YOU would imagine that if an imprisoned boxer became a leading contender by having organised fights with top contenders behind the walls of a maximum-security jail you might have the plotline of a new Netflix series, and a scarcely believable one at that.
But back in the 1970s, when light-heavyweight prospect James Scott landed a lifetime in jail, his career didn’t only carry on in prison, it thrived and escalated.
Scott, who spent much of his youth in New Jersey correctional facilities, eventually moved to Florida for a fresh start and turned pro.
He was being managed by Hank Kaplan and promoted by Chris Dundee in 1974, and early victories over contenders Baby Boy Rolle, Jesse Burnett and Ray Anderson moved him to 10-0 and marked him as one to watch. But a fateful trip home to his old New Jersey stomping grounds saw everything change.
There was a bungled drug robbery in a Newark ghetto. It was 1975, someone got killed, James was taken in and he wouldn’t breathe free air for 30 years.
★ ★ ★
Bob Hatrak was the warden at Rahway State Penitentiary. His modus operandi was equipping convicts for life on the outside no matter what they wanted to do. He wasn’t just going to have them taught to become electricians, mechanics and plumbers. If they wanted to sing, he wanted them to have musical options. If they wanted to paint, he’d give them an art department and if they wanted to fight, he was going to start a boxing programme.
James Scott [pictured above], the fringe light-heavyweight contender wanted to box. Hatrak and Scott went way back through the East Coast judiciary system, Hatrak on his way up on his chosen career path and Scott on his way further into trouble.
“I remember when he was a 13-year-old [and] transferred to Trenton Prison,” Hatrak recalled from his home in Oregon more than four decades on. “Can you believe that? A 13-year-old transferred to a maximum-security prison, and he had to carry a steel pipe around with him to keep the predators from getting at him. [Later] He went to Florida and we said goodbye on the front porch and promised to stay in touch with one another and we did. He called me once or twice and told me he was going to fight for the title and then, stupidly, he went back to Newark and got himself in trouble.”
Scott had been through the prison system with another long-serving convict, the wrongly-sentenced Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and he and Scott became friends.
Carter was a world-rated middleweight contender – imprisoned for murders he was acquitted of years later – and Scott was a comparative novice when they met in the early 1970s but, according to Hatrak, James was the only guy who lasted three or four rounds with Rubin when he lined up opponents in the recreation yard.
“Nobody had ever done that,” said a clearly impressed Hatrak.
“There’s a whole story surrounding Rubin,” Bob continued animatedly. “I knew Rubin at Trenton and the night I took over at Rahway something was going on and there was Rubin sitting in the middle of the auditorium. We exchanged greetings and for some reason Rubin decided that he was going to take my job as the warden of the prison, so I had to transfer him out of Rahway.”
Hatrak said Carter had been radicalised and he’d told other inmates not to deal with Bob.
★ ★ ★
Trouble had never been far away in Rahway, New Jersey’s most-notorious jail. Warring gangs had threatened to take hold of several facilities in the State.
There were two rival Muslim groups at odds inside Trenton Prison, sparking bloody revolts and leaving a crimson trail even through segregated facilities. It got so bad that a federal judge ordered that some inmates had to be taken in at Rahway, to reduce the amount of violence at Trenton.
“The last thing I wanted was a bloodbath at Rahway because I had quietened things way down there,” Hatrak said. “And I told one of my captains to go and talk to ‘Scotty.’ I wanted to start a boxing school as a way to maybe bring peace between these two factions and give them something important to do in a boxing school. I imagined boxing trades, like promoting, managing, cutmen, cornermen, all the trades that surround boxing and in fact we had the first referee licensed from our programme.”
After Scott and Hatrak renewed acquaintances, the top man at Rahway had one thing he wanted to ask the prisoner.
“I said, ‘James, I want you to build me a boxing school’ and he said, ‘Yeah, right. How am I going to do that?’ We talked a lot about it and he said, ‘You know what? I’ll do it.’ And he did. And he built me one hell of a boxing school. It ended up bringing peace between those two factions because I was able to recruit Murad Muhammad, who was a Muslim on the other side, to do the promoting, so now we had Scott running the school and fighting and Murad doing the promoting and now both sides had something important to lose if they acted up in my prison.”
Murad had been working with Muhammad Ali and, the way Hatrak tells it, Ali had given him some money to start up his own promotional company. Murad promoted the first boxing show in Rahway on September 15, 1975, and they actually charged 500 civilians to go to a maximum-security prison to watch boxing, featuring the programme’s up-and-coming stars against fighters from around the country.
“Can you imagine that?” Hatrak laughed. “Nobody else in this country would have done that.”
It is nigh on impossible to believe it today, but things got even stranger as Scott’s rise continued when TV networks formed an orderly queue to broadcast his fights from jail.
★ ★ ★
The likes of Gil Clancy, Howard Cossell and Sugar Ray Leonard went in as part of TV crews who covered Scott’s events and journalists, going through all of the security checks, were allowed to report on the bouts from ringside.
More than that, Scott wrote letters to the boxing magazines and to celebrities. Comedian Bob Hope wrote back to him and invested in the programme, so did commentator and fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, who often lent his assistance to Hatrak as one of the programme’s list of advocates. Pacheco referred to Rahway as “the Boxing University.”
“Muhammad Ali also wanted to come to Rahway,” Hatrak explained. “One of his aides, by the name of Kelly, came in with $3,000-worth of boxing equipment that Muhammad had sent and he wanted to know if he could come in and visit with James. By that time I was gone as warden and the people that followed were very envious of the publicity I’d been getting and tore the programme apart. Can you believe that? Here’s a programme helping young kids and so forth develop careers… We had a licensed referee, two world champions, three guys in the New Jersey Hall of Fame and the state wants to destroy the programme. And they did.”
That was in spite of warring gang factions finding peace within the prison. The home to some of America’s most violent offenders became sacred ground.
“One night, at the fights, here came the paying customers and wouldn’t you know that there’s leadership from both sides of each Muslim group,” Hatrak smiled. “One group came in, then another came in and I’m thinking, ‘Oh God. This place is going to go up tonight.’ We started to watch them, and follow them, and one of the leaders came to me and said, ‘Warden, there’s not going to be any trouble in your penitentiary tonight’ and I said, ‘How can you assure me of that?’ And he said, ‘Because we consider this holy ground.’ This is the only place in New Jersey that either side felt safe coming to, to have what they called a summit conference. That’s how it all began.”
★ ★ ★
Together, ‘Scotty’ and Hatrak made national headlines. The boxing programme boomed and Scott’s ascent up the 175lbs ladder quickened with huge 1978 and 1979 wins over Eddie Mustafa Muhammad – future WBA champ – perennial contenders Richie Kates and Yaqui López, Britain’s Bunny Johnson and the late Jerry Martin.
Some said Scott wasn’t well-liked in prison, that there was jealousy about his life or about his privileges, but Hatrak said otherwise.
“’Scotty’ and I had a close relationship,” the former warden admitted. “He had his own office as the head of, what I called it, the Boxing Authority and on my way to lunch I’d stop in every day and talk to him and he’d let me know who he’d talked to [in boxing], like Pacheco.
“I have my own opinions about ‘Scotty’. He and I got along extremely well, he built a school for me when I needed a school to buy peace, he did everything I asked him to do and he never let me down once. He trained very, very hard, he did thousands of push-ups a day and he had all 75 guys in the school out in the yard every morning running laps, rain, shine, sleet or snow and he’d do push-ups and shadowbox in his cell… There wasn’t really a time that you could run into ‘Scotty’, other than when he was in his office working, when he wasn’t working out. I suppose there were some people who didn’t like him, maybe some people didn’t like the status that he had in the prison, but you take that for granted. You get some good and some bad with whatever you do.”
Scott picked up the nickname Superman because of his fitness levels and routines that were superhuman. Eddie Mustafa would always say Scott’s engine was unlike anything he’d ever experienced, while López and his team thought Scott was possessed and boxed on angel dust – an accusation Hatrak scoffed at.
To many, though, prisoners were envious of what Scott was doing and how he was being treated.
“Not one officer ever came to me to complain about what was going on with Scott,” added Hatrak.
★ ★ ★
After two losses, to the aforementioned Martin and then to another future champion, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, then Dwight Braxton – Scott’s career was over and so was the boxing programme. It was 1981 and Scott’s final stats read 19 wins against two losses and a draw. He’d had 11 fights in three years in prison, at one point being recognised as the WBA’s No.1 contender before they took that status away from him. They claimed they hadn’t know he was in prison!
It’s ironic that it came down to Braxton to slam a nail in the casket, because he had started his own boxing career while in Rahway on an armed robbery charge and he had become Scott’s sparring partner. In fact, in the build up to their fight, tensions flared over a $400 sparring debt Dwight claimed Scott owed him.
“There was a lot of bad blood between them,” Hatrak recalled. “Dwight’s brother [Tony] was also a champion but he had not boxed until he came to our school and ‘Scotty’ took him under his wing and tutored this guy until he ended up winning a championship [USBA middleweight title].”
The dream had always been for Scott to land the most unlikely of world title shots, and Hatrak had hatched a plan. In his many letters to the boxing press from inside, Scott would challenge the champions of the day, like Matthew Saad Muhammad, Mike Rossman and Víctor Galíndez, to come and fight him, but Hatrak’s plans were different.
He wanted Scott to box in the Meadowlands, on a supervised furlough, and he said for a while the Rossman fight for the WBA title was in the works.
Precedents had been set by that point, as Bob explained.
“I had an inmate group of singers called The Escorts and they were the first inmate singing group to ever cut an album inside a maximum-security prison and their album sold over 300,000 copies,” he said, proudly. “There were seven of them, maximum-security inmates, and I arranged for them to go to Newark, New Jersey, Symphony Hall and do a live performance, and I did it using something called an escorted furlough. The singers had officers as escorts and that got rave publicity and went extremely well. I was in the process of hooking that same thing up for James and it just never got to happen.”
It wasn’t just the boxing programme that thrived with talented inmates. Russell Peltz, who promoted Jerry Martin, saw it first hand when he took “The Bull” in to upset Scott.
“All the seats were on the floor but they had this giant picture window and the prison band was playing and I’ve got to tell you, you couldn’t get better playing than that,” Peltz said. “I remember saying to someone, ‘Too bad these guys aren’t on the outside, they’d make a lot of money.’ There was a lot of talent in that place.”
★ ★ ★
A decade earlier, in 1971, there had been a riot inside the Rahway auditorium and the place had been left derelict. When Hatrak took over, he decided to change that. The wire mesh, broken furniture and vandalised walls were all replaced and, in Bob’s words, he turned it in to “a mecca for positive progress.”
He used prisoners on vocational programmes to renovate and replace everything and, with no boxing ring, the inmates built one of those, too.
Initially the Rahway fights were in the yard, but by the time Scott had his bigger bouts they were in the auditorium.
“My mission was to get people ready to go home, but not to go home and do something I told them to do, I wanted them to go home and do what it was they felt they wanted to do. That’s what I called self-rehabilitation,” Hatrak said. “The fact of the matter is, whether the guy is a murderer a lifer or not, they all go home. Whether they go home with a tag on their toe, they go home on parole, they go home many different ways and I always felt that I didn’t want to write anybody off given the nature of their crime, so long as they were about the right thing. And guess what, ‘Scotty’ went home. [In 2005] He went home to Trenton, New Jersey, where I was raised, and he went back to a gym where I boxed as a kid, his parole officer sent him up there to work with them and he was devoted to them. So here was someone everyone said was a murderer and look what he did? He went home and worked with the kids.”
Scott helped out former ’68 Olympian Sammy Goss, at Goss & Goss Boxing, and Sammy would say how good James was with the children, but as time wore on after James’ release his health faltered and, struggling with dementia, he was mute and wheelchair-bound in a New Jersey rest home.
He died on May 18, 2018, aged 71. He and Hatrak had not reconnected in later years. Bob didn’t know that Scott bore the scars of ‘a buck-50’ attack in prison (when you are sliced open from your ear to the front of your neck, taking 150 stitches to close) and he said he and James never did discuss what happened with Scott’s case (“I was more focused on outcomes”). He does know, however, that three members of his Boxing Authority made it into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame – Scott, Qawi, and referee Eddie Johnson and two inmates became career cornermen.
Bob is 83 now. He was warden between 1973 and 1979 and when he left, the attorney general said he couldn’t tell him why he was being moved on or else Hatrak would have grounds to sue the state.
★ ★ ★
Bob moved out to Portland, Oregon, to live with one of his daughters. He has another daughter in Virginia and a son in Las Vegas.
He lives a quiet life but has happy memories of the history he made behind the walls of Rahway and he’s writing a book about his time there, titled Not On My Watch.
“It’s always on my mind,” he concluded, clearly content with what he did and passionate about his reasons for doing it. There’s a nostalgic pride when he reflects and puts himself back alongside some of America’s worst and you can see the emotion when he talks and smiles saying: “I think about it a lot.”