The Million Dollar rage has gone but Lucia Rijker’s job is done

Lucia Rijker smiles softly while discussing rage.

She understands emotions, triggers, people and pain. It was her business to know it in boxing and it is now how she helps others with how to deal and cope with it.

The once-ferocious Rijker, one of the all-time great women fighters, runs two businesses in two countries today, and last year was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as part of the trilogy class that saw three classes inducted.

Rijker could not attend in person last year. She was nursing injuries and restrictions in the aftermath of the pandemic made travel complicated.

But this year, Rijker was able to accept her flowers, rubbing shoulders with friends, rivals, former trainers and meeting the boxing community from which she has earned universal respect. It was the culmination of years of work, years of fighting, but now the Dutch Destroyer is living in contentment in Holland.

“I mean, it’s interesting,” she said, pondering the attention she gets in boxing having spent the weekend back in the limelight. “When you’re fighting for recognition, you want it and you don’t get it, and then you kind of let it go and it comes to you. So that’s the feeling, but to be in the historical museum [of the International Boxing Hall of Fame] with all the great legends, that’s an honour. To be recognised for hard work is wonderful. Last year was a special Hall of Fame, it was a trilogy, so almost all the people on that poster [from the three classes] I had some type of relationship with, either I’d been in training camp with them, I’d fought them, I’d fought them with one of my students, I’d trained in the same gym with them, or I was friends with them. It was like a big reunion, so it hurt my heart that I wasn’t able to come out.”

But Rijker is still a fighter, only one who now helps others in their personal battles as a life coach and as someone who tries to help clients release pent up aggression in a therapeutic manner.

“I coach, and the world is suffering so there’s a lot of people that are struggling and part of my gift, my vision, is to help people open their heart,” Rijker said.

“I use boxing and martial arts as a way to get to it. People are really closed. I do some release work and sometimes that’s punching, it could be hitting a bag with a baseball bat. It could be anything. A release, but boxing’s very technical and structured and, if you need a release, you’re not going to do it in a technical way.”

You can sense there has been chaos behind the calmness. And we’ve seen the violence Rijker was capable of in the ring. But what Rijker had to do in her 17-fight career (all wins, 14 stoppages), was harness the rage and control it. 

“Sometimes it needs to come out and as a fighter I’ve been on the extreme side,” Rijker added. “Channelling rage as a fighter, it’s controlled rage, basically. You’re also terrified at the same time and you’re allowed to be a beast. Most people are not allowed to be a beast, to let out the beast. I used to let the beast out every day twice a day [in training]. But in life we’re suppressed. We’re behind a computer… And we have to behave and we’re so conditioned to behave and be suppressed that we become frustrated.”

Rijker learned from some of the greats, including Freddie Roach and Emanuel Steward. In fact, she travelled often with Emanuel, across the continent, into numerous camps. She was there in the Pocono Mountains when Lennox Lewis prepared for the final fight of his career against Vitali Klitschko. Rijker was sparring with Hector Camacho Jr, among others, preparing to face England pioneer Jane Couch.

“Training camp period is fun and to be able to step into a camp like that, is heaven,” recalled Rijker. “Women’s boxing, especially at that time, we didn’t have our own camps. We had no money or training camp expenses so through Emanuel, he was very generous to open up so that most of the time I travelled with fighters. He always brought a group of fighters with him in camp and I happened to be one of them, so I was very fortunate to step into the luxury like that, of a camp in the Poconos.”

She didn’t train with Lewis, Steward had his fighters on their own timetables and gave them all the time and space they needed, which is equally important as having some company when things get lonely in camp.

Of course, things have changed now. Women with less than five fights talk about ‘going in to camp’ for fights and at the top end, women have headlined huge bills on both sides of the Atlantic. Was that something Rijker ever believed could happen through her career, which spanned from 1996 to 2004, and did she feel lifetime honours such as the Hall of Fame induction could be achieved?

“I never thought about it,” Rijker admitted. “I just wanted for us women to be recognised and I wanted to grow as an individual and bring out my potential as a fighter and pull the cart for the next generation, which was successful because we now have the Olympics, we have a whole generation of fighters, Katie Taylor and Claressa Shields, that are competing at a high level. That is one, and when that happens of course the Hall of Fame will come because we cannot be denied anymore. That’s the beauty of it.”

Rijker was a super-lightweight, heavy-handed and she stopped eight opponents within three rounds. Could she hang with today’s fighters?

“My ego would say strange things right now, so I will hold back,” Rijker smiled. “But I’m very grateful the women are where they’re at and they’re getting the recognition they’re getting. If I would have been born 15-20 years later, would I have been an MMA fighter? Would I have been fighting the great legends like Ronda Rousey? Would I beat them? I’ve thought about it because I trained Ronda Rousey a little bit with my fighter and then when I look at them [today’s fighters] I start to itch, because I have a blue belt in jiu jitsu, I’m trained in all martial arts, I kickboxed, I was really good at choking people out, and I thought, ‘Hmmmm.’ Of course, you’re always wondering what if, but it is what it is.”

In this day and age, with the nostalgic pangs boxing can deliver, heroes from yesterday are often tempted to show their skills today. Has Rijker, at 55, closed the door on seeing action in any way, shape or form?

“People ask me if I get paid millions, would I fight, and I say I will never get hit in the head again,” said Rijker. “There is a price also you pay, physical trauma, emotional trauma, that comes with the sport that we don’t get rewards for – or maybe we do. It’s a tough sport. If you come from a tough upbringing, it’s a great way to climb out and to make something of yourself. It’s a great way to bring forward your potential as an athlete and to overcome – and at the same time it can be traumatising.”

Rijker knows about the physical damage from the prize ring. She used her induction speech – delayed by a year – to highlight the physical ravages of the sport, particularly neurologically. Of course, a very different type of trauma was documented in Million Dollar Baby, the film starring Hilary Swank as the promising contender whose career is curtailed after she was left paralysed by a freak incident during her the main fight scene of the film – which features Rijker as the ‘baddy’ in the opposite corner.

“I enjoyed sharing my knowledge to Hilary as a technical advisor on that movie and to act at the same time,” RIjker said, of the 2005 Oscar winning classic. Rijker, however, again manufactured an outlet to channel that wrath.

“I used my pain to become that evil, because the other side of pain is rage,” she added. “So what I did, before I hit her [Swank] after the bell, I just felt what it was like to be a champion and everyone was booing me, right, because they were cheering for Hilary, and when I was that little girl who wanted to be a great fighter, and I would get yelled at like that, it’s like when you’re open, you feel the pain. Nobody wants to be rejected, yelled at or bullied. And then you suppress and then the rage comes. When the rage came, you do evil things. Any person does. So I went from that place. I understand rage. I understand people that hurt people. When you hurt someone, you want them to feel your pain. You want someone else to feel your pain because it’s hard to carry it on your own. It’s like transference of pain, almost.” 

Swank’s character had life-altering injuries in the fight. There came a point where those around her had to choose whether she lived or died, and that’s struck a tragic chord with Rijker, whose mum had suffered from a stroke and whose family were then in an unenviable position of having to make major decisions. That made the movie all the more powerful and impactful, but critically, Rijker was proud of the film.

“I loved it,” Rijker stated. “I loved so many aspects of the movie; the loyalty of Morgan Freeman, the commitment of Clint Eastwood to his fighters, he’s bringing up a fighter – which is a real, true story – you bring a fighter up, you give them your all for eight years, you keep them out of trouble, you’re keeping them away from bad influences and by the time they’re making money they dump you. It’s like being stabbed in the heart. And most trainers have been stabbed in the heart like that. And the next morning, he’s on his knees teaching Maggie how to learn how to box again. He fully gives her himself, so that scene says so much to me. How many of us have been stabbed in the heart, either through love, business or whatever and closed down? That movie was an example to continue to share the heart fully no matter what. That’s only one scene. Then Morgan sleeps in the gym, the humility that comes with boxing, cleaning the gym, watching out for Danger [the plucky wannabe]. Every gym has a Danger, that guy who has that fantasy of becoming something but who doesn’t have the potential, but everyone lets him have the fantasy. Every gym has that. Society has that. But let people…give them room to dream even though they might never succeed, it gives them hope to continue living.”

But immediately after watching the film, Rijker knew she would not get plaudits for her performance because of her character’s positioning. She was hated, and she was ready for the fall out straight away.

“At the moment I hit her [Swank], I was the most hated actress of 2005,” Rijker grinned. “You know what happens when people hate you? You feel it. So the moment it happened I was like ‘Oh my God.’ I had to sneak out of the movie theatre because it was that intense. And I felt hated. Even people who came up to me and said, ‘I know you, you’re my neighbour, you’re [actually] a nice person,’ but that’s the power of movies.” 

The film gave Rijker the crossover appeal she might have had had she landed two of the marquee fights of her era, against Christy Martin and Laila Ali. Initially, it was Martin who was in her sights, and they were going to get it on, but Ali got there first and then Rijker’s attention changed to Ali but Laila was another who got away.

“I regretted I never got to fight Christy,” Rijker remembered. “I never really wanted to fight Laila. I wanted to fight Laila because she fought Christy. Christy was in my street. I built that fight. That was my payday. That was my weight class. And she [Ali] came along, snitched and got Christy and now I was like, ‘It’s on [with Laila].’ I had nothing against Laila. I thought it was great. With the legacy of her father, she gave women’s boxing some publicity, but the moment that that happened [Ali beat Martin], I was unforgiven. The whole thing happened.”

Martin told Rijker she still wanted to fight, but Rijker wanted the winner and not the loser. She also resented Martin, the division’s cash cow, for not giving her a shot and trash-talking her. Rijker, however, harboured a resentment that – “as a different person then” – saw her go looking for Martin to confront her.

“I love her now,” Rijker said. “It’s like you have a connection with someone. We met at the female boxing Hall of Fame and then I shared my story and she got to know me. It’s sad what happens to us as fighters also, in certain positions, it’s good the stories get told. It’s also good to take personal responsibility for the things that happen to us. We made history for the next generation and for ourselves and that’s important, too.” 

This year, the equally fearsome Ann Wolfe was alongside Rijker at the Hall of Fame. Wolfe was a part of the 2021 class, Rijker was in the 2020 group, and there are elements of Wolfe’s story Rijker can identify with.

“She was a beast,” Wolfe said. “The power she has... I wish that she would have fought Laila. That would have been a true championship fight, but unfortunately the world works differently. I’m very glad that Ann got that recognition. She’s an amazing fighter and a wonderful human being and the value she creates for youth and the next generation and what a wonderful trainer she is. I’m very grateful for that.”

Rijker is also grateful for the sport and her legacy. It is not her place to talk about where she stands historically, but Rijker knew what her battles were in and out of the ring. The rage might have been subdued, but it was one of the qualities she had that paved the way for others.

“It’s an interesting question because people project things onto other people,” she said, when asked to discuss her own legacy. “Whatever they project is their truth, it’s never really the truth. So I want to give people the chance to project whatever they like. I remember my history, as a human being, as someone who gave everything she had for the sport. I gave up everything. I persevered. I trained harder than I ever had in my life to create value for women and the future of women to have a choice, that a little girl can become a fighter. 

“We’re there, so my job is done.”