Former Army Sergeant Forgoes Olympics To Pursue A Professional Dream
By Rhonda Bird
Rianna Rios is a former sergeant in the U.S. Army and a professional boxer. In the Army, she competed at the national level in amateur boxing, balancing both of her passions: serving her country and boxing. She was widely respected as a top-ten female fighter coming out of the Olympic class and was considered a favorite to make the 2020 Olympic team.
In 2019, Rios earned the No. 1 seed for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 125-pound division, but she ultimately decided to forego the opportunity to turn professional on a Golden Boy promotions card. She won her first professional fight in December 2019.
Goodsport caught up with Rios to discuss her military career, boxing, and her advice for young girls who want to follow in her footsteps.
Congrats on turning professional and your first win in the super flyweight division. Describe your feelings after winning your first pro fight.
It was a little emotional. I was super excited, super pumped. I had been waiting for that opportunity for years. It was a big step in the right direction for me and I’m looking forward to doing it again.
You were the number one seed for the U.S. Olympic trials at 125 pounds, but you forewent the opportunity to compete as an Olympian to go professional. Can you tell us about making that decision?
It was difficult and I made the decision in the span of a few hours. I was sitting in the eye doctor one day and he told me, “If you keep getting punched in the eye, you’re going to have problems the rest of your life.” So, I let the head coach and assistant coaches know that I’m gonna hang it up and focus on school and my family, because I had recently just gotten married. So, I made the decision and didn’t tell anybody. I kept it to myself and I took the time off, but something was burning inside me. It’s what I love to do. It’s my life. As a kid, I always wanted to be a world champion, but I just kept pushing it down.
Eventually, I was talking to my wife and I told her, “I need to turn professional.” I talked to my coach and he said, “Whatever you want to do, we’re behind you.” It was a hard decision, but when you’re satisfied with what you’ve accomplished, it’s time to take the next step and that’s what I felt. So, we took the next step. We fought on a Golden Boy promotion card, which not a lot of females have had the opportunity to do so. It was a big moment for me and I can’t wait to do it again. The motivation is there and it’s just a matter of time until I’m back on the top with a world championship belt around my waist.
Are you going to try out for the Olympics in 2021 or are you just focusing on pro boxing?
Unfortunately, in the states once you turn pro, you are no longer eligible to compete in the Olympics for boxing. So I’m just focusing on becoming a world champion in the pros.
You’re widely respected as one of the top 10 female fighters coming out of this Olympic class. How does that feel?
It gives me a sense that I’ve accomplished a lot in the amateurs, but the pro game is a lot different. You start off 0-0. You’re starting from the bottom. Whatever I did in the amateurs, I hope to do as a pro, but I know I need to prove myself as a pro. It’s a different ball game. It’s what you get paid to do. I’m looking forward to showing more of my skill set and more of what I’m capable of inside the ring.
You started boxing at the age of ten. What got you into it and who were your influences growing up?
My father, first and foremost, was the biggest one. He couldn’t really afford childcare so I would go to the gym with him and watch him train. He was a professional boxer as well. I would stand around, hit the bag, hit the speed bag and just watch. I soaked it all up and I fell in love with the sport. Unfortunately at first he was like, “Nah, stick to school and play basketball, baseball and that stuff,” but I kept pushing and pushing, “Let me box. Let me box,” and finally he said, “All right, put the gloves on, let’s see what you got.” I haven’t looked back since.
Were you a multi-sport athlete in high school?
I was. I played basketball, tennis, and ran cross country. I pretty much did what he would allow me to do because boxing took up so much time and effort.
Were there a lot of girls boxing where you grew up in Texas?
There were maybe a few of us girls that grew up fighting and we would fight each other at least once a month, just to get in there and say we were competing. My father would drive hours to see if I could get a fight on the weekends in the local clubs, but we couldn’t. It was difficult. I would maybe fight a couple of times a year in big tournaments, but it was hard growing up. Once I turned about 15, 16, we started traveling to the national tournaments and that’s when I started getting exposure and more experience.
Why was it hard to get fights?
There weren’t too many of us around. It wasn’t really common. Boxing wasn’t too popular where I was growing up as far as females doing it. So it was difficult. My sparring partners were all men. So, we had to be tough and stick it out, but it was difficult. Now, it’s getting a lot more exposure as far as women’s boxing goes. You see it on TV now. I think we’re going in the right direction.
What was it like sparring with men?
I still do, you know. I’m the only female in the gym, so I’m surrounded by men, but they treat me no different. They treat me like a boxer. It’s good. You work with what you got and eventually you get what you need. As far as being the only girl in the gym, I’m used to it. I did it growing up. It’s all who you surround yourself with. The guys I train with are like my brothers. So, I’m right at home. My coaches don’t treat me like a female or a woman. They treat me like a boxer and that’s all you can really ask for being in a male-dominated sport.
You were a sergeant in the Army. Thank you for your service to our country. Did you always know you wanted to serve? What was your time in the service like?
I did not know I was going to be in the army as a kid growing up. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to the big universities and move from this small town. As a senior in high school, I applied to every major university in Texas and I got into Texas Tech. That’s where I was planning on going, but a recruiter came by school and he started talking. As a kid in high school, you hear military, you think war. It’s not something where you’re like, “Oh yes, I want to go do it,” but after a long talk with my father and seeing the Army boxing team around at different national tournaments, it was the best option for me. They have great benefits and overall it was a great experience. I got to box and do what I love and serve my country. I would do it again if I had to.
What did you do in the military? Where were you stationed?
I was a 12 November construction engineer. I was stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado. Most of my time I spent boxing. I would train for a time and compete and do the Army requirements I had to for the year. But, my last year I got to do regular Army and do my actual job and really get that experience as a soldier and being an NCO and leading. It was great. I didn’t get deployed, but I did my fair share.
How long were you in the army?
I was in the army for five years. It flew by.
What is your training like?
It varies day to day. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, typically cardio, whether it’s running, biking or rowing in the mornings. In the afternoons, we’re in the boxing gym hitting the bag or sparring. I’m with my coach working on things I need to work on. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, we do some conditioning in the mornings and boxing in the afternoon. So, I’m either training, doing schoolwork, working part-time, or resting.
2020 has been upside down for sports with the pandemic. When will your next fight be?
Hopefully by the end of the year. We’re staying in the gym, busy working on the things I need to work on to become a better boxer overall. When the time presents itself, we’re going to take it and hit the ground running. We’ll be more than ready when the call comes.
What’s your goal? What do you want from the sport of boxing?
To become a multi-weight world champion. I know I have the technical abilities. I’m strong. I’m dedicated. I’m motivated. Whatever opportunity presents itself, we’re going to take it and we’re going to go with it. I have a strong team, a strong manager, head coach, teammates who push me. So, the sky’s the limit right now. We just started, but we’re going to work our way up and hopefully soon be world champion contenders.
I read that your gym name is ‘No Excuse’. How did you get this name and what’s behind it?
I’m not too sure how that came about, but it’s literally what it says – no excuse. You miss a day in the gym, no excuse. You go in there and you put in the work. You lose, no excuse. You get back in the gym and you put in the work.
You’re an inspiration to girls and women. How do you feel about that? And what can you say to young girls who want to play sports?
Don’t let people who say negative things such as, “you’re a girl, you can’t do this, you can’t do that” influence your decisions, the choices you make and the goals you have. If you want to reach for the stars, reach for the stars and don’t look back. Success to people is different. What’s successful to me may not be success to you. Do whatever you need to do to be successful. Work hard, dream big and really strive for those goals. There’s no limit. Sometimes they try to put limits on females. That’s okay. You can break through those barriers and be the first woman to do whatever it is you want to do. If there’s not one woman in whatever you’re trying to do, then be the first. Nothing wrong with that. Lead the way, be strong, be motivated, have fun doing it, and enjoy the ride.
It’s crazy. We’re in 2020, and we’re still fighting for equality as women. So we do whatever we need to prove. I’m tired of saying, “Prove, prove,” but we still are having to prove ourselves, you know? I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you all and I commend you for doing what you’re doing.
This interview was conducted via Zoom. Minor editing changes were made for clarity.
Photo Credit: Pexels (header); article photos courtesy of Rianna Rios