The All-Prison Boxing Team

15.11.06 - By W. Gregory Guedel: Boxing is a rough sport. As such, it attracts more than its share of rough characters, both in and out of the ring. Acts of brutal violence that would be considered felonious anywhere else are both expected and celebrated as part of The Sweet Science. However, it is not always easy for fighters trained to inflict pain and destruction to turn off their aggression after the final bell has sounded. As a result, the roll call of professional boxing’s elite is replete with names that were (or are) also present on a roll of a different sort – a list of penitentiary inmates.

The following selection of fighters represent world champions or top-flight contenders who served time either before, after, or during their ring careers. Covering eight weight classes, they are a formidable crew that could compete in any era – and some of them still do.


Charles “Sonny” Liston. Given that Muhammad Ali vaulted to legendary status by defeating him, it is easy to forget what a dominant Heavyweight Sonny Liston was for most of his career. His menacing persona was enhanced by his devastating performances in the ring, where he dispatched top-level fighters like Cleveland Williams, Zora Folley, and Heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson with brutal efficiency. Possessing an outstanding jab and knockout power in both hands, Liston utilized a combination of strength and skill to demolish opponents. Also overlooked is the fact that after his fights with Ali, Liston went undefeated for four more years until losing to Leotis Martin in 1969. His early life was troubled, with a lack of money and schooling leading to numerous arrests for various offenses, until he was given a longer stretch in prison in 1950 for armed robbery. Liston took up boxing in prison under the tutelage of a Catholic priest who worked with inmates, and upon his release he embarked on his career. As a contender, Liston was again jailed in 1957 for six months after an altercation with a police officer, but once parole was granted he battered his way to the Heavyweight title. Liston ended his career with a record of 50-4, 39 knockouts, and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.

“Honorable” Mention: Mike Tyson, Ron Lyle, Ike Ibeabuchi.


Dwight Muhammad Qawi. A fearsome force both in this division and as a Light Heavyweight, the fighter formerly known as Dwight Braxton was nicknamed “The Camden Buzzsaw” for his ferocious combination of power and pressure. Qawi learned to box while serving time for armed robbery in New Jersey’s Rahway State Penitentiary, and turned professional upon his release. Within four years he TKO’d Matthew Saad Muhammad for the WBC Light Heavyweight title. After dropping a close decision to Michael Spinks in 1983 (in which he became the first fighter to put Spinks on the canvas), he moved up to Cruiserweight and became WBA champion in 1985. His subsequent unification match with Evander Holyfield is considered one of the greatest action bouts of all time, and provided a fitting close to the era of 15-round championship matches. Qawi was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004.


James “Great” Scott. James Scott is perhaps unique in the annals of boxers who have spent time inside prison walls. Unlike most fighters who fought professionally either before or after being incarcerated, Scott actually had several high-profile fights while he was incarcerated. Scott was an up-and-coming Light Heavyweight before being convicted of armed robbery in the mid-1970s. He was confined to the same Rahway Penitentiary that spawned the career of Dwight Qawi, and took advantage of the institution’s boxing program to keep his championship hopes alive. Intrigued by the compelling storyline of a fighter battling from behind bars, NBC arranged to televise a fight between Scott and top Light Heavyweight contender Eddie “The Flame” Gregory (later known as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad) in 1978. With his fellow inmates cheering from behind thick glass partitions, Scott pounded out a 12-round decision win. Scott fought his way up to a No. 2 world ranking before the WBA, unnerved by the prospect of its champion residing in jail, stripped him of his ranking in 1979. Ironically, Scott’s last major fight came against Rahway alumnus Dwight Qawi, who defeated him in 1981.


Carlos Monzon. Considered by many to be the greatest Middleweight champion of all time, Carlos “Escopeta” Monzon captured the crown in 1970 and reeled off a then-record 14 title defenses. His dominance was made more impressive by the world-class opposition he faced, with victories coming over the likes of Nino Benvenuti, Emile Griffith, and Jose Napoles. Retiring as champion in 1977, his life outside the ring had already become turbulent. His first wife had shot him in the leg during an altercation while he still held the title, and in 1989 Monzon was convicted for the homicide of his second wife. Monzon was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, while still serving his sentence in an Argentinean prison. He perished in an automobile crash in 1995 while returning to prison from a weekend furlough.

“Honorable” Mention: Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins; Rubin “Hurricane” Carter; Michael “Second To” Nunn.


Tony Ayala Jr. “El Torito” came roaring onto the professional scene out of San Antonio in 1980 and quickly left a wake of destruction, terrorizing opponents with his overwhelming aggression and power punching. In less than three years he amassed a record of 22-0 with 19 knockouts, 14 of them within the first three rounds. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1981, and fought on the undercard of Leonard-Hearns I. After defeating Carlos Herrera in Atlantic City in November of 1982, Ayala was poised for a title shot against Junior Middleweight champion Davey Moore. The bout never happened. In 1983 Ayala was sentenced to 35 years in prison for burglary and assault. In 1999, he was released on parole and resumed his ring career as a middle-aged Middleweight, winning five bouts before being stopped by Yory Boy Campas in 2000. He fought and won four more times before losing his last bout in 2003 to Anthony Bonsante for the IBA Super Middleweight title. After having been shot in the shoulder and accused of statutory rape during his second boxing career, Ayala returned to prison in 2004 on a ten-year sentence for parole violations.


Pernell Whitaker. Following an outstanding amateur campaign that culminated in a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker embarked on a professional career worthy of the Hall of Fame. An absolute master of defensive boxing, Whitaker was virtually unreachable throughout his prime. He reigned as undisputed Lightweight champion in the early 1990s and went on to win world titles at Light Welterweight and Welterweight, defeating big-time opposition including Greg Haugen, Azumah Nelson, and Buddy McGirt along the way. In his most controversial fight, he was viewed by most observers to have comprehensively outboxed the legendary and undefeated Julio Cesar Chavez in their 1993 match, but the bout was declared a draw. After losing a decision to Oscar De La Hoya in 1997, Sweet Pea began to be hampered by drug abuse. His victory over Andrei Pestriaev later that year was overturned after his post-fight sample tested positive for cocaine. Subsequent drug problems led to a conviction and 27-month prison sentence for probation violations. Whitaker now trains professional fighters in Virginia.

“Honorable” Mention: Paul Spadafora, former IBF champion, now resuming his career on parole after being convicted of shooting his girlfriend in the abdomen outside a Pittsburgh gas station.


Diego Corrales. “Chico” Corrales is easily the most active fighter in this group, his only break coming in 2001 when he began serving 14 months in prison for assault on his ex-wife. Prior to that, he held the IBF Super Featherweight title for approximately two years before losing to Floyd Mayweather in January 2001. His incarceration commenced a few months later. Upon his release, Corrales returned to the ring and much success. In 2004 he won the WBO Super Featherweight title in a rematch with Joel Casamayor. He then moved up to Lightweight and captured the WBC and WBO titles with a 10th round TKO of Jose Luis Castillo in May of 2005. He lost a rematch to an overweight Castillo later that year, and then had a third fight cancelled when Castillo again weighed in too heavy. Corrales complained bitterly about Castillo’s failure to get down to the required weight for the fight, and Castillo was subsequently suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. In October of this year, Corrales lost a split decision to Joel Casamayor in their rubber-match, a fight in which Corrales himself ironically failed to make weight.


Naseem Hamed. “Prince” Naseem was one of the most exciting fighters of the 1990s. With an unorthodox style and one-punch knockout power, Hamed variously held the WBC, IBF, and WBO Featherweight titles until the turn of the 21st Century. He ran his record to 35-0 with 31 KOs, including multiple-knockdown performances against Kevin Kelly and others. His later fights were known as much for the action outside the ring as inside, with his exceedingly elaborate ring entrances sometimes lasting longer than the actual fight. Hamed was partial to entering the arena above the crowd on a “flying carpet” while a laser and music show dazzled the senses. He was brought to earth in 2001 by Marco Antonio Barrera, who inflicted Hamed’s first loss in a rather dominating performance. The Prince fought one more time, winning a lackluster decision over journeyman Manuel Calvo in 2002, and then disappeared from the boxing scene. In 2005, after seriously injuring another driver and passenger in a car crash, a hefty-looking Hamed was convicted of dangerous driving by a London court and sentenced to 15 months incarceration. He was released amidst some controversy after only serving 4 months in prison, with the remainder of his sentence to be served under house arrest.

“Honorable” Mention: Scott Harrison, whose recent release from a Spanish prison clears the way for a December defense of his WBO title against Nicky Cook.

Article posted on 15.11.2006

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