James Scott, Once a Famous Prison Boxer, Died Free but Virtually Anonymous

James Scott, suffering from dementia, passed away last week at a New Jersey nursing home. For a few years in the late 1970s, Scott, prisoner No. 57735 in New Jersey’s most notorious maximum-security correctional facility, Rahway State Prison, was the toast of boxing and the source of much speculation as to what he might have become had his special gift for controlled violence inside the ring been allowed to flourish outside of Rahway’s high and guarded walls.

But Scott’s improbable brush with celebrity quickly faded after warden Robert S. Hatrak, who had instituted the boxing program at Rahway as another means of rehabilitating inmates who otherwise might not be able to stick to the straight and narrow in the real world, was reassigned to a desk job in April 1979. Although the Rahway boxing program remained in place a while longer, the demotion of Hatrak, his primary supporter, and the decision by WBA officials five months later to remove him from that sanctioning body’s ratings (he was then its No. 2 light heavyweight contender), all but ended Scott’s dream of becoming a world champion while behind bars, a turn of events he believed would be the conduit to his accelerated release and a fresh start in which he would be able to fulfill his destiny free and unencumbered.

Although Scott – who had seven nationally televised bouts while in prison, which made him something of a media darling, or at least a high-visibility curiosity item – decided to return to training after a brief, self-imposed retirement, his heart had gone out of the quest that had become his life’s mission. He lost two of his final three bouts, all of which were staged at Rahway, on a 10-round unanimous decision to Jerry “The Bull” Martin on May 25, 1980, and, in his farewell to the sport, a 10-round unanimous decision to Dwight Braxton (later known as Dwight Muhammad Qawi) on Sept. 5, 1981. His final record would forever stand at 19-2-1 with 10 victories inside the distance.

First incarcerated at 13 for truancy and later branded as an incorrigible, Scott, born into grinding poverty in Newark, N.J., finally was released from South Woods State Prison in 2005 after serving a 28-year sentence. His name again made the news when he was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012, but the last vestiges of whatever fame he once enjoyed had all but dissipated when he passed away on May 8. He was, depending on which version you choose to believe, 70 (as listed by boxrec.com) or 72 (according to the Miami Herald) or maybe 66 (according to a fight program when he fought Kirkland Rolle in 1974, during one of his periodic tastes of freedom).

How good was Scott as a fighter? Or, more to the point, how good might he have been were it not for his constrained circumstances? The height of Scott’s fame came on the night of Oct. 12, 1978, when Eddie Gregory (later known as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad), the WBA’s No. 1-ranked light heavyweight contender who was in line for a shot at titlist Mike Rossman, made the mistake of agreeing to a presumably quick and easy $15,000 payday against the locked-up Scott (who was to be paid $2,500). It was a strange event, so strange that a relatively new premium-cable boxing operation known as HBO Sports dispatched a crew fronted by legendary blow-by-blow announcer Don Dunphy and commentators Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard to describe the action in the first boxing match ever televised from inside a prison. Over 450 paying customers from outside Rahway’s walls jammed the same auditorium where seven years earlier convicts had rioted and taken seven hostages, including the warden. The live audience did not include Rahway’s 1,150 other inmates, who watched on three large screens set up in the Drill Hall, but even they had scant expectations that one of their own could actually upset Gregory, a 1-4 favorite. Even the convict bookmakers went against the house fighter, with bettors siding with Scott hoping to collect three cartons of cigarettes, the favored currency of the incarcerated, for one wagered.

Gregory, who had spent a bit of time in  prison himself for what he described as “small things,” like burglary and “beating up four cops,” didn’t think he had much to worry about. “They say Scott is tough, but how tough can he be?” Gregory, now a highly regarded trainer, rhetorically asked Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam. “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. I’ll carry him for 11 rounds before I knock him out.”

As it turned out, it was the overconfident and well-battered Gregory who was looking for the exit – which, fortunately for him, he could take at the scheduled 12-round bout’s conclusion – as the final seconds ticked down.  Boxing suddenly had a new and unique star, and it was the guy with the shaved skull, sculpted body, malevolent glare and long armed-robbery prison sentence made longer by a parole violation.

Harold Lederman, HBO’s longtime “unofficial” judge, was at ringside for the Scott-Gregory fight and not only was he impressed by what he had seen of the winner, he was blown away. In a 2014 telephone interview with reporters Brin-Jonathan Butler and Kurt Emhoff, Lederman said his first impression was that Scott had a chance to become the greatest 175-pounder of all time, if afforded the opportunity.

“On that day, I thought James Scott was the greatest light heavyweight I ever saw in my life,” Lederman recalled. “That’s how great he was. I don’t think Bob Foster was as good as that. I don’t think Archie Moore was that good.”

It wasn’t the first time that Scott had awed knowledgeable boxing people with his seemingly bottomless well of natural talent. Released from Rahway on a work-parole program on Jan. 8, 1974, Scott – who had beaten all comers in prison, but still had not made his pro debut – was looking for a way to attract some insider’s attention. Signed to a managerial contract by Miami architect Murray Gaby and somehow paroled out of state to Florida, he walked into the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach where he talked his way into a sparring session against a much-larger heavyweight. He kayoed the guy, won his first eight pro bouts, and already was being ducked by would-be opponents.

“It was a nightmare trying to find someone who would get in the ring with him,” Gaby said. “It was horrible what (promoter) Chris Dundee had to pay people to fight that animal.” It surely was; Dundee offered light heavyweight champ Bob Foster $100,000 to defend his belt against Scott.

But sometimes when things seem too good to be true, harsher realities have a way of intruding. A parole violation landed Scott back in the clink, prompting a 3½-year absence from the ring until his new promoter, Murad Muhammad, made arrangements through Hatrak to stage some low-level (read: non-televised) fights at Rahway. The revelatory performance against Gregory would come later.

Predictably, reporters from around the country wanted to hear the James Scott story from the man himself, and I was one of them. Working for another newspaper before I got my dream gig as the boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, I arranged for a telephone interview with Scott in which he described what he said was a nightly dream.

“It will happen. It is my fate to become the champion of the world,” he told me in July 1980. “You can hold something down for only so long, but you can’t fight fate. A flower will even grow up through cement, if it’s meant to be.”

Not that he said it in so many words, but it was clear that Scott perceived himself as the flower in his analogy, struggling to break through a wall of official and unofficial resistance that would for many more years confine him to a nine-by-five-foot cell. Although he was not convicted of the murder of Everett Russ in Newark, he was called in for questioning by Newark police on May 8, 1975 (ironically, 43 years to the day before his death) after a passing motorist took down the license plate number of a car registered in Scott’s name. Scott said he knew nothing of the night that Russ was gunned down on the street, that he had only loaned the car to a friend who earlier that evening was involved in an armed robbery of which he had no knowledge and in which he did not participate.  A jury was unconvinced by Scott’s protestations of innocence and he was convicted of the robbery, although they were split on the more serious murder charge. Despite beating the rap on the homicide, Scott, as a multiple offender, was sentenced by Judge Ralph L. Fusco to a 30- to 40-year prison term.

It’s difficult to get a good read on a person during a relatively short telephone interview. Scott was a convincing self-promoter, saying many of the same things I would hear later from another vastly gifted fighter, super welterweight contender Tony Ayala Jr., of whom I also wanted to believe had a better side to his nature than the uncontrollable rage that deprived him of a huge chunk of a possible Hall of Fame career.

“A lot of people resented the idea of my making money while I was in prison,” Scott said. “They didn’t feel I was being punished enough. What am I going to spend it on, anyway? People on the outside just want the people on the inside to be punished all the time.

“If you discourage wrong, you have to encourage right. I’ve been trying to do right. But it didn’t work that way. It never has. What good does it do for society to throw a man in prison for 10 or 15 years to rot, then stick him back on the streets with $50 in his pocket? The only thing that man knows is crime, and he’s going to go back to what he knows. It’s a vicious cycle.”

It is, however, a cycle that can be broken if the intention to change by past offenders is strong enough to resist whatever inclination might arise to revert to the old ways. Bernard Hopkins got his act together for the betterment of himself and boxing, and so did Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Dwight Muhammad Qawi. That Scott falls into the crowded category of potential standouts who failed to achieve all they might have in boxing makes him more comparable to Ayala and Ike Ibeabuchi than to Hopkins, Mustafa Muhammad and Muhammad Qawi. If only Scott had listened to his own advice at the time we spoke, there is a strong possibility he might actually have achieved everything that once seemed to be almost within his grasp.

“I don’t want to look back after 20 years and say all I did was make a bunch of license plates,” he said 38 years ago. “What me and the rest of the guys in the boxing program are trying to do is go beyond rehabilitation. It’s a matter of human dignity. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about that.”

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