Shaven head down, James Scott stared at his right hand. He closed it into a fist and studied its every ridge, marveling at the beauty of it as a weapon. Standing around him in the tiny office inside New Jersey's Rahway State Prison were a dozen or so friends, most of them inmates, all chattering nervously. Scott, studying his fist, ignored them. "We've only got four rounds," he said, almost as if he were instructing the hand. "Four rounds, or else we're in a lot of trouble."
In a nearby room, Eddie Gregory, the WBA's No, 1-ranked light heavyweight contender, was in much better spirits. He was in superb condition and the fight ahead would be no more than a tune-up on the way to a $50,000 title match with Mike Rossman, the new champion. Tonight, Gregory would get $15,000 for going 12 rounds against a guy who had been behind bars since 1975.
"They say Scott is tough," Gregory said, "but how tough can he be? So he fought a couple of stiffs inside the walls and he knocked them out. He hasn't had a real pro fight in almost four years. And now he wants to fight the top contender. You know he's got to be crazy. He's been in here too long. It happens when you stay in these places too long. I'll carry him for 11 rounds and knock him out in the 12th. It'll be a good workout."
Some workout. For James Scott, last Thursday's match might have been made in heaven, even though, more prosaically, it had been made in the warden's office. The prison had sanctioned the fight to highlight one of its many work programs and as a showcase for its progressive rehabilitation system.
"We've got dozens of important rehabilitation programs at Rahway, and boxing is only one of them," says Superintendent Robert S. Hatrak. "I admit that teaching inmates to become professional fighters—and cut men and trainers—is unique, but why not? If we can teach them to lay a brick or to build a house, why not teach them to box? One man takes a college course, another learns how to throw a jab. The result is the same. When they leave here they take something very important: a way to earn an honest living, a sense of self-respect, the tools to become a useful citizen."
The boxing program might have been made just for Scott. He is 30 years old, and except for two brief periods he has been behind bars since he was 13. He was first sent from the Newark ghetto to the Jamesburg Reformatory for truancy. Five years later he was declared an incorrigible and transferred to Trenton State Prison. That was in 1965.
At Trenton, Scott was befriended by Al Dickens, a onetime Army boxer now in the 16th year of a 51-year sentence for armed robbery. "When I first saw Scotty, he was a tough punk running around breaking heads with an iron pipe," Dickens says, "but I got him to thinking about boxing instead."
Scott appreciates that, but adds, "I guess I wasn't listening too close when Dickens tried to teach me about life. They let me out of prison on Nov. 5, 1968, and it wasn't long before I was back—busted for robbery—doing 13 to 17. That's when I really took up boxing."
Scott became the light heavyweight champion of the New Jersey prison system, destroying opponents until there were no more challengers. In 1974 he was released on a work-parole program. His work was professional boxing; his parole officer, in effect, was a Miami architect and fight figure named Murray Gabe, who offered Scott a contract.
Scott won eight fights in a row, developing a reputation for ferocity that again made opponents scarce. "It was a nightmare trying to find someone who would get in the ring with him," Gabe says. "It was horrible what Chris Dundee had to pay people to fight that animal." Then in May 1975 came the two breaks that were to change Scott's career. The good news was that he lined up a championship fight with John Conteh of Great Britain. The bad news was that Scott decided to return to Newark.