December 11, 1978 12:00 PM

The prison is there to whittle down the tough guys, to break the hard cases, but for inmate 57735, James Scott, the gray fastness of New Jersey’s Rahway State Penitentiary has become an arena, in fact as well as metaphor.

Every day the 6’1″, 175-pound Scott grinds through a training regimen that he hopes will make him, someday, the world’s light heavyweight boxing champion. Says Scott, 31, who is serving 30 to 40 years for armed robbery, “I work like a Georgia mule under the hot sun. I train day and night. I start out running 20 or 30 minutes. I do pushups, from 500 to 1,000 or even 1,300—usually 50 to 75 in a set. I do some sit-ups. I get in some punching. And then I come back and do it again.”

The next day is the same. “You don’t see fighters built like this anymore,” Scott says, gesturing pridefully at his physique. “All the other guys ever do is go to the gym, jump rope, work on the speed bag and then hang out with the girls.” Of course, he adds, “I can’t get to women. I’m forced to go to bed every night at 10, whether I like it or not.”

Scott’s ferocious training has produced, he says, “two knockouts and one killing” so far in the three pro bouts he has fought inside the walls of Rahway. The “killing” came in 12 brutal rounds last October against Eddie Gregory. He was ranked top contender for the light heavyweight title by the World Boxing Association and was negotiating for a title bout with the champion, Mike Rossman. Scott went into the ring with Gregory a 4-to-1 underdog and won by a unanimous decision. But Rossman has not yet agreed to fight him. In fact, the champ’s father-manager has declared: “It’s going to take an awful lot of money before I’ll let my son in the same ring with that monster!”

Scott reacts to that kiss-off with both delight and dismay. “Imagine how Rossman felt after he read that,” he chortles. “It’s a compliment: the more vicious the fighter, the more diabolical the nickname. My fighting style is straight ahead, never give them any rest. I break the blood vessels in their arms, and hit ’em with a murderous body attack.”

Still, Scott is realistic. He knows it is tough to get a pro to come behind bars to fight, since the audience and the payoff are limited. Rahway, as a stadium, holds about 500, and Scott says, “The only people who don’t mind fighting here are guys who don’t have a name and want one, like me. I don’t want to fight another guy with the determination I’ve got. We’d probably both end up in the hospital.” The answer, Scott believes, is to fight outside the prison—like light heavy Jerry Celestine, who fought on the Ali-Spinks card while a Louisiana convict. Rahway Superintendent Robert Hatrak calls an outside match “very unlikely. But if there’s a lot of public pressure, who knows?” An alternative is for Scott to win his current legal appeal, though his lawyer, Edmond Kirby, isn’t optimistic. His client was first jailed at the age of 13 for chronic truancy. “Ours was a typical black family,” Scott says. Of seven siblings, four are in college, one is a nurse and one a bank teller; his brother Malcolm is doing life at Rahway for murder. “My mother was on welfare. The marriage broke up, so the children sought an image elsewhere. I wasn’t attracted to pimps or narcotic dealers; I was attracted to the gangs and their leaders.”

The result: Of the last 17 years, Scott has spent 15 years, two months locked up. “Going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Scott claims. “I got an education there.” The teacher, he says, was his best friend in stir, Al Dickens, an ex-amateur fighter doing 38 to 51 years for robbery. Dickens told him, “Find out what you can do with your life.”

That was at Trenton State Prison, where Scott was serving 13 to 17 years, also for armed robbery, and he took Dickens’ advice by trying his fists in the ring. The opponent was Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, once a ranked middleweight and himself a celebrated prisoner; Scott lasted three rounds in 1967. Encouraged, he started training and in 1974-75, while on parole, he had 10 pro fights, winning nine and drawing one. He was preparing for a $100,000 bout with then light heavyweight champ John Conteh when he was arrested, convicted and sent to Rahway. Yet Scott is strangely without bitterness; he maintains he is taking a fall for a friend who borrowed his car the night a witness spotted it near the scene of the crime. He refuses to identify the friend: “I would never be a stool pigeon.”

During this latest stretch Scott started the Rahway Boxing Association for inmate fighters. It sponsors both amateur and professional matches, selling seats at $20 and $25 to devout New York-area boxing fans. As the association’s general manager, Scott earns $3 a day in addition to the $4,000 he has won in purses. He needs the money: Since he broke three of an inmate’s ribs in a training session, he has had to hire sparring partners from the outside.

Scott reads a lot (from the Koran to Amy Vanderbilt’s Etiquette to Crime and Punishment) and campaigns for better rehabilitation and conjugal visits. “What kind of man do you make after depriving him of sex for so long?” asks Scott, whose wife and three children visit him every week. He’d also like state funding for his prison fight program. “We could run a card in here every month and televise the big fights,” he says. “If a guy trains, he’ll know he has something to look forward to. Give a man hope and he’ll try to be somebody.”

If anyone knows the importance of hope, it is Scott: Should his legal appeal fail, he will not be eligible for parole until the late 1980s.

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