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Salvation in the ring: Prison and boxing

boxing in prison
Elliot Worsell talks to three boxers who spent time behind bars after murky pasts full of violence and drug abuse. Each would find their salvation in boxing

IT was never his intention to start fighting the day he left prison, not after seven years of doing too much of that inside. Instead, all he wanted to do was go to his mum’s house, walk through the nearest field, and continue walking until he arrived at Meadowhall shopping centre, where he would then sit in a cinema screening room and watch a film. En route he would pass Brendan Ingle’s boxing gym in Wincobank, but had no interest in visiting, not that day, nor any other, and no longer any interest in fighting, full stop. Now outside, the only thing Richard Towers craved was escapism. “I can never remember what I watched,” he said. “I guess it didn’t matter.”

What did matter and what he does remember, however, all too vividly perhaps, is that during the walk back from the cinema to his mother’s house he saw a man he recognised putting his child and dog into a car. “He was the ‘cock’ of our school when we were kids,” Towers explained, “so I put my hand up and said, ‘How are you doing, pal?’ I was just happy to be out, smelling the grass and walking free.”

The man, though, found in the same grass and air Towers was savouring something else. A different smell. A different taste. “You f**king what?” he said.

“I was just saying hello to you,” said Towers, still walking.

“Yeah, I know, you black c***,” the man said. “F**king walk on, you coward.”

Rather than walk on, Towers stopped to play with the word ‘coward’ like a bit of gristle stuck in his teeth. Sadly accustomed to racial abuse, he focused only on ‘coward’ and asked the man to repeat what he had just said. By now, though, the man had removed a golf club from his car and was marching towards Towers, at which point Towers told him, in no uncertain terms, to take his child and dog home and then later meet him for a straightener.

“All right,” said the man, “no problem.”

At the age of 19, Richard Towers had been charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment, Section 18 assault, firearms, robbery and blackmail, pleading guilty to each charge. His sentence was reduced because of this plea and, in the end, he received 13 years – of which he would serve seven – for false imprisonment and kidnapping. In prison, he endured solitary confinement and was often moved around the country due to his predilection for fighting. If in Doncaster his sentence started, and if in Ranby he was finally set free, it was in Lowdham Grange that Towers began to realise fights for which he was getting in trouble could become fights for which he was paid.

“I bumped into a friend of mine in Lowdham called Fran Kennedy and we made some makeshift pads out of cardboard, brown tape, and the stuff you find inside pillows,” Towers recalled. “When we were doing pads, he would say, ‘Flipping heck, Richard, you can punch.’

“He said he was part-owner of a gym in Liverpool and said they had a heavyweight there called David Price who was hopefully going to the Olympics. He said I punched twice as hard as him and had a good chance of beating him in a fight.

“I remember not long after that I was on the wing watching David Haye knock out that fella [Alexander Gurov] with a right hand for the European title. That fight made me think, Yeah, I could do that. It was just a passing thought at that stage, though. I went to Ranby and forgot about it. I was sparring with lads in the recess area where the toilets were and just f**king hammering people. Big fellas who thought they could fight, I was just hammering them because of all the training I’d done at Lowdham. But I never thought I’d get out and start boxing.”

New Jersey light-heavyweight George Khalid Jones once followed a similar path to both prison and prizefighting. A product of a broken home, Jones was raised in Paterson, a place synonymous with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and moved in with his father at the age of 10 when his mother’s house burnt down. He was then 11 when his father rolled for him his first marijuana joint and not much older when he smoked the crack cocaine his father had cooked with him on the sofa.

It was when 14, meanwhile, Jones performed his first armed robbery, had a pump shotgun forced into his mouth, and spent most days being ferried in taxis back and forth to New York, at his father’s behest, to deal crack and heroin.

“I sold drugs to little kids and pregnant women,” he said, voice full of remorse. “I see them today and they look messed up. That’s what I helped do to them. I feel so bad about it. You don’t care who you sell to.”

By the age of 33, Jones had been arrested approximately 19 times, spent 11 years of his life in jail, and caught his last ‘bid’ selling drugs to the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), having been set up by a friend he had known for almost 25 years.

Inside he was the model prisoner, whereas outside he kept finding ways to return to a place he had come to view not only as a second home but a place safer than any home he had ever known.

“I was institutionalised,” he said. “You come out of jail and get in trouble every single day, but when you go to jail you never get written up. You’re more comfortable in prison. You’re a model citizen in prison. Out here, everything you can steal, you steal, and every opportunity you have to sell drugs, you take. You’re always breaking the law out here but in there you play by the rules.”

While inside, two things aided Jones’ eventual transition back into the real world. One was meeting Bobby Dickstein, the mentor and father figure Jones first encountered during a talk about gambling addiction in 1998, while the other was boxing, which Jones learned all about in prison.

“I started boxing because of the food,” he said. “On the fourth floor they had cells just for the boxers and basketball players and this guy, Bubba Ray, took me upstairs and showed me the gym. Up there they had their own cook. Downstairs they gave us eggs out of the carton but upstairs you got the real scrambled eggs and the real toast. You got real pancakes, freshly made, instead of the frozen ones. You got tuna for lunch and real chicken for dinner. They ate good up there.

“I went for sentencing in October and they had a tournament in January, so Bubba Ray had me in the cell doing pad work. He wrapped my hands with socks. He got me so I was ready and catching the concept. I was fighting all my life on the street so I wasn’t scared of nothing.”

In 1986 Jones entered his first county jail tournament and knocked out each of his four opponents. “We [Passaic] were the only county team to win the state tournament 10 years straight,” he said with no small amount of pride. “You had to wait 18 months to get shipped out to prison but if you won the state tournament, they shipped you straight out.

“Our team was elite. They even stopped us fighting in the Golden Gloves tournaments because they were like, ‘How are these guys beating people up so easy?’ Somebody found out we was coming from jail, so they put a stop to that. It made the daily news. We weren’t just beating people, we were ‘murdering’ them. These little white kids, we were beating them up so bad. They were like, ‘How are they doing this?’ They were wondering whether we were professionals. If they could have drug tested us, they would have done.”

St. Helens’ Martin Murray began boxing at the age of seven and showed enough promise to lose only one of his first 22 amateur bouts. At 10, though, he was arrested for theft, which, unbeknown to anyone at the time, was to prove a far more meaningful milestone, at least in the short-term, than any achievement in boxing.

Martin Murray
Lewis Storey/Getty Images

By 17, Murray had become lost to the rave scene and a year later was on the run from police in Cyprus for possession of drugs. Told he could face being locked up until he was 30 if he continued to run, Murray eventually handed himself in and was relieved to discover the sentence was shorter than he had feared. This gave him back time he thought he would lose, though did nothing to change his ways when he returned home to England, where he ended up serving three further prison sentences.

“I always trained inside,” Murray said. “My second sentence was served in an open jail and my trainer would come in and do circuits. During my sentence after that we used to do pad work. I’d make pads with dinner plates and sponges and loads of tape. Then one of the screws gave me proper pads and a proper pair of gloves. We were allowed to do training and some of the screws really encouraged it. But then there were obviously other ones who were stuck up and didn’t want us doing it because they said it promoted violence.”

He calls 2005 the year in which he decided to turn his life around and for that credits the impact of both his partner, Gemma, and boxing. “I struggled to make ends meet, which was hard at first,” said Murray, who was released from prison for a final time in 2006 and became a professional boxer in 2007. “But mentally I was so ready for whatever hardships boxing involved. I could turn a short-term negative into a long-term positive. I had been at rock bottom and didn’t want to go back there.”

Though he boasted no amateur bouts to his name, George Khalid Jones’ first fight as a professional took place in September 1994 against the unbeaten Marty Lindquist in Lindquist’s home state of Minnesota. He was surprised to learn he would be paid 400 dollars for the fight and Lindquist’s team were every bit as surprised to discover Jones, the victor, had never before boxed. He explained: “They came into my locker room after the fight and were like, ‘You set us up, didn’t you? Are you sure you never fought before? Is that your real name: George Jones?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s my real name,’ and they said, ‘So where’s this Khalid coming from?’ I said, ‘Well, my name is Khalid Kasib but I fight under the name George Jones. I’m actually known as George Khalid Jones.’

“They were so mad. They said, ‘How could you beat this guy? You ain’t even had an amateur fight before.’ I had to think of something quick, so I said, ‘I had 150 fights in the street. I was 149 and one and my best friend was the only person to beat me. Do that count?’ Everybody was laughing at the promoter and manager and they looked at me like I was crazy.”

If prison was a place to which Martin Murray never wanted to return, a boxing gym offered a similar kind of routine, structure and discipline with the only difference being it was somewhere he never wanted to leave.

“I look back at my past and not once did I get arrested while I was in a boxing gym,” he said. “When I was there, and doing positive things, good things were happening to me.

“In the boxing gym you get taught so many life lessons, not just boxing lessons, and it’s a place where you can get some perspective on life. If you knuckle down and work hard, good things happen. That applies to boxing and life.

“Gyms are usually in working-class areas and all council estate kids go to them. You’ve got amazing people running them and every boxing gym I’ve been to has almost been like a youth club. All the kids there have enormous respect and discipline.

“Boxing gives working-class people a lifeline and a chance. Middle-class people don’t get brought up in council estates or around boxing gyms, so they don’t understand or appreciate how much hope and happiness a boxing gym can bring to people’s lives.”

For some, boxing is the only option, which is a point worth stressing whenever abolitionists, the majority of whom tend to come from a well-to-do background with options aplenty, take the sport to task and question its place in an apparently civilised society. The gym, for many of these people, can be many things: a place to exercise; a place to socialise; a place to learn; a place to hide. Take it away and that’s one less option, one less playground, and one less sanctuary for boys and girls whose idea of hardship and danger lurks not in a boxing gym but elsewhere.

“I can really relate to kids who are in the situation I was in years ago,” said Murray, a world title challenger at both middleweight and super-middleweight.

“I wasn’t a bad lad; I just did naughty and stupid things. Where I’m from, a council estate, we just look at trying to get through school. We don’t know about college and university and stuff like that. We just get through school and then see what’s out there job-wise.

“That’s why boxing gyms are so important to kids like that. They give them hope. They give them a chance in life to do something. There are so many lost kids out there trying to find themselves. I’m going to my mate’s funeral tomorrow. He was one kid who found drugs and went down the wrong path. That’s what happens where I’m from. It’s common. There was no hope for him.”

Richard Towers, having arranged his first fight since leaving prison, returned to his mum’s house to locate a pair of Lonsdale hand wraps and prepare for what was to come. It was then he spotted his mother walking down the stairs. “Richard,” she said, “where are you going?”

“I’m going to do some training,” he replied. “Richard, I know you better than you know yourself. Where are you going?”

It now became increasingly difficult to look at her and even harder to lie to her. “I’m just going to have a straightener, Mum,’ Towers said as his mum started to cry.

“Richard, please, please don’t get locked back up,” she said. “We’ve been coming to see you for seven years. You don’t know how it’s been.”

“I gave you my word, Mum,” Towers said. “I’m not going to get locked back up.”

After that, he left and, with a bottle of Buxton water in his hand, walked until he again crossed paths with the man he had earlier agreed to fight. “I put the bottle down next to one of those concrete posts when I saw the fella,” Towers remembered. “I saw him bouncing up and down with his finger and his thumb out like he was making the phone sign. I walked over and thought, You f**king dumpling. This used to be the toughest kid in school.”

“Are you sure you want to do this, mate?” Towers asked the man. “Because I was only saying hello.”

“Yeah, come on,” said the man. “What’s your problem? Are you f**king s***ing yourself?”

With his courage again questioned, Towers no longer had the wherewithal to rationalise, much less postpone, anything that was to happen next. “In my mind I went over and gave him a perfect Klitschko jab but, in reality, it was messier than that,” said Towers. “I knocked him out and then sat on his chest, put my knees on his shoulders, and forced my elbows into his face until his face swelled up so much that eventually his cheekbone cut his cheek and blood squirted on my face. That snapped me out of it.”

He thought, in that moment, back to the stories he had been told in jail of people being imprisoned for throwing what they believed was an innocuous blow in an altercation only for this blow to prove fatal and result in them getting a 25-year sentence. “All those memories came to me as this bloke beneath me is pumping blood and making these underwater gargling sounds. Then I started crying. I poured water over his head, got his keys out of his car because his car was still running, sat with him, and wouldn’t let him go. That’s when I decided I clearly had issues and had to do something. That’s why I went to Brendan’s gym the next day.”

Towers had first visited Brendan Ingle’s gym as an angry and resentful 16-year-old marching, head first and head down, towards trouble. That day he was passed around in sparring “like a f**king toy” by Naseem Hamed and Ryan Rhodes and vowed never to return. Now, with nowhere else to go, he was back.

“Brendan walked over to me and stood close to my face, right under my chin, looking up at me,” Towers recalled. “He went, ‘F**king ugly b*****d,’ and I could smell his breath. He goes, ‘Big ugly b*****d.’ I was now fuming, so he said, ‘How does it make you feel when I say these words to you?’ I said, ‘To be honest, Brendan, I’ve just come out of prison and I’m not used to people talking to me like that.’ He said, ‘Do you want to fight?’ I said, ‘Not with you, Brendan.’ He goes, ‘No, do you want to f**king box, you thick b*****d?’ I went, ‘I would like to, Brendan. That’s why I’ve come here to see if I could.’”

It was at that point Ingle told Towers to stop talking and Towers, now 27 and 6’8, did as he was told. “Imagine,” said Ingle, “a fella sitting next to your mum and you’re fighting his best friend and you’re smashing his best friend up and he’s shouting, ‘Kill the black b*****d!’ What are you going to do?”

Towers had wanted to say, “I’d jump out of the ring, run up to him, and smash his face in,” but instead elected to keep quiet.

“Exactly,” said Ingle, pointing to the young boxers nearby. “Now watch the kids on the lines and copy them. Do the lines.”

In the end, Richard Towers would box just 16 times as a pro heavyweight, while George Khalid Jones and Martin Murray became top 10 contenders in their respective divisions, unlucky not to either fight for or, in Murray’s case, win a world title.

But, of course, what the three of them became as boxers ultimately pales into insignificance when taking into account what they could have ended up becoming as human beings. Now inspirations, each of them, Murray is a qualified youth worker and mentor, Jones, clean since ’98, runs a trucking company and frozen yoghurt store in New Jersey, and Towers passes on the lessons of the late Brendan Ingle to boys in his own gym. More than just boxing moves, he teaches them about handling finances, correct posture, and good manners, as well as various other things they won’t be taught in school. Life skills, essentially. “They send me pictures of their beds in the morning to prove to me they have made them,” Towers said. “I hold them accountable because that was something nobody ever did with me.”

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