The Danger Game

13.10.03 – “If you walked up to the average guy in the street – the average Joe – and punched him in the mouth. Chances are HE WOULDN’T DO A THING! The trauma of getting punched is such a shock. If someone walked up to Tito Trinidad and punched HIM in the mouth…they’d get a beating.” – “Iceman” John Scully

Ron DiMichele: The staccato retort of the speedbag rattles the innards of The Windsor Police Athletic League Gym in Windsor, CT as “Iceman” John Scully leans forward in a folding metal chair and settles into his subject. “Professional fighters are trained to be resilient,” says Scully, former light-heavyweight contender and current trainer of Hartford, CT heavyweight, Lawrence Clay-Bey. “They’re trained to get the other guy back.”

In Boxing’s Green Mile, John Scully shared the experience of those tense minutes before the long ring walk. The Danger dives into the heat of battle. “You can see on my face I have scars,” says Scully. “ I got all three of these scars at one time in a 12-round fight. It happened early in the fight, so I had to go the last 8 or 9 rounds with these. Stopping was never an issue. All I could think about was how do I get through this? How do I pay this guy back?”

John Scully, who posted a professional record of 38 wins against 11 defeats with 21 knockouts, was stopped only once late in his career and has been in with the likes of world title holders, Michael Nunn, Henry Maske, and Graciano Rocchigiani. His insight goes deep into the heart of the sweet science.

The ring instructions serve as a prelude to battle, but according to Scully, the mini-dramas which sometimes unfold in those brief moments are more sizzle than steak. “The stare-down is for the fans,” says Scully. “People watch the stare-down and say, ‘This guy’s gonna lose! Look at his face!’ That’s nonsense. No guy is going to look at me and scare me. I’ve seen a lot of guys do the stare-down and get blasted out in the first round of the fight.”

The early rounds of a fight are generally for feeling out an opponent, and John Scully concurs with this approach. “I took a page from Marlon Starling (two-time world welterweight champion), I put my hands up peek-a-boo style. I’m very careful in the beginning.” Scully emphasizes that no opponent should be taken lightly. “You look at a guy’s record. Even the lighter punching guys have a 50% knockout ratio. People get knocked out regularly. They’re getting hit with something. My theory is keep your hands up. Always up. Always careful. Boxing is a danger. You’ll never catch me cold.”

A fighter‘s arsenal contains a variety of weapons. Some fans dismiss the jab as mere window-dressing, but those between the ropes know better. “When I come out to a fight and the guy has a good jab,” says John Scully. “Then I don’t have to see him do anything else. I know the guy can fight. I know he’s sharp. When you fight a guy with a jab, don’t make a mistake, because he’s got everything else.”

The jab short-circuits an opponent’s rhythm, says Scully, repeatedly forcing him back to square one. “There’s guys you can beat with just the jab. Ali used to win rounds with 30 left jabs. Once he started stickin’ it, guys just couldn’t get started.”

In order to land his own shots, a fighter must not only get by an opponent’s jab, but avoid follow-up punches. “If a guy throws a jab,” says Scully, “You can be pretty sure a right hand’s coming behind it. With a guy like Tommy Hearns, people didn’t necessarily want to get by his jab, ‘cause if they did, they knew the right hand was coming. You said, ‘Man, the objective is to get by the jab, but if I do get by the jab…I’d rather get hit with the jab!!!’”

A fast left hook, according to Iceman, is a more dangerous punch than the right hand. “Generally, guys throw a left hook after they throw something else. Guys finish with a left hook. A guy throws a right hand to divert your attention, and comes back with a hook. A left hook is dangerous because there’s a lot of leverage in it, but also, because your attention is usually diverted by something [else] coming at you.”

Boxing pundits have long claimed ring success hinges on mental strength as much as physical. John Scully exalts mental fortitude, but argues the scales must be balanced.

“People say if you put your mind to it you can do anything. That’s ridiculous. You’ve got to prepare. People think Micky Ward just shows up and fights hard. That guy trains like an ANIMAL. Don’t let him fool you. Micky trains. Micky PREPARES to do that.”

A fighter must learn his craft, hone his skills, and be as fit as any athlete on the planet before entering the ring. But in the ebb and flow of battle, the psyche, as well as the body, can take a pounding. “A fighter’s mind can be frail.” says Iceman. “You’d be surprised…. That’s why guys like Ali talk to fighters. You can convince ‘em to quit. You could talk ‘em into it.”

Scully says the fans might see a fighter land a jab and it might not even register with them. “But to the guy getting hit,” he says. “Especially when it stings? If it snaps your head back? It’s embarrassing. Say you get hit by a good shot and you’re dazed,” says Scully. “There’s a lot of things happening in your mind, ‘I’m hurt. I’m dazed. I’m losing. I look bad. I’m embarrassed.’ There’s all these emotions at the same time.”

Some fighters rebound from setbacks better than others.

“Golota quit against Michael Grant in the 10th round,” recalls Scully. “He blatantly just quit. He told the referee after he got knocked down, ‘That’s it.’ But he was winning! He won every round! He was BEATING him. After the fight he said, ‘I thought I was losing. I was going to lose anyway, so I just quit.’ People couldn’t understand that, but I know what that means. When you’re in a fight, even though you’re winning, you don’t know you’re winning. You could get hit with a little shot that doesn’t look like much to the fan watching on tv, but to yourself, you’re saying, ‘Man, that shot hurt!’ ”

There can come a time in a fight, when one combatant establishes mental, as well as physical, nce over his opponent.

“Guys tend to break in fights,” says Scully. “I call it ‘breaking.’ You can watch a fight and sometimes guys will show you something. I’ll say, ‘He’s breaking. He’s submitting to the other guy.’ It’ll be subtle, a little break in posture, a little break in his face. He’ll show a different look in his face, a submissive look.”

The travails of a fighter are often hidden from the onlooker, as well as the opponent, and Scully asserts that isn’t by accident.

“Boxers are masters of deception,” he says. “They’re geared from Day One. The thing I stress to anybody I work with, It doesn’t matter how you feel. It matters how you look. I always tell them, ‘Act like whatever you did, you MEANT to do it. Whatever’s happening, You WANT it to happen. If you fall down and do 3 front flips and a headstand? Act like you WANTED that to happen.’ That’s the one sport where you can feel miserable. You can feel like you’re losing. But all that matters are those three people judging in the ringside seats. That’s what I love about Hagler. His demeanor just got tougher as the fight went on. He was a machine. If you look at his career, you would think this guy’s never been hurt. But in the fights he’s had, he’s had to have been stung pretty good. But he made sure if it phased him, he was the only one who knew it.”

A successful fighter must see through an opponent’s ruse.

“Say you have a certain opponent you can hit with the left hook [to the body]. If you’re hitting him with it and you know it was a good shot, but it doesn’t look like it’s hurting him? He’s not showing it? Don’t buy it. Keep digging it. Chavez was a master at that. He found that spot and just stayed with it. The body can only put up with so much. The body punches hurt and anybody who thinks they don’t is crazy.”

The give and take of a prizefight results in an array of physical, mental, and emotional complexities, allexerting influence on the outcome of battle.

“You can be tired,” says John Scully, “Looking for a way out, looking for a way to rest, to kill the rounds. All of a sudden you cut the guy, or hurt him, or drop him. You’re not tired anymore. Your adrenaline is through the roof.”

Scully points out that fierce competitiveness must be balanced with a poised, deliberate approach.

“The thing I learned a long time ago from guys like Roy Jones Sr. and what I’ve read by Eddie Futch, whenyou hurt a guy and it’s a tight fight? A tough fight?

That’s when you’ve got to stay calm and pick your shots. A true professional like a Mike McCallum? Guyslike that can fight all night because they don’t get upset. They’re very workmanlike and they take care of business the way it’s supposed to be done. Very systematic.”

Fighting angry? “You end up walking into some stupid stuff.”

Boxing means fighting hurt, maintaining your senses and reflexes while teetering on the brink of unconsciousness. Sometimes those watching can be more aware of a fighter’s condition than the fighter himself.

“When guys are hurt, they don’t feel pain at all,” says John Scully. “I’ve been stung in fights and it’s almost painless. Most guys come right back into the fray and that leads to a lot of knockouts. They know something’s wrong, but they’re not really sure. Chris Byrd and Ike Ibeabuchi is a perfect example. Chris got hit with a wicked shot. He was out of it. I believe he fell on his face. After the fight, he was complaining to Larry Merchant, ‘No, I don’t know why they stopped it, this is wrong.’ The thing I like about Chris is he’s very honest and he’s funny. Larry Merchant was like, ‘Okay, let’s watch the tape.’ And Chris is like, ‘See me set up against the ropes. He’s not hitting me.’ And all of a sudden he gets hit with the shot and Chris goes, ‘Whoooa!!!’ He goes, ‘OH! OH! Whoaaaa!!! Okay, okay, I understand. I got it!’”

“It’s competitiveness and pride,” says Scully. “I’d rather get hurt than have you stop the fight. That’s the thing you HAVE to have. If you take the average person and cut them over both eyes and under one eye and they have blood in their mouth, they’re not going to be looking to fight back. The average guy in the street says, ‘That’s insane. You’re nuts. You’re insane.’ I mean, some guy on Wall Street’s not gonna go through that.”

There was once an interview with a convicted cat burglar – a professional B & E guy. They asked him why he practiced that line of work, risking danger, imprisonment, even his life. It wasn’t the money or the spoils of a successful caper, he told them. All he could say was when he stood in the living room of a house he had just broken into, he never felt more alive.

Moments under the ring lights carry a similar intensity.

“When you see a boring fight,” says John Scully, “People say, ‘Boooo, boring fight.’ But to the guy in there, that’s the most exciting thing he’s ever been in. The fans see the guy standing there looking at the other guy. But they don’t know that in his mind he’s thinking 10,000 different things. The most boring fight to the viewer, to the guy in there? It’s not boring. Believe me, it’s not boring.”

John Scully is a fine spokesperson for the sport of boxing. Many thanks to him, once again, for his open and honest remarks.