The Most Celebrated Fighters To Have Learnt Their Trade Behind Bars

The stone cold, iron bars that make up a prison cell are no place for the faint-hearted to be put behind. The lonely, darkened cell, the tough times, the hard times, the times of despair – what kind of man can survive such an experience and go on to live a fruitful life? Well, as it turns out, as it has turned out a number of times, a fighting man, a man willing to improve himself by working hard enough to be able to call himself a boxer, can do it.

Throughout the long, long history of boxing, of The Sweet Science, quite a few one-time prison inmates, men who seemed to have no future, who seemed to have no worthy qualities, came out of jail transformed, reborn as truly great prizefighters. With so much time on their hands, with nothing much else to do but train (and maybe read), these special people chose to devote their days, their weeks, their months, their years to learning how to fight; legally, for glory and for money – for a shot at redemption. And how their tales of reinvention have so inspired us.

Men who had nothing, nothing to live for and nothing to offer, turned their lives around and became genuine heroes to millions. Really, there is no sport like boxing when it comes to giving a person a second chance.

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Here are three of the finest, most celebrated examples of a former deadbeat turning to boxing and turning his entire existence around:

Sonny Liston.

Liston, in jail for armed robbery and mugging, was locked up in 1950. whilst incarcerated, Liston met a catholic priest who taught him how to channel his seemingly unlimited and uncontrollable energy into boxing. Amazingly, 12 years later, with barely a year-long amateur career under his belt before going pro, Liston won the biggest prize in sports: the world heavyweight championship.

Dwight Muhammad Qawi.

Qawi, jailed for armed robbery and sent to the notoriously tough prison that is Rahway, saw boxing as his only way out. Learning fast, the man born Dwight Braxton turned pro upon release, neglecting any amateur career. After a rough start, during which he went 1-1-1, Qawi worked on his craft to the extent that he was a world light-heavyweight champion after just 18 fights in total.

Bernard Hopkins.

Jessica McCaskill vs Cecilia Braekhus 2 in early 2021

One amazing story if ever there was one.

Hopkins, a street thug who was mugging people in his early teens, was handed the harsh sentence of 18 years, this at the young age of 17. There seemed to be no way out for the young Bernard, no future at all. Stabbed a number of times whilst causing mayhem on the streets, Hopkins is another strong man who found salvation through the discipline of boxing. Learning to fight and fight both hard and smart Hopkins was released after having served five years. Hopkins fought a long amateur career, consisting of 99 bouts (winning all but 4) and he then went pro in 1988.

Hopkins actually lost his pro debut, walked away for 14-months, and then “re-debuted,” before winning his next 22 fights. Then, after a decision loss to Roy Jones in 1993, Hopkins would not lose for another 12 years, during which he would become middleweight champion and make a record 20 title defences.

Even then, when a star and a very rich man, Hopkins kept in mind the hard words of the warden who released him from jail: “I’ll see you again soon.” Hopkins vowed never to return to prison and he kept his promise.

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