It remains one of the more bizarre episodes in boxing history. A man locked inside a maximum security penitentiary not only competed in sanctioned, professional boxing matches, but was ranked at the top of the light heavyweight division. It will forever be a Cinderella story of a most squalid and unlikely kind and in 1979 it captured the imagination of American sports fans.
James Scott had a long criminal record and in 1965, at the age of eighteen, he found himself in Trenton State Prison, a facility which happened to have a boxing program. There Scott actually sparred with famous inmate and former top middleweight contender Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who encouraged James to develop his talent. However, after being released from prison in 1968, Scott got into trouble again with the law, was convicted of robbery, and sent to New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison. There he devoted himself seriously to pugilism and eventually became the state prison boxing champion.
In 1974 Scott was released again and this time was determined to make it as a fighter. He showed tremendous promise, competing eleven times in thirteen months against formidable competition, the matches staged in Miami Beach by veteran promoter Chris Dundee. Scott scored victories in all of the contests but one, that match declared a draw after the referee deducted two points from Scott for a vicious retaliatory low blow. Impressed by his obvious talent, Ring magazine ranked the ex-con number eight in the world. It appeared James Scott was on his way to a successful boxing career.
But in May of 1975 Scott was involved in a violent robbery that left one man dead. While not convicted of the murder, Scott was a repeat offender and the robbery charge put him back in Rahway State Prison, this time for a much longer sentence, thirty to forty years.
But from behind bars Scott took up where he left off, dominating the state boxing program, and his success in the ring inspired a new fan, prison superintendent, Robert S. Hatrak. He told Scott that if someone could be found to finance boxing matches at the prison, he would do everything possible to enable him to continue his career. Fledgling New Jersey promoter Murad Muhammad agreed to stage fights at Rahway and before the end of 1978 Scott, incredibly, had two more legit pro wins to add to his record.
Few were paying much attention to the oddity of a convict pursuing a pro boxing career from inside a prison, but that changed thanks to the World Boxing Association and HBO. The WBA had decided to overlook the fact that Scott was in jail and continued to rank him among the top ten best light heavyweights in the world. This meant, at least in theory, that the inmate was eligible for a chance at the WBA version of the world light heavyweight championship.
Meanwhile a brand new cable network called Home Box Office decided that televising Scott’s fights from Rahway State Prison would make for intriguing and potentially lucrative broadcasting fare. When the WBA’s number one contender, Eddie Gregory (who would later change his name to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad), agreed to face Scott, HBO brought their cameras to the prison, billing the show “Boxing Behind Bars.”
Most found the whole thing difficult to take seriously and tagged Scott as a long-shot underdog against the more experienced Gregory. With a record of 29-3-1, Eddie was both a legit top contender and a skilled and clever boxer, while the 12-0-1 Scott was comparatively inexperienced and untested, not to mention, in prison. After all, Gregory had faced truly serious talents in Matthew Franklin, Bennie Briscoe and Victor Galindez and was in line for a title shot against new WBA champion Mike Rossman. Surely he wouldn’t step into Rahway to face Scott if the inmate represented a real threat to his high ranking. This was a side-show, a curiosity, and a tune-up for Gregory before a championship fight.
“They say Scott is tough, but how tough can he be?” asked Gregory. “So he fought a couple of stiffs inside the walls and he knocked them out … I’ll carry him for eleven rounds and knock him out in the twelfth. It’ll be a good workout.”
Thus, Gregory entered the Rahway prison auditorium completely unprepared for what awaited him. From the opening bell, Scott, who was in extraordinary condition, attacked relentlessly, giving his opponent no chance to maneuver or establish punching room. He was clearly the stronger man and his unceasing aggression forced Gregory to concentrate on defense and little more. Eddie successfully side-stepped some of Scott’s attacks and often rolled with the big punches thrown his way, but by round two Scott was consistently landing clean blows and in the third he began to dominate, bulling Gregory around the ring and scoring with thudding body blows.
By the fourth even the most skeptical of spectators had to admit the truth: this was, against all expectations, turning into a one-sided ass-kicking in favour of Rahway inmate number 57735. Gregory’s left eye was almost swollen shut and he had no effective answer for his opponent’s strength, punching power and constant attack. The convict was grinding down the supposed top contender for the light heavyweight title, winning round after round, and the only question was if Eddie could make it to the final bell. Going into the last round his corner told him he needed a knockout to win, but it was Scott, not Gregory, who attacked, punishing his opponent with heavy shots. In the end, Eddie won, at best, three rounds.
After the unanimous decision was announced, Scott immediately called out WBA champion Mike Rossman, predicting he would take care of him even easier than he did Gregory. “It won’t go four rounds,” he declared. Jimmy DiPiano, Rossman’s father and manager, was ringside and as he left the prison he was asked about the champion coming to Rahway to face Scott. “It’s going to take an awful lot of money,” said DiPiano, “before I let my son in the same ring with that monster.”
The victory shocked the boxing world and the strange odyssey of James Scott was headline news, his face appearing in newspapers and national magazines, the major television networks now anxious to broadcast his fights. Many wondered if he might in fact become boxing’s first inmate world champion as 1979 proved a banner year for the prisoner. He went on to score five major victories, all of them against serious opposition, including one-sided batterings on national television over experienced contenders Richie Kates and Yaqui Lopez. There was now no question that Scott was the top contender for the light heavyweight championship of the world and for a brief time it appeared he just might achieve his dream of punching his way out of jail.
But the unlikely tale did not have a happy ending. All of Scott’s attempts to lure Rossman to Rahway, or to get special permission to fight for the championship outside of prison, went nowhere. And then the WBA abruptly decided that having a jail inmate as their mandatory challenger for the world title didn’t really make much sense and they removed Scott from their rankings. He kept fighting, but in 1980 suffered a huge setback when Jerry “The Bull” Martin came to Rahway and knocked Scott down and won a decision. Two more matches followed, but after being defeated by future champion Dwight Braxton, Scott retired.
Eddie Gregory rebounded from the loss to Scott by winning six straight before defeating Marvin Johnson to win a world championship. He would change his name to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and successfully defend his title against Martin in 1980, thus gaining a measure of redemption for his upset loss to James Scott by beating the man who brought a halt to the Rahway champion’s unlikely run.
— Michael Carbert