but not out. People make mistakes. I just want to go home and get a second chance."
His sentence, handed down in September 2005, could leave him behind bars until Aug. 9, 2035. That would make him 54 when he's released -- 15 years older than when Muhammad Ali retired.
His earliest release date is Aug. 9, 2017, when Booker would be 36, an age when most boxers have retired.
Booker's fall has been fast, like the left jab that took him to a 22-0 record before his bout with Toney on FSN's "Best Damn Sports Show Period" at the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif., on Sept. 23, 2004.
Five months before, in March, Booker had been arrested in Detroit with three other men and charged with possession of cocaine and intent to deliver more than 1,000 grams of the drug. While out of jail on bond and far from tip-top shape, Booker fought Toney for the vacant IBA title, losing a lopsided decision over 12 rounds.
In May 2005, while on probation for the drug offense, Booker was arrested and convicted for felonious assault, carrying a concealed weapon and resisting arrest.
"Everyone has a good and bad side," Carlisle said after the drug sentencing. "Rydell seemed incapable of helping himself. ... I thought Rydell had a good side, and I still don't believe he's a drug dealer. He just hung around the wrong kind of people."
Says Booker: "I can't be angry with the system. I never thought this would be the outcome. Hopefully, it will just be a small chapter in my life."
Wrong kind of friends
How did Booker go from fighting on TV to watching fights on a small black-and-white TV in a cramped cell?
"Blind loyalty, I guess," he says. "Hanging out with the wrong people. Getting caught up with people who I thought were my friends. ...
"I'm a good person. But I let down my family, my manager, a lot of people. If I get out, I'm going to leave my old so-called friends behind and stay out of trouble."
At night, Booker dreams, he says, about being free, having kids and boxing again. There are also nightmares, which come often.
"I dream about the jury handing down the guilty verdict -- the expression on the faces of my family," he says. "I want to apologize to my family ... to my fans."
In other nightmares, Booker is caught on the razor wire and gunned down.
"It's going to take more courage to do the time than be cut by the wire," he says.
Booker has two uncles in the federal prison system. They have been in jail for about 15 years, he says.
"I visited them," he says. "I walked away and said I would never end up there. I'm now in that situation."
Booker's interview ends.
"So far I'm undefeated in here," he says. "I hope I have the courage to stay that way."