Historically prison is a new beginning for boxers, not an ending, says Sean Mills. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Sean Mills returns to Bad Left Hook today to look at five cases of boxers who came out of prison not with careers ruined, but with fresh starts.
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Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s lawyer, Richard Wright recently failed in his emergency motion for a release from prison for his client. This means Mayweather will have to continue serving at least part of his remaining 87 day sentence. Many, including Judge Melissa Saragosa, found that Wright's claim that the prison term would keep Mayweather from ever boxing in the future hard to buy.
Mayweather raised eyebrows even before beginning his sentence by comparing himself to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, even as he delayed his sentencing for months to fight Miguel Cotto. Mayweather has more in common with another group serving their time in a correctional facility: Jack Johnson, Sonny Liston, Ron Lyle, and Bernard Hopkins, and Dewey Bozella.
There has been a variety of boxers who have served time, many of whom were non-descript fighters whose names wouldn't ring a bell or demand a honorary ten count. Still, this list of famous boxers owe more of their career origins to incarceration than any other event. For these men, boxing was a new beginning.
Jack Johnson learned how to box like a champion in jail. A documentary by Ken Burns recounts how Johnson fought Joe Choynski in 1901. The more experienced heavyweight, Choynski knocked out Johnson in the third round of their fight. As prizefighting was against the law, they found themselves in the same jail afterward. Johnson later claimed that their jail time sparring sessions taught him his winning ways. Choynski is supposed to have told his cellmate: "A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch".
Eleven years later, Jack Johnson was the undisputed and internationally known Heavyweight Champion of the world. However, a trumped up charge of the Mann Act was used to silence Johnson. His crime of, "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes" would leave his reputation in ruins. His posthumous pardon continues to be a political issue, today, as John McCain urges President Barack Obama to redress the issue.
Sonny LIston also learned to box while locked up, this time in a Missouri State Penitentiary. A priest befriended Liston and helped him become active in the prison's boxing program. The experience helped him get released, win a Golden Gloves title, then later win a Heavy Weight Championship over Floyd Patterson. He soon lost his title to Muhammed Ali. It is interesting to note that Ali was sentenced to serve five years for dodging the draft, but never served a day of his sentence through a series of appeals.
Ron Lyle was another of Ali's opponents and another boxer who started in a correctional facility. Lyle played baseball, basketball, and football while in prison, but only lost one boxing match in prison boxing matches, his first. After serving seven years in prison, Lyle came out ready to shock the world. In an interview for a documentary film called, "Facing Ali," Lyle recalls that he was able to do hundreds of pushups while in solitary confinement. This galvanized him to think, "Imagine what I could do, when I get good food."
Lyle was outpointing Ali, who himself was on a comeback trail, when Ali landed a few dramatic blows and the fight was stopped. Lyle's other claim to fame was a hellacious scrap with George Foreman, whom he knocked down before, himself, getting knocked out.
Bernard Hopkins and Dewey Bozella:
Bernard Hopkins served four years for armed robbery, and was released in 1988. While in prison he learned the craft of boxing and its application in the ring prevented him from ever needing to go back to his old ways. The lessons were harshly learned, however, he claimed to spend many nights crying in an interview with the Huffington Post.
The overwhelming depression of never knowing if he would ever get out of prison was a terrible burden. He had to spend all day hiding any weaknesses from other inmates but at night, that's when it came out. His experience made him resolute to change his gangbanging ways, but it didn't mean he would forget his past altogether. Dewey Bozella, a boxer who spent 26 years in jail for a murder he didn't commit was committed to having a professional fight at the age of 52. Hopkins obliged him by inviting him to fight on the undercard of one of his own fights.
Mayweather Jr. will be largely shielded from the types of psychological stress and trauma that the these other boxers have faced. Mayweather knows when he will be released, not if, and he is being sheltered from the general population. Doctors agree that Mayweather will be physically capable of fighting on after he leaves prison, what he takes out mentally from his time incarcerated has yet to be seen. History suggests prison does not end boxing careers, however, only inspires them.