OF MARITAL, MARTIAL & MEMORY

I have a hard time remembering my wedding anniversary. Guy thing, right? In my own defense, however, there are a couple of very real and reasonably acceptable (if you ask me, anyway) excuses for this lack of certainty concerning my marriage date. The first of these is that, owing to my advancing age, I cannot be expected to remember each and every significant event in my life anymore. Plus, it was a very long time ago; nearly four decades. And, again in my own defense, I can recall the date very easily, to within a day or two of the day that it actually occurred. I know for a fact that my wedding took place nearer to the middle of October than to the beginning or the end; I can just never seem to be sure whether the date was October 12 or October 14. Give me props, at least, for knowing, as well as a thing can be known, that there are fully 29 days in October (more days than are contained in the entire month of February!) that I am quite certain did not coincide with my nuptials. And I know the year. It was 1978. I’m pretty sure…

Reason being, and here’s where the uncertainty comes in, that October 12, 1978, just two days before my marriage, is the day that I went to Rahway State Prison. No, I hadn’t decided to knock off a liquor store on the way back from getting my wedding suit dry-cleaned. I was there to witness a professional light-heavyweight boxing match between top-ranked contender Eddie Gregory (who would soon become Eddie Mustafa Muhammad) and a highly-ranked challenger named James Scott. The reason that this nationally-televised prizefight was taking place in Rahway State Prison instead of Madison Square Garden, or some other, more appropriate venue, had to do with the fact that Scott was then an inmate at Rahway for his alleged involvement in an armed robbery and murder. The bout took place in the prison gymnasium in front of a few-hundred civilian spectators, officials and press. Possibly another hundred or so inmates were gathered upon the caged second-tier mezzanine which surrounded the gym, with the rest of the prison population watching on closed-circuit TV in the auditorium. It was as surreal a setting, and occasion, to which I have ever been privy.

I interviewed James Scott several times at the prison, and being there was something I never got used to; not that I ever really wanted to. The admittance procedure rarely varied; one had to pass through several heavily guarded checkpoints, featuring a variety of x-ray and metal-detecting machinery. At the final checkpoint, a guard sitting at a desk with a stamp and ink pad said, “Make sure you get your hand stamped. If you don’t, we can’t let you out.” Needless to say, I was always extremely diligent about getting the back of my hand stamped. The first time I interviewed Scott was in his cell, and I found him to be intelligent, articulate, and charming, and as willing to speak about his checkered past and incarcerations as he was eager to discuss his promising boxing career.

James Scott

I remember a police officer friend once telling me that every prison is filled with innocent people; if you ask them, anyway. After having spent considerable time with Scott, he’d convinced me that he was innocent of all charges. And there was at least some evidence which supported his version of the events that had led him to Rahway, among several other prisons he’d called home for the majority of his life. What had put him into Rahway Prison was the fact that his car had apparently been used in the robbery/murder which led to his conviction. Through James, I met his brother Malcolm, who was serving a life sentence at Rahway, and was head of the famed Lifer’s Group, which created the much publicized Scared Straight program. The Scared Straight guys periodically entertained troubled youth from the community and did their best to literally “scare them straight,” and thus away from potential lives of crime, through their violent, graphic, no-holds-barred depictions of life behind bars.

James Scott was born in The Brick City of Newark, NJ and received his very first pair of boxing gloves from his uncle, at age ten. Unfortunately, James never really got the chance to use them back then because, by the age of 13, he had plotted a course of crime which would lead to his spending more than forty years of his life behind bars. He was in and out of juvenile detention facilities, and began boxing during his initial stay at Trenton State Prison, as part of the state of New Jersey’s job training program. By the early 70s, Scott had become light-heavyweight champion of the New Jersey prison system and in 1974, he was released on parole and allowed to pursue the career for which he had already exhibited considerable talent. He left for Miami Beach, Florida, where he soon found his way to that city’s famous 5th Street Gym and hooked up with legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee. Dundee was then in the process of training Muhammad Ali for the second of Ali’s three epic battles with Joe Frazier, but agreed to take the young light-heavyweight under his wing.

Scott amassed a record of 10-0-1 between 1974 and 1975. But he decided to head back to New Jersey to continue his fight career, where he soon heard that police wanted to speak to him about something related to his car. By now well on his way to becoming a world-famous boxer, Scott willingly visited the local police station without an attorney, thinking that this was some minor technicality which would soon be resolved. Instead, he was placed under arrest again, because his car had been discovered in the vicinity of a robbery and murder; the seats were covered in blood and riddled with bullet holes. James maintained that he had loaned his car to a friend, but repeatedly refused to identify the individual. Nine months later, a jury convicted Scott of the robbery, and, though the DA failed to secure a conviction on the murder charge, Scott was nonetheless sentenced to spend the next 30-40 years at Rahway.

Flash forward to October 12, 1978… Eddie Gregory was next in line for a shot at the light-heavyweight crown then worn by Mike Rossman. Rossman had fought champion Victor Galindez the previous month, on the undercard to the Ali-Spinks rematch, and few gave him any chance of defeating the skillful and powerful Galindez. But Rossman managed to open cuts over Galindez’s eyes relatively early in the match, and the fight was stopped in the 13th round, with Rossman being declared the winner via TKO. Gregory’s bout against Scott at Rahway was seen as little more than a tune-up on Eddie’s road-trip to his ultimate destination: the Light-Heavyweight Championship of the world. Literally no one gave James Scott even a Cheese-Doodle’s chance at a rodent convention of defeating Eddie Gregory. Gregory himself said of his incarcerated opponent, “They say Scott is tough, but how tough can he be? So he fought a couple of stiffs inside the walls and he knocked them out… And now he wants to fight the top contender… I’ll carry him for 11 rounds and knock him out in the twelfth. It’ll be a good workout.”

News of the first professional prizefight to be staged within prison walls spread like crazy and a fledgling cable network with the head-scratching name of Home Box Office leapt at the opportunity to televise what they dubbed “Boxing Behind Bars.” They sent their A-Team to cover the event, including budding TV fight analyst Larry Merchant, legendary boxing announcer Don Dunphy, the voice of Friday Night Fights, and a charismatic young boxer who had won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic games, named Sugar Ray Leonard. I, too, was at ringside, right on the ring apron crouched next to the photographer from Sports Illustrated and his assistant, whose job it was to frantically change film for the five motorized Nikon F2s (three color, two black-and-white) which were then the gold standard for sports photographers.

Scott vs. GregoryThough the fight went the distance, it really wasn’t close. Scott started strong, coasted through the middle rounds, then dominated the bout from rounds eight through 12 to win in a unanimous decision. It was a crushing defeat for the number-one contender, who saw his dream of taking Mike Rossman’s title vanish in the space of 12 rounds, at the hands of a man Gregory wasn’t even compelled to fight. As the top-ranked light-heavyweight, he was already at the head of the line for a championship bout with Rossman. But no more. Though Gregory (by then, Mustafa Muhammad) would eventually win the title in 1980 via an 11th round TKO of then champion Marvin Johnson, many said he was never the same man after that night at Rahway State Prison. He lost the title in 1981 to up-and-comer Michael Spinks, who would go on, after ten successful defenses of his title, to beat Larry Holmes, thus becoming the first reigning light-heavyweight champion to capture a heavyweight championship. Spinks brother Leon, you may recall, had previously defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship in one of the most dramatic upsets in boxing history.

As for the victorious James Scott, he never got to fight for the title either. As champion, Rossman could choose the venue for any of his title fights, and after having seen Scott dismantle Gregory the way he had, the Champ absolutely refused to travel to Rahway Prison to fight James. Scott tried valiantly to convince him to do otherwise, and when Rossman refused to budge, Scott applied for a special work-release program, which would allow him to pursue a career outside prison walls. Unfortunately, time and time again, his petition was denied. The World Boxing Association eventually stripped him of his ranking; Scott retired, unretired, was allowed briefly to fight again, won and lost. Time, age, and prison bars finally won out. James Scott was eventually released from prison in 2005, at the age of 58, 59, or 60, depending upon which account you believe, and in 2012 he was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. He currently resides in a NJ nursing home, where Scott is slowly losing his toughest fight, to dementia.

I don’t know if James Scott was guilty of robbery or murder; make no mistake about it, though, there is evidence indicating that he may well have committed both. But I am grateful to this day that I had the opportunity to get to know him, just a little, and to witness, up-close, a great fighter performing at the height of his powers. Though there is conflicting documentation concerning the year of his birth (some cite 1947 while others report 1948 or ’49) documentary agreement exists concerning the day that James Scott came into this world. That day is October 17th.

Great. Another mid-October date to further cloud my murky marital memory.

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