By Ted Sares
Sometimes fighters are reviled because they have done time in prison. Mike Tyson and Paul Spadafora ( former IBF champion, now resuming his career on parole after being convicted of shooting his girlfriend in Pittsburgh) immediately come to mind. So do Ike Ibeabuchi, Michael Nunn, and Tony Ayala Jr each of whom is now incarcerated. Of course, who can forget the great Carlos Monzon who in 1989 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. On a somewhat less serious and more forgivable level, Diego Corrales and Naseem Hamed also might be mentioned. There are others too numerous to cite here. For these, the hard times followed the good times.
However, there are some boxers who should not be vilified, for they have paid their debt and have used boxing as a stepping stone for a better life. Indeed, what do Charles “Sonny” Liston, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Ron Lyle have in common besides being great fighters in their day? The answer to that question is what this essay is all about.
Ron Lyle, 43 - 7 - 1 (31 ko's), He was paroled from Colorado State Penitentiary after 7-1/2 years and got off to a late start in professional boxing after being released at the age of 29. He was jailed for second-degree murder, during which he was stabbed in the abdomen. He almost died from the injury but was saved by doctors in a long operation. Upon release, he won his first 19 fights. He lost to Jerry Quarry in 1973 and Jimmy Young in 1975, but he was given an opportunity to face Champion Ali in 1975 and was stopped after having given a great account of himself. Perhaps Lyle's career defining fight was actually a loss. Who can ever forget when he had George Foreman on the canvas twice before caving in to George’s attack in a Fight of the Year and one of the best heavyweight shoot-outs in many, many years? Ron Lyle conducted himself as a gentleman during his boxing career and currently trains other boxers.
Charles “Sonny” Liston, 50 -4- 39 by knockout. The following is taken from: "Liston was trouble in and out of ring," by Mike Puma, Special to ESPN.com, Oct. 16, 2005
".....Liston believed his birth date was May 8, 1932, but he was never sure and that led to speculation he was actually a few years older. The 24th of 25 children fathered by Tobey or Tobe Liston (one of 10 with his wife Helen), Sonny came into the world in a tenant's shack 17 miles northwest of Forrest City, Ark. "I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother and a father who didn't care about any of us," he said. "We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard......Helen left her husband and moved to St. Louis in 1946. Sonny ran away from home to join her. Unable to read or write, the burly teenager attempted to make a living on the streets of St. Louis. In 1950, he and two others were arrested for armed robbery of two gas stations and a diner. Pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree robbery and two charges of larceny, he was sentenced to five years on each charge to run concurrently.
"While at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, he started boxing. On Oct. 30, 1952, he was released on parole and he turned professional the following September. His first pro fight lasted 33 seconds: Liston leveled Don Smith with his first punch....Liston was a marked man in St. Louis, where police were known to stop him on sight, sometimes without cause. On May 5, 1956, he erupted. When a cop confronted him and a friend about a cab parked near Liston's home, he assaulted the officer, breaking his knee and gashing his face, and took his gun. Liston received nine months in the city workhouse.
"After his release, Liston had another altercation with a cop -- this time he left an officer headfirst in a trash can. A police sergeant put out the word that Liston should leave town or else. Sonny heeded the ultimatum, and went to Philadelphia. His managers sold his contract to a group headed by Carbo and Palermo. While Liston began working into shape with hopes for a heavyweight title shot, he also continued his anti-social behavior. Two more arrests -- for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and another for impersonating a cop -- led to Liston being suspended by the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission on July 14, 1961. The suspension was honored in all states. Liston's license was reinstated three months later..."
While in jail in 1952 for robbery, Liston learned to box under the tutelage of a Catholic priest who worked with inmates. After a successful amateur career, Liston turned pro and, with a menacing aura affirmed by his brutal and devastating victories, he methodically worked his way to become a dominant Heavyweight fighter for most of his career beating such fighters as Bert Whitehurst, Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, Willi Besmanoff, Cleveland Williams, Nino Valdes and, of course, Heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson twice. After his two losses to Ali (one of which remains highly controversial), he would go on to win 15 of his last 16 fights over a period of four years. On January 5, 1971, his body was found by his wife in his Las Vegas home. Coroners suggested Liston might have been dead for as long as a week. The determined cause of death was heart failure and lung congestion, though suspicion remain.
Sonny was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991......quite an accomplishment for the 24th of 25 children. Quite an accomplishment for a person who had such a hard scrabble beginning.
Dwight Muhammad Qawi, 41-11-1 (25 kayos). He grew up in a poor section of Camden, NJ where he got involved with crime at a young age. Convicted of armed robbery, he spent more than four years at New Jersey's Rahway State Prison where he too learned to box. He turned professional upon his release One very tough customer, he was nicknamed “The Camden Buzzsaw” for the constant and in coming pressure he put on his opponents. Just four years after his release from Rahway, he tko'd the great Matthew Saad Muhammad for the WBC Light Heavyweight title. It was shortly after this that he announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name. Then, after dropping a razor thin decision to Michael Spinks in 1983, a fight in which he put Spinks on the canvas, he moved up to Cruiserweight and became WBA champion in 1985. His grueling unification match with Evander Holyfield was pure action and the decision could have gone either way, but it went to Holyfield after 15 rounds of pure hell.
But it was at Rahway that he found himself. The prison had a great boxing program and one of its inmates, James "Great" Scott , was a tough and popular middleweight title contender who fought several times inside the prison in televised bouts. Amazingly, on September 5, 1981, Dwight Braxton (his name before his conversion to Islam) returned to Rahway to fight Scott. The stakes were high; the winner was promised a shot at Matthew Saad Muhammad's WBC world championship belt. Qawi, then known as Dwight Braxton, won a unanimous 10-round decision and got the shot at Saad.
Currently, he works as a boxing trainer in New Jersey and is deeply involved in Community activities. Qawi was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004.
Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, 47 - 4 -1- 1 (32 ko's), In 1982, still at a relatively young age, Hopkins committed a robbery which cost him almost 5 years in jail (Graterford State Penitentiary), from 1984 to 1989. He joined the boxing gym in jail and began to train and fight, he even won the national penitentiary middleweight championship three times. When he was released from jail in 1988 and began his professional boxing career, he had one purpose in life, to become champion of the world.
During an interview with Johnny Goodtimes on September 20, 2005, entitled "The Executioner's Tale, Volume 1," Hopkins was asked,
"Johnny: You spent some time yourself in for strong-arm robbery. You spent almost five years there. You came out of prison in '88, and you were obviously a different person when you came out of prison than you were going into prison.
"Bernard: Prison didn't change me. I changed myself. But let me tell you what changed my thinking. It took a year. It took me a year for me to realize that because of my ignorance, that I became, overnight, somebodies 401 (k). It was because of my ignorance, I'm gonna keep saying that to let you know that there is no blame game going on here. But because of my ignorance, I became a part of modernized slavery. I got up at the crack of dawn, me and eight or nine other guys. Loaded up on a bus, shackled from the waist down, went out to a field, half a mile from the prison, picked potatoes, picked corn, planted flowers, kept the wardens house clean, put the mulch down. That's how I learned about landscaping. Most of the time I do my own house out in Delaware. That stuff looks good when you come up for parole. They ask you, did you stay in your cell for five years, or did you do work, get your GED? What did you accomplish while you were here? That could make or break whether you go home or not..........
………….If you want to ask, on this planet, who is the one that can transform from a robber to a worldwide revered figure; who is the one that can dominate the middleweight boxing division making a division-record 20 middleweight title defenses; who is the one that as a middleweight moved up two weight classes to challenge the light heavyweight king. One man that made the difference, Bernard Hopkins."
It appears Bernard's journey has not yet ended, for certain induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame awaits him. In the meantime, he is a partner in Golden Boy Promotions.
So what is that these four have in common? Well, for one thing, their incarceration preceded their great accomplishments in the ring. For another, a transformation clearly began during their time in jail. Two of them, Hopkins and Qawi, thrived with new purpose in life. Lyle and Liston went on to boxing greatness at different levels. These guys paid for their transgressions and more than made up for them. Unlike fighters who go to prison while they are fighting of after their careers, these four used prison as a launching pad. They had some hard times....but then they had good times. If anything, they should be commended for their accomplishments.
"People who overcome adversity. George Foreman, Tyson, Iran Barkley, people who you know where they came from. Anybody that comes from the inner-city and rises from that situation. James Toney. I could go on and on. Anybody that comes from adversity. I'll read it and know it's true. Because it's so easy to lay down. Lay down and say, I'm gonna rob a bank. That's an easy cop-out. But to say, I'm not gonna be like that...it takes a lot to do that when you have nothing in the refrigerator. It takes a lot. That's adversity. It's so easy to take the easy way out. It's so easy to lay down. It's so hard to get up." Bernard Hopkins when asked who were the people he most admired..