"Professional boxing is no longer worthy of civilized society. Quite frankly, I now find the whole subject of professional boxing disgusting. Except for the fighters, you're talking about human scum, nothing more. Professional boxing is utterly immoral. It's not capable of reformation. I now favor the abolition of professional boxing. You'll never clean it up. Mud can never be clean."--Howard Cosell
The late comedian George Carlin once said, "It's called the American Dream because you need to be asleep to believe it." But locked in a 5-by-9 cell, behind maximum-security walls, a 6'1, 175-pound living nightmare of a jailhouse fighter had his own American Dream and he wanted it televised nationwide. For a short time, that dream instilled enough fear that it gave the light heavyweight champion insomnia. Promoter Don King, sports' most successfully rehabilitated ex-con, himself a man who newspaper columnist turned novelist and screenwriter Pete Dexter once described as "easiest to imagine as a disease," someone who "for 15 cents will put boys in the ring and girls on the street," wouldn't go near this convict's request to promote his next fight. Even King, Mr. "Only in America!" in all his devious genius, couldn't believe any fighter, let alone the public, would want any role in the twisted saga of James O. Scott.
Some 30 or 40 years ago, just how important was boxing to America? It transcended sport. And boxing had Muhammad Ali. On Sept. 15, 1978, only three weeks before James Scott fought Eddie Gregory, the No. 1-ranked contender for the light heavyweight championship in New Jersey's Rahway State Prison, Muhammad Ali fought his rematch against Leon Spinks for the heavyweight crown in front of more than 63,000 fans at the Superdome in New Orleans. Cable TV was in its infancy. There were only four national television channels and 90 million people — 73 percent of American households — watched the fight on ABC. It was bigger than the Super Bowl and Ali reclaimed his championship in front of more eyes than any sporting event in television history (it's still in the top 10 today). So how in the world did a career-criminal snatch the keys to this kingdom from his cage in Rahway and convince Home Box Office to tag along and let him loose in every living room in the country?
The former professional boxer had long since been recognized as one of the most feared and dangerous of the 1,150 inmates.
James Scott, circa 1979. (Via the Emhoff Collection)
Prison inmate No. 57735, accused of murder and serving a 30-40 year stretch inside Rahway State Prison for armed robbery, introduced himself in a letter to reporter Beth Schenerman at The New York Times on Dec. 17, 1978, writing, in a rare moment of understatement, "This is a unique story." After returning to prison three years earlier, the former professional boxer had long since been recognized as one of the most feared and dangerous of the 1,150 inmates then living behind the walls of New Jersey's most notorious maximum-security prison, a place journalist Ralph Wiley described "as if the world had dropped the sum of its sores into one of New Jersey's gritty smokestacks, then chose not to watch as the results of the experiment filtered down into place."
Scott was one result of that experiment. But he had even bigger plans for his legacy. The message in a bottle Scott wished to wash ashore to everyone living outside those walls was simple: wearing leather gloves over the hands he'd been accused of using to murder someone, he just might be the most dangerous man everywhere else on earth, too. "The rise of a champion from prison house to the light heavyweight championship of the world. Has it ever been done before? No. I'll die if I don't get that title shot," he wrote. "I'm pregnant. I've got to deliver this child."
The Times and everybody else immediately recognized the story. This savvy, self-educated, self-described career criminal found an audience eager to believe him. Only two years before, a little Cinderella-story film about the American Dream, shot over 28 days with a budget of little more than $1 million, "Rocky," had won three Academy Awards and made $225 million at the box office. An unknown actor named Sylvester Stallone, with a pregnant wife and $106 in the bank, had written the script in three-and-a-half days about an over-the-hill Philadelphia club fighter who got a title shot.
But "Rocky" was just a movie. Scott was real, and his far more improbable story, of the American Dream turned into a fantastic fairytale, was already being written. All he needed was the happy ending. In only a few short years, Scott, who had spent over half his 30-year-life behind bars, had already parlayed his story into a career. A week before he wrote The Times, it had already started to come true when he had successfully challenged Eddie Gregory (later known today as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad) from inside Rahway's walls.
The notion was so obscenely preposterous that the feisty new network on the block, HBO Sports, eager to stand out, bought the whole thing. They sent film crews and announcers (including hiring the legendary "voice of boxing" Don Dunphy) to Woodbridge, N.J., and broadcast the fight live before a select crowd of civilians from the prison's auditorium. They touted the fight as "Boxing Behind Bars."
Outside Rahway, the betting line was 4-1 on Gregory, who had a record of 29-3-1 and was coming off two straight first round KOs. The bout was considered a tune-up, a colorful sideshow in Gregory's own march to the title, and in his own story of the ex-con-turned-champion. Boxing a lightly regarded inmate hailed as the New Jersey prison system light heavyweight champion made good copy and attracted curious viewers, but no one thought it would be much of a fight. Even inside Rahway, Scott was an underdog, Gregory the favorite at three cartons of cigarettes to one.
"They say Scott is tough," Gregory told Sports Illustrated before the fight, "but how tough can he be? So he fought a couple of stiffs inside the walls and he knocked them out. He hasn't had a real pro fight in almost four years. And now he wants to fight the top contender. You know he's got to be crazy. He's been in here too long. It happens when you stay in these places too long. I'll carry him for 11 rounds and knock him out in the twelfth. It'll be a good work out."
Gregory was in the best shape of his life, already looking forward to the biggest payday of his career against the newly crowned World Boxing Association champion, Mike Rossman. Fighting a delusional convict with a hopelessly misplaced pipe dream in prison was just a way to pocket an easy $15,000.
II. The Crime
"For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled."--Hunter S. Thompson
"I hadn't did anything wrong. What I need a lawyer for?"
On May 8, 1975, Scott, then an undefeated, and promising light heavyweight contender with a possible title shot on the horizon, heard that police in Newark wanted to talk to him, something to do with his car. Scott didn't bother to contact an attorney. "I thought," he later told Esquire's Phil Berger, "that I was a celebrity and there'd be no problem. I hadn't did anything wrong. What I need a lawyer for? I figured to take my car down there, answer some questions and come back home ... I had it made, a title shot for $100,000. My dream had come true. A press conference was set up for a Thursday and we were going to announce the fight." Scott drove from Trenton over to the Newark police headquarters and, by his account, calmly walked right in and answered their questions.
Scott's car had been seen in the vicinity of a murder and robbery. When the Newark police checked the car, they found bloodstains and a bullet hole. Scott insisted he had loaned the car to a friend. He was arrested the next day.
According to Berger's account for Esquire, the Essex County prosecutor's version of the night in question went like this:
Toward midnight on May 7, 1975, Everitt (sic) Russ was standing out front of a bar on Howard Street in Newark with a friend when he was approached by James O. Scott. Russ climbed into a blue four-door sedan with Scott and others. The car proceeded to the Lincoln projects in Newark, where Russ led them to the apartment of Leo Skinner. The way Russ told it, Skinner would be able to buy drugs for them in a building next door.
In that adjoining building, the men held the elevator for Yvonne Barrett, who lived up on the tenth floor with her sister Antoinette. The Barrett apartment, as it happened, was where the group was headed. Reluctant to take so many people there, Leo Skinner stopped the elevator on the eighth floor. At that point, one of Scott's companions, William Spinks, pulled out a pistol and ordered the project residents, Skinner and Barrett, out. Scott exited too. Everitt (sic) Russ rode to the lobby and waited in the sedan with the other man in Scott's party. Back on the eighth floor, Spinks handed the weapon to Scott, who pistol-whipped Skinner and ordered him to disrobe. Later, Spinks, holding the gun on Yvonne Barrett, robbed her sister's tenth floor apartment of $283 and glassine bags with white powder in them. At about 1:30 that morning, the body of Everitt (sic) Russ was pushed from a blue four-door sedan, dead from gunshot wounds.
As Russ's corpse smacked the pavement and the blue sedan screeched off, a passing motorist took down the license plate. The plate number was reported to the police and the car the license plate was attached to led to Scott.
Scott claimed he lent his car to Spinks and had nothing to do with the crimes, alleging a conspiracy involving the Newark police. He said Spinks' accomplice in the crime was someone from Newark named "Black Jack," whom Scott conceded resembled him a great deal in appearance.
William Spinks (unrelated to boxing brothers Leon and Michael) never had the chance to offer his own version of the events that day. One month after the crime, another stick-up claimed his life before police could locate, let alone question, him about the surrounding events that led to Russ' murder.
Leo Skinner offered to clarify the confusion regarding Black Jack and Scott. From Berger's Esquire article:
Questioned in court by the Essex County prosecutor, Skinner conceded that Black Jack and Scott, in his phrase, "could go for brothers" — they looked that much alike. But Skinner claimed there were differences, that Black Jack was smaller, his hairstyle slightly different. Then:
Q: Did Black Jack beat you up on the night of May 8, 1975?
A: (Skinner) No sir.
Q: Did Black Jack stick a gun in your mouth on May 8, 1975?
A: No sir.
Q: Did Black Jack make you strip off all your clothes on May 8, 1975?
A: No sir.
Q: Did Black Jack threaten to throw you off the roof on May 8, 1975?
A: No sir.
Q: Who did all those things to you on May 8, 1975?
Nearly seven months later, a New Jersey Superior court jury deliberated 20 hours and convicted Scott of robbery, but split, 11-1, on the murder charge. Although The New York Times reported, "There was no indication whether the majority favored conviction or acquittal," the testimony of eyewitnesses left little doubt. Even though he beat the murder rap, as a multiple offender, Judge Ralph L. Fusco sentenced him to a 30-40-year prison term.
III. In This Corner
"It seems, in fact, as though the second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has accumulated during the first half."--Fyodor Dostoevsky
According to a fight program when he fought Kirkland "Baby Boy" Rolle in 1974, Scott was born in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 17, 1951. But the Miami Herald also reported his birth as occurring exactly five years earlier on 1946. Prison officials listed Scott's birthdate as Oct. 17, 1947. The second of 12 children born to Ursuleen and James Scott Sr., Scott was born inside Newark's ghetto, but from his teens onward he was raised in penitentiaries. "Ours was a typical black family," Scott told People Magazine in 1978. "My mother was on welfare. The marriage broke up, so the children sought an image elsewhere. I wasn't attracted to pimps or narcotic dealers; I was attracted to the gangs and their leaders." An uncle gave Scott his first pair of boxing gloves at 10, but neither his uncle nor his father had time to show him how to properly use them. At 13, Scott was arrested and tossed into Jamesburg Home for Boys on the charge of truancy. For the next five years he bounced around different New Jersey juvenile reformatories, like Annandale and Bordentown, which offered inmates an amateur boxing program and, by age 18, put together an amateur record of three wins and two defeats.
Scott was born inside Newark's ghetto, but from his teens onward he was raised in penitentiaries.
That same year, in 1965, Scott was officially declared incorrigible and transferred to Trenton State Prison. In Trenton, Scott crossed paths with another inmate named Al Dickens, serving his 16th year of a 51-year stretch for armed robbery. Dickens had done some boxing in the army and later told Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated, "When I first saw Scotty, he was a tough punk running around breaking heads with an iron pipe. But I got him to thinking about boxing instead."
Who was Scott's first sparring partner inside Trenton? Some convict named Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the former world middleweight title challenger on the outside, a cause celebre who inspired a movie and a song by Bob Dylan before finally being released. Scott, despite his inexperience, lasted a full three rounds against Carter, one of only a few prisoners to do so. With Carter's and Dickens' encouragement, he began training seriously.
Scott was released from Trenton on Nov. 5, 1968, but almost immediately was busted on a robbery charge and sent back to prison, now staring down a 13-17 year sentence. "I guess I wasn't listening too close when Dickens tried to teach me about life," Scott told Sports Illustrated. "They let me out of prison and it wasn't long before I was back. That's when I really took up boxing."
Scott became so dominant in the New Jersey prison system that after he won the state prison championship, prospective challengers simply refused to fight him. "From 1967 until now," Scott would tell HBO's Larry Merchant in 1978, during an interview from inside his cell in Rahway, "I beat everything in the prison houses. When I was locked up I was young. I had no goals. I had no values. I spent 15 months in the Vroom building (the Vroom building was located on Trenton's State Psychiatric Hospital grounds, which housed both extreme cases and inmates held in protective custody.) My trainer was down there. I spent 15 months down there. That's the worst place I've ever been in my life. That gave me a chance to think. I think when a man is forced with thought — under adversity you're forced to think — that's when you begin to realize what you are you going to do and what you have to do. I think it was then that I really decided I've gotta get a chance. I've gotta make it. Nobody's ever went straight to the top. This is unique. The possibilities of a prisoner getting a chance, the fact that he's in prison, maybe it's bad for the public image. But I think what will shine is that his good deeds out-weigh his bad deeds."
James Scott was released from Rahway on a work-parole program Jan. 8, 1974. Up to that point Scott had never had a professional fight in his life, but from prison he had written and collect-called boxing managers and promoters across the country trying to capture interest in representing his professional career. Miami architect Murray Gaby bit and offered him a managerial contract on behalf of a group of Miami Beach businessmen called The Mendoza Group (the name inspired by Daniel Mendoza, an 18th century Jewish boxing champion.) Gaby also had enough political connections, namely through his brother Dan, a heavy hitter in the New Jersey Democratic Party, to have Scott paroled out of state to Florida. Gaby and his partners didn't just become Scott's managers, in essence they became his parole officers, too.
After spending half his life behind bars, Scott, then 26, walked into Muhammad Ali's old stomping grounds, the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach. While Angelo Dundee was helping prepare Ali for his rematch against Joe Frazier, his brother Chris ran the gym. Ali's personal physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, was on hand to watch Scott's first sparring session.
James Scott training in Florida, circa 1974. (Via the Emhoff Collection)
"It was right out of Warner Brothers," Pacheco told Esquire in 1980. "Scotty had no money. He was in basketball shoes and cut-off denims. From odds and ends, we put him together. Willie Pastrano's protective cup. Head gear from another guy. And then James got into the ring with the resident heavyweight, a well-regarded fighter."
Gaby recalled, "When Scott started throwing punches, there was dead silence in the gym. Other fighters stopped and watched. He went two rounds, had the guy out on his feet. Everybody gave him an ovation. Very dramatic."
Cue the montage sequence ...
Two weeks after that first sparring session, Scott entered the ring at Miami Beach Auditorium for his first professional fight against undefeated 210-pound John L. Johnson, a fighter who outweighed Scott by 35 pounds. After the bell rang, the fight began inauspiciously for Scott. Overwhelmed by Johnson's size and power, he was dropped in the first round. Then Scott got off the canvas and, counterintuitive to what had just taken place, poured on the pressure. Three rounds later he put Johnson on his back and the referee counted him out.
The crowd adored the performance. Even as Scott made his way back to the dressing room, their roars refused to subside. Scott's father was waiting for him in the dressing room. They hadn't seen each other in 12 years. But before they even had a chance to say anything to one another, the ring announcer was calling out, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's bring back out James Scott!"
Two weeks later, on Feb. 5, 1974, fighting in his own light heavyweight weight class, Scott pulverized Hydra Lacy in three rounds. Before the month was out, he also dispatched with Willie "The Invader" Johnson in four rounds. By his fourth bout he was fighting in the main event, and as spring turned into summer Scott soundly defeated four more opponents, steamrolling toward contender status. Other fighters ducked him. "It was a nightmare trying to find someone who would get in the ring with him," Gaby recalled. "It was horrible what (promoter) Chris Dundee had to pay people to fight that animal."
In the ring, Scott was undefeated, but on the outside Scott was struggling and still trying to find his bearings away from prison. Maybe the awareness he was living on borrowed time or that he didn't belong was gnawing at him. He confessed to Esquire, "In prison you get one spoon that you keep with you in your cell and you take it to and from meals. Lots of times in Miami Beach, I'd automatically pick up a spoon in a restaurant and put it in my pocket. And then I'd see the look on the waitress' face. In her mind — ‘They're all the same, all thieves.'"
The toll of prison life left Scott incapable of coping, of dropping his guard with anyone on the outside apart from his common-law wife. Although the glib and confident fighter excelled at marketing himself to reporters, he quickly gained a reputation for being surly and confrontational with everyone else. "He was not easy under any circumstances," Gaby said of Scott at the time. Once his grueling training regimen ended, he felt double-parked in the world, always boiling over with fear he was being taken advantage of and cheated. Like many boxers before him, the ring was the only place in the world where Scott felt safe.
As his popularity swelled, his paranoia grew in equal measure. He couldn't separate his battle with daily life from his struggle climbing the ranks of the light heavyweight division. His tightrope walk between oblivion and supremacy was enthralling, but Scott remained a cursed and battered soul resigned to a bitter future of unpacking his torment the only way he knew. While fans loved to cheer him from a safe distance, they recoiled when they encountered Scott in regular life. Fear made him great and fear kept him trapped.
Just as The Ring magazine ranked Scott as the No. 8 light heavyweight contender, his vulnerability showed. Going into the sixth round against Dave Lee Royster on Sept. 10, 1974, Scott was winning easily when he was head butted. Scott responded with a punch to the groin.
Royster slumped down and the referee deducted not one but two points from Scott for a "severe low blow." In the eighth round, Royster butted Scott again, this time opening up a bad gash over Scott's right eye, bursting an artery that spurted blood and blurred his vision. While the ring doctor nearly stopped the fight, no points were deducted from Royster for either head butt. Scott's low blow cost him a decision and his perfect record.
"I'm gonna make history. I'm gonna fight for the title in 10 fights. I'm so pregnant with this idea I'm going through labor pains."
For the first time after a professional fight, Scott visited the first aid table. His white trunks were blood stained from the gash over his right eye. As the cut was being stitched, he spoke with a reporter from the Miami News Reporter: "You can print I'm venerable (vulnerable)," Scott began, as the reporter surely smiled at the malaprop. "I'm not superhuman. Yeah, everybody can see I'm venerable. I cut, too." Gaby quickly added, "He's not losing anything, this just shows he's human, that he's got blood." Chris Dundee went further, calling out light heavyweight champion Bob Foster with an offer of $100,000 to defend his title against Scott.
Not to be outdone, Scott chimed in, "I'm gonna make history. Secretariat doesn't run in a year like I fight in a month. I'm gonna fight for the title in 10 fights. I'm so pregnant with this idea I'm going through labor pains." After two more fights and two more wins, Scott had earned nearly $15,000, lived in his own apartment with his girl and drove a blue Chevrolet. Now, when he spoke of a title shot against then champion John Conteh, the world listened.
It wasn't enough. He started driving back home for visits to Newark, a clear parole violation. Gaby warned him to stay away, but Scott didn't pay any attention. Dundee assured Scott a title shot against Conteh was on the brink. Then Scott walked into Newark police headquarters after he'd blown it all the night before.
IV. The Rahway Redemption
"Ring magic is different from the magic of the theater, because the curtain never comes down — because the blood in the ring is real blood, and the broken noses and the broken hearts are real, and sometimes they are broken forever. Boxing is the magic of men in combat, the magic of will, and skill, and pain, and the risking of everything so you can respect yourself for the rest of your life."--F.X. Toole
Scott returned to the New Jersey penal system on March 22, 1976, first incarcerated at Trenton State Prison and then, on May 27, 1977, he was transferred to Rahway, becoming inmate No. 57735.
Despite his sentence, more than ever, he was determined to continue his career, training for the next fight, one only he could see and believe in.
He didn't break, and he didn't bend. Instead, he did something far more difficult. Despite his sentence, more than ever, he was determined to continue his career, training for the next fight, one only he could see and believe in. He began a grueling regimen of 18,000 push-ups and sit-ups a week. He feverishly ran circles around the prison yard day and night. Every night at 10 o'clock, after the lights were cut on all 1,150 prisoners at Rahway, Scott went toe-to-toe with his own shadow, clinging more than ever to the pipe dream of a title shot he could will his way to coming true.
Then Scott got lucky. The prison superintendent, or warden, at Rahway, Robert S. Hatrak, a man who believed in redemption and resurrection with an eye toward publicity, became a powerful ally. "I would say a good 60 percent of the inmate population have never had a real, what you might call a bonafide job," Hatrak later explained to HBO cameras. "They've earned money wherever they can, catch as catch can, but to be a professional, they just could not call themselves that. We have found that once a man feels he has learned a trade, he's become a mechanic — in whatever field or area he wants to — he has a different outlook on life. He has also a lot more respect for himself and he carries himself that way and shows it."
Hatrak already had a controversial reputation as someone sympathetic to inmates and open to new ideas aimed at rehabilitation. The "Scared Straight" program at Rahway — extreme-case juvenile offenders being confronted by inmates in monitored sessions — was a Hatrak initiative and under Hatrak's watch, there was as much space devoted to shops and classrooms inside Rahway as cells. He pushed hard to give inmates a shot at a life outside prison walls.
Hatrak created the Rahway State Boxing Association and put Scott in charge. The superintendent treated boxing as occupational training and paid inmates who boxed as if they were learning a trade, at the same time letting them earn points toward parole and shortened sentences.
After seeing Scott's progress with the boxing program, Hatrak approached Scott with an offer. He told Scott that if he could persuade a promoter to get involved with the boxing program at Rahway, he was willing to do everything in his power to help Scott resume his professional boxing career.
Now it all became clear. Scott knew he couldn't run or hide from his identity or his past, so he decided to embrace both, to create one of the most powerful and compelling metaphors boxing had ever seen. There would be no elaborate prison break, no jailhouse conversion. Scott's scheme was even more audacious. Acting as his own publicity department, and using his own unbending will as a fighter, Scott was determined to convince both his keepers and society that they simply had to let him out. He would do what no one else had, or ever thought of, and become a champion from within prison and thereby win his release.
He would do what no one else had, or ever thought of, and become a champion from within prison and thereby win his release.
James Scott in prison, 1977. (Getty Images)
It was beyond implausible, completely politically untenable, and almost insane to anyone but Scott. But the very idea, the conceit ... the story was so compelling, so unique and bold, that everyone who encountered it believed, if not in its reality, but in its promise, and its artistry. And after enough people did, it almost — almost — came closer than anyone ever imagined, except Scott, to coming true.
Once he had a goal, Scott became even more focused. He had a con's gift of persuasion and was as masterful at publicizing the idea of his comeback as he was with his gloves. As the Miami News' John Crittenden later wrote, "He had a typewriter and a tape recorder and a list of names of people who knew him before he went to prison — newspaper reporters, television announcers, gymnasium acquaintances, and friends. He wrote letters." Scott also made a lot of collect phone calls to boxing promoters. Both Bob Arum and Don King accepted the calls, but flatly refused Scott's pleas to promote one of his fights from inside Rahway.
"They told me," Scott recalled later, "‘You're not going anywhere.'"
Then one promoter from Scott's hometown fell in love with the narrative and took a chance. After a phone call from Scott, Murad R. Muhammad, once a member of Ali's entourage, agreed to promote fights from Rahway. Muhammad had recently transitioned from the fast-food business to boxing, and briefly worked for both Arum and King before starting his own promotional company.
Muhammad negotiated a fight against human punching bag Diego Roberson (2-7 with six KOs) and Hatrak accommodated. Scott resumed his professional career from inside Rahway on May 24, 1978, nearly three-and-a-half years since his last pro fight.
Scott knocked out Roberson in two rounds. For his victory that night, Scott's reward was a prison-supplied steak dinner. Muhammad then scheduled Scott's next fight in September against Fred Brown. This time Scott stood to earn $600 for defeating his opponent. Brown lasted twice as long as Roberson, getting knocked out in four rounds, but hardly anyone paid attention. A professional fight inside a prison was interesting, but may as well have taken place in private. Unless it was on TV, boxing was invisible.
That changed after Muhammad reached out to the then-No. 1-ranked light heavyweight in the world, Eddie "The Flame" Gregory, and offered him $15,000 to face Scott behind prison walls, with much of the money going to Scott's upkeep and to support the boxing program.
Scott versus a bum wasn't a story. Scott vs. Gregory was a happening, and HBO signed on to televise the fight. Scott's purse for the fight was only $2,500, but a national stage was far more valuable. Pacheco and a trainer from 5th Street Gym agreed to work Scott's corner for Gregory's "tune-up" 12-rounder.
HBO sent Merchant, a talented former writer for The Philadelphia Daily News and The New York Post, into Rahway to interview Scott leading up to the fight. Merchant got it, and prefaced the interview, framing it like a story. "James Scott is a very, very unusual man and so is the boxing program here at Rahway." he said as he looked at the camera. "Last week we came here to take an inside look at both phenomenon, a very inside look. Stone walls do a prison make here, and inside them dwells a community of outcasts."
From inside his prison cell, Scott distilled the meaning of the fight for Merchant, "Gregory is just an opportunity to expose to the public that there is somebody lurking behind the shadows waiting for his opportunity. I think about this all day long. Twenty-four hours a day, I eat, sleep and drink this. He's got his hours at the gym, girls, he's got to duck all that. All this publicity on him. Psychologically I can't see him being ready. And if he is ready, I'm ready. We're gonna fight. This guy's gotta kill me to win."
On Oct. 12, 1978, in the same auditorium at Rahway where seven years earlier convicts waged a bloody riot and seized six hostages, including the warden, inmate No. 57735 stood in one corner and the world's second best light heavyweight prize fighter stood in the other. Over 450 paying customers from outside the prison walls sat in the audience while virtually Rahway's entire inmate population watched on three large screens set up in the Drill Hall. Merchant, Don Dunphy and Sugar Ray Leonard, fresh from the Olympics and not yet a champion, sat at ringside to call the fight, the first professional fight behind bars ever televised. They expected an entertaining spectacle, little more.
Merchant turned to Dunphy, "Don, you've seen a few million fights in your time, have you ever heard of a situation like this?"
"Not really, Larry, I haven't," Dunphy said, almost apologetically. "If you were to ask me if Scott had much of a chance, I'd have to say, off the cuff, I don't think so. I just can't conceive of an inmate in a prison defeating the No. 1 light heavyweight contender. However, the important thing here is that Scott thinks he can do it."
Gregory was interviewed in his robe, surrounded by police protection, moments before he walked into the ring.
The ex-con was effusive. "This is like a homecoming for me," he said. "Everybody knows I done a little time myself. No problem. Just gonna be me and James Scott. I'm not fighting the whole prison system. I'm just fighting James Scott."
"What kinds of things did you do?" the reporter asked. "What kind of time did you do, for what?"
Gregory smiled. "Small things. Burglary, harassment, I beat up four cops. Small stuff like that."
Small stuff like that.
Gregory entered the ring first to boos and whistles.
"This room is like a little steam bath that's crowded by 400 or 500 people," Merchant remarked. "You think he feels any differently than walking to any other small fight club Sugar Ray? Having come behind these walls?"
"Well, Larry," said a very young and fragile looking Leonard, "being here, it gives me claustrophobia from the start."
Scott entered the ring in a simple black robe with a white towel hung over his freshly shaved head. After Scott was announced to the crowd, he calmly bowed politely to all four sides of the ring. Gregory didn't waste any time or energy ingratiating himself to the audience, instead he continued to bend and shake away obvious tension and nerves. As the two fighters were brought together in the center of the ring for instructions, Gregory spoke and nodded to Scott.
In return, Scott gave his opponent a death mask, the blank, thousand-mile stare of a man who has spent too much time looking at a world with no horizon, and no escape, betraying nothing in return. As Gregory turned away from Scott and approached his corner, the confidence evaporated from his face as he urgently tucked his head down and genuflected toward the corner. Gregory was a contender, the favorite, with 23 knockouts to his credit in 32 fights, yet he gave every indication of being spooked by something he'd never confronted before.
"When the opening bell sounded," Pacheco remembered from Scott's corner, "Scott roared. Literally roared. It startled Gregory. He looked at him, like — ‘Oh, shit.' After that, James was relentless. I'd never seen him like that. Those three years away from boxing — all that held-back emotion. He let it ride that night."
By the fourth round, Don Dunphy confessed to viewers, "Off of what I've seen so far, I have to wonder if Eddie Gregory took this fight seriously. Gregory is no longer smiling. He has run into a buzz saw."
"Gregory is no longer smiling. He has run into a buzz saw."
From the Drill Hall, the inmates chanted, "Kill the cocksucker!" over and over again.
Round after round, Scott refused to let up and Gregory's superior skills offered nothing more than survival. In the eighth round, Merchant turned to Dunphy, "Prison authorities here think that a Scott win will help to boost their program and get them some funds perhaps."
"It'd be a good idea even if he doesn't win," Dunphy replied. "If he loses it's going to be a close fight. He's given more than a good account of himself."
"This is testament to what will can do for a man," Merchant added.
As the bell sounded for the 11th round to begin, Scott glared across the ring at Gregory and lifted his hands over his head.
"Of course, if James Scott wins this fight and goes on to have other fights," Merchant went on, "I think you're going to see magazine articles written about him, many newspaper articles. He'll be on television. This might spread the word around the country for other institutions to start boxing programs and certainly here the warden who allowed this program to identify Scott will really help it take off."
Round 12: "This is the 12th and final round," Dunphy yelled over the crowd's cheers. "Gregory obviously needs to win by a knockout. Can he do it? Gregory, a title shot with Mike Rossman on the line, is losing this fight!"
"Without a knockout, there's an upset tonight," Sugar Ray Leonard agreed.
"There've been no knockdowns," Dunphy continued to yell. "The only real damage has been to the left eye of Eddie Gregory, outside of Eddie's feelings. And they must really be hurt. I just want to see Scott when this fight is over and they announce him a winner. Of course, my thoughts are unofficial. The judges may disagree. They have before. But I hope they don't tonight. There might be a mini-riot. And I don't mean by the inmates."
With only 47 seconds remaining, Merchant, the old sportswriter, started talking, writing a spoken lead to the remarkable story about to unfold:
"It's hard to imagine the hopes and dreams of a man like James Scott, coming to a culmination here like this. It must be an awesome feeling. There've been prisoners who've gone on to become outstanding fighters outside of prison of course. Sonny Liston, Ron Lyle, Hurricane Carter — "
"Half a minute left in the fight!" Dunphy hollered. "Scott continues, right to the end."
"But here's a man," Merchant continued, "doing it right inside prison."
Gregory, battered to exhaustion, reached out again and again for safety, submitting, holding and smothering Scott in the final moments of the fight. Scott ducked free and swung ruthlessly. Bewildered, Gregory used his last ounces of strength to avoid the blows. Scott had long since won the fight on the judges' scorecards, but he refused to coast or waste even one moment of the statement this victory would symbolize.
The crowd roared the action on until the closing bell, then mayhem broke out in the ring as photographers, reporters, officials and the men from the two fighters' corners clamored to get close to Scott, to congratulate him, to embrace the prisoner. Dunphy confessed to viewers, "This is reminiscent of heavyweight championship fights." Scott stalked from one corner to the other and raised his gloves to the audience before being mobbed. After the judges verdict of a unanimous victory for Scott was announced, Scott and Gregory threw their arms over each other as Merchant impishly got in their face with his microphone.
"You've been dreaming of this for years," Merchant said to Scott. "Working toward it. A lonely vigil, a lonely journey. What are your real feelings inside now?"
"Well," Scott paused, leaned back with his head still resting in the crook of Gregory's arm, and looked around for his warden, "I hope Mr. Hatrak will let me go home now."
Once Gregory heard the word "home," out of his agony emerged the most mischievous of smiles. Almost involuntarily, Gregory turned his smile in Scott's direction and gazed into his eyes. While Scott continued to trumpet his victory into the microphone, Gregory was no longer listening. He couldn't get past the notion of Scott returning home as the reward of this victory.
Gregory finally seemed to recognize his own role in this surreal spectacle for the first time: for 12 rounds he'd really been the genie's lamp that this man's savagery was desperately trying to rub the right way in order to gain an impossible wish. And then, almost instantly, Gregory's smile vanished in the realization of what truly distinguished Scott from himself. Gregory would be escorted out of Rahway and would sleep in his own bed that night as a free man. There would be other chances for him to climb back up the ladder toward the championship. Indeed, he would win the world title less than two years later. But Scott was going to bed in his cell that night.
Gregory hung his head, a mournful expression taking hold over his face.
Jimmy DiPiano, light heavyweight champion Mike Rossman's father and manager, was ringside. When asked whether he'd allow his son to enter Rahway and grant Scott a title shot, his response was immediate. "It's going to take an awful, awful lot of money before I'll let my son in the same ring with that monster."
V. A Modest Proposal
"Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."--Red in conversation with Andy Dufresne prior to Andy's jailbreak from The Shawshank Redemption "Remember, Red, hope is a good thing and no good thing ever dies." ––Andy Dufresne in a letter uncovered by Red after Andy’s jailbreak
"On that day," Harold Lederman recalled over the phone, 34 years after he judged Scott's victory over Gregory from ringside, "I thought James Scott was the greatest light heavyweight I ever saw in my life. That's how great he was. On that one day when he beat Gregory, he was the best light heavyweight I ever saw. I never saw a performance like that — anywhere. I don't think Bob Foster was as good as that. I don't think Archie Moore was that good. He was prepared like I never saw in my life. What happened just ruined the career of a possibly great athlete. There's no doubt that he was his own worst enemy. He probably ruined his own life. He has nobody to blame but himself. It's a strange story."
"On that one day when he beat Gregory, he was the best light heavyweight I ever saw. I never saw a performance like that — anywhere."
James Scott, circa 1979. (Via the Emhoff Collection)
And that's all it was, and had ever been, a story. But Scott's destruction of Gregory made it more. Selling Scott as a fantasy to inmates, a fairytale by television executives, a symbol by writers, or a lurid sideshow by promoters was one thing. But after the Gregory fight, everything got real and everyone finally had to take Scott and the implications of cheering him on seriously. The idea of Scott's redemption transcended sport. But the hard fact of Scott's redemption coming true was this: even if he won the championship, a man was still dead that he probably murdered in cold blood. And that was as untenable in the boxing world as it was in the real world. Everyone wanted to make money from his story, but nobody wanted to be responsible for letting a convicted armed robber and soon-to-be-retried-and-convicted murderer out of prison. Scott had always framed his American dream as a pregnancy, an immaculate conception seeking out a miraculous birth, when in reality, it was a hysterical pregnancy, a shared fiction. And after the Gregory fight, anyone who could have been held responsible for it coming true was hell bent on terminating the illusion.
Predictably, after the fight, People, Esquire, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated swarmed Rahway and circulated Scott's story across the country. Rahway was flooded with letters from around the world addressed to the prison's most famous inmate and a month after upsetting Gregory, in November of 1978, Scott made the World Boxing Association's top 10, ranked No. 8 in the world. But that didn't mean more legitimate contenders or certainly a champion would ever agree to fight Scott at Rahway again. Although other TV networks like CBS and NBC clamored to get Scott and Rahway back on TV, with only ABC deferring, Scott's happily-ever-after ending was already over. No matter what Scott's ranking was in the world of boxing, he was still inmate No. 57735.
For Scott, then 32, parole, at best, was three long years away. He didn't have that much time. In his mind, to secure a title shot meant convincing Rahway's classification committee that he was deserving of "full minimum" status, and entitled to work furloughs and the right to ply his trade in advance of any parole, fighting at the Meadowlands or Atlantic City or anywhere else inside the state of New Jersey. Hatrak even discussed an "exceptional case" provision with the press. In Scott's mind, that meant that when he won the title he would also somehow win his release and be reborn. Magical thinking.
In March of 1979, Scott did everything he could as a fighter to solidify his petition to be viewed as an "exceptional case," knocking out seasoned contender Richie Kates on CBS. A month later, however, Scott suffered a terrible setback when his biggest supporter, Hatrak, was dismissed as superintendent of Rahway and reassigned to a desk job. Corrections Commissioner William Fauver said Hatrak was "too interested" in the publicity surrounding his Scared Straight program, and criticized his management style at Rahway, saying "You have to run it like a prison, not Hollywood."
Scott, Hatrak's biggest star, then received worse news when he learned of Hatrak's replacement. Years before, when Scott was in Trenton State Prison, a guard brought assault charges against Scott for striking another inmate with a pipe and Scott was sent to the hole. After years of glacial advancement through the state prison ranks, the guard, Sidney Hicks, was promoted to Rahway superintendent. Now Scott had no advocate inside the penal system. There was no more talk from the warden of making Scott an "exceptional case."
As Scott explained to Esquire, "They locked me up. I came to prison. I just about punched my way out of prison. But they got me going every which way. This administration says I'm not an exceptional individual and the only way they can grant me full minimum is if I was an exceptional case. If I'm not an exceptional case, I don't know who is. If a guy can pick himself up in a place like this — the mud of civilization — if a guy is able to rise above that, then that should be what they're trying to encourage every inmate to do."
Scott hired attorney Richard Malgran with what was left of the proceeds he'd received prize fighting to plead his case, file an appeal and ask for his release on bail. It didn't help. Judge Richard Sclera denied it, saying, "The emotional appeal is a great one — the man has a chance to be a champion among men. But I myself cast aside emotion. Scott's past social behavior outweighs what he has accomplished in prison. I don't think Mr. Scott has had an easy life. I don't think there's any question that Mr. Scott has deviated himself to being a boxer ... yet I am faced with his disciplinary records."
Calls of support poured into the Rahway State Boxing Association office. Scott read from notes he'd prepared that morning: "If James Scott can rehabilitate himself despite all odds, then institutions and agencies should be more supportive. And if they're not, then we have a case against them. If you kill all hope, then rehabilitation is a myth. Don't worry, this is not over yet. This is only round one."
But it was over. Scott was already out on his feet. He just didn't know it yet. The powers that be had every intention of putting Scott away for good before any second round.
Oh, they still let him fight and make money for other people. In 1979, NBC did enormous numbers showcasing Scott's knockout victories over Bunny Johnson and Ennio Cometti. The WBA still listed Scott as the world's No. 2 contender for the championship, and the following month, then light heavyweight champion Victor Galindez was stripped of his title for pulling out of an ABC fight.
Yaqui Lopez was the No. 1 contender and Murad Muhammad already had a fight between Scott and Lopez scheduled for Dec. 1 on NBC. Scott's promoter asked that the bout be changed to a 15-round championship fight for the vacant WBA title.
While Scott saw opportunity knocking at his door, the boxing world finally decided to take him out. Faced with the reality of a potential champion behind bars, the WBA, for the first time, raised the issue of Scott's criminal record. Suddenly, they concluded that the notion of a jailhouse fighter — at least this jailhouse fighter — set a bad example for the sport, and fighting in prison put his opponents at a disadvantage.
They held a vote and Scott lost on a decision, 60 votes to 1, to strip him of his earned rating as a contender for the title. The WBA was so giddy after ridding themselves of Scott they turned around and reinstated Galindez as champion.
In protest, Scott retired. He told The New York Times, "The WBA stripped me of my ranking and will not let me fight for the championship as long as I'm in prison. So, as long as I'm in here, I won't fight. The week before last they denied me bail, last week they took my rating away. I worked so hard for it and white folks just took it away from me over a conversation. They waited for me to win a lot of fights and then took my rating away. The black people all over the country don't get justice. If the WBA wanted me not to fight, they should have never rated me."
But there was still money to be made off Scott. If anything, he was more popular than ever, his "struggle" making him a martyr, the uncrowned king. Scott unretired in December and fought Lopez at Rahway on NBC Sports World to huge ratings. Marv Albert and Ken Norton called the fight. James Brown, the King of Soul, sang an impromptu national anthem off camera. It was better than the movies, and just as removed from reality.
As the referee gave instructions to the two fighters brought together in the middle of the ring, Lopez, despite having fought 15 rounds for the title three grueling times, wanted no part of any eye contact with Scott's calm death stare. Lopez bowed his head and quickly turned around to soak up as much time as he could in his corner praying on his knees before the opening bell. Scott had charged halfway across the ring just as Lopez got to his feet.
After the final bell, before the judges named Scott the winner on all the scorecards by decisive margins, he marched over to the ropes and raised his hands to the audience, calling out "I'm the champ!" All 1,100 of Scott's fellow Rahway prisoners in the Drill Hall, close enough to hear from ringside, but protected enough not to see, gave him a standing ovation.
It would be Scott's last fight to end in such celebration. Without a title, without a way out, Scott finally faltered. After a five-and-a-half month layoff, he lost his next fight, on May 25, 1980, to Jerry "the Bull" Martin, and the following January was retried for the murder of Everett Russ. He never testified, was convicted and then sentenced to life on March 20, 1981, and the whole marvelous story started to unravel. Then writer Norman Mailer championed prison author Jack Abbott, a murderer, and helped secure his release from prison. At first it seemed like a godsend. The parallels with Scott were obvious. If a brilliant talent like Abbott could get out of jail, why not Scott?
The answer came as quickly and decisively as a knife in the heart. On July 18, 1981, six weeks after being released and the same day his memoir of prison letters, "In the Belly of the Beast" received a favorable review in The New York Times, Abbott argued with a waiter over the use of a bathroom and stabbed him to death. So much for rehabilitation ...
One month later, Scott got revenge on David Lee Royster, but by then Royster was a journeyman and the closing credits were already rolling. He fought one more time, on Sept. 5, 1981, facing Dwight Braxton. Braxton was a protégé of sorts, a convicted robber who Scott had tutored in boxing at Rahway. After being paroled, Braxton (who later changed his name to Dwight Muhammad Qawi) turned pro, training in Joe Frazer's gym in Philadelphia and was on the way up.
It was a hard fight to watch. From the opening bell, Braxton fought as though he were auditioning for the role of James Scott in a movie adaptation of "Boxing Behind Bars" against Eddie Gregory. Scott was outgunned, but still managed to stay on his feet. After fighting to survive for several rounds, Scott came on in the last few rounds and the people in the audience who stood up to cheer never sat back down.
There would be no parole. No second act. There would be nothing else but another 24 years in prison.
James Scott at his Hall of Fame induction in 2012. (Via Henry Hascup)
In Scott's final round, he fought what was left of his broken heart out there for everyone to see. As the final bell rang, Scott threw up his hands in exhaustion. Braxton laughed in his face, the clear winner.
Both men knew what the decision meant. The uncrowned king, but for the fact he had killed a man, now wasn't even the best boxer to come out of Rahway State Prison. The paying customers were escorted out of the auditorium, the prisoners returned to their cells, the lights went off and the TV cameras left. They never came back. There would be no parole. No second act. There would be nothing else but another 24 years in prison, a cruel sentence to a man with a stillborn record of 19-2-1 in the ring, and a murder on his conscience making none of it matter. In 1984, he was transferred from Rahway to Trenton State Prison and then, later, to South Woods State Prison. The reporters who once flocked to him forgot, and in the finals decades of his sentence he gave few interviews.
"I'm in a cell with two other guys," he told one reporter near the end of his prison term, "and James Scott doesn't mean anything to them. "I'm not popular anymore," he joked.
"But I've done my time, 27 years of it. I should be out. But this is the hand I've been dealt. It's a bad hand, but it's my only one. You have to look through the manure to find something good. You know the old saying about the world being a stage and we're merely players? Well, I believe we have a part to play, and this is my destiny."
Scott was released from prison, his time served, in 2005, at the age of 58. In 2012, Scott was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. He currently resides in a New Jersey nursing home, suffering from dementia, with less and less awareness of his surroundings.
If a boxer achieves anything approaching artistry in his craft, we must accept that his finest works are canvasses stained with human blood. Yet before James Scott offered up his masterpiece against Eddie Gregory in the ring, he also spilled the blood of a dead man, Everett Russ, inside his car.
It's hard to know, today, which memory is engraved deeper in Scott's mind and what emotions fasten them there. Maybe, at long last, there's some kind of overdue mercy in finally being able to let go, finally to be free of both.
Brin-Jonathan Butler, pictured, has written for Men's Health, ESPN Magazine, Deadspin, Salon, Victory Journal, and Vice. Picador USA is publishing "A Cuban Boxer's Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro's Traitor to American Champion" on June 3, 2014 which is available for preorder on Amazon.com. Twitter: @brincio
Kurt Emhoff, is an attorney at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman whose boxing clients have included world champions Winky Wright, Cory Spinks, Paulie Malignaggi, Luis Collazo, and Peter "Kid Chocolate" Quillin. In addition to practicing law, he has contributed articles to the on-line publications ESPN.com, sportingnews.com, maxboxing.com and secondsout.com. Before he became a lawyer, he demonstrated his freakish knowledge of boxing by winning a national trivia contest sponsored by Ring Magazine.
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