Hundreds of fighters have lost their lives in the boxing ring – but when tragedy strikes, what impact does it have on the men who deliver the fatal blow?
“I’ve trained so hard,” said George Khalid Jones three days before a fight against Beethaeven ‘Bee’ Scottland in June 2001, “I’m afraid I’m going to kill somebody.”
Afraid, he said. Afraid.
For Khalid, being afraid wasn’t an admittance of weakness or a chink in his tough-guy persona, but instead an acknowledgement of what can happen in boxing when one man is at the peak of his powers and his opponent is naturally smaller, inferior and drafted in at only a few days’ notice. The only kind of fear a boxer knows, that they will profess to feeling, it was fear of the worst-case scenario, fear of culpability, fear of going to the extreme.
Certainly, there was no fear of Bee Scottland. Three inches shorter than Khalid, and 10lb lighter, the late-notice opponent, a Maryland native, agreed to the fight only because the $7,000 purse was $4,000 more than his previous highest and because he had a wife, Denise, and children to support.
For being available and willing, he was rewarded with a paltry paycheque and punishment. It began in round one, when uppercuts snapped back his head and almost lifted him off his feet, and climaxed in round 10, when Jones, who’d trained so hard he was afraid of the consequences, went in for the kill.
His words, not mine.
“Kill or be killed was my mindset,” says Jones, who finished Scottland with a straight left cross and double right hook, the only punches he remembers, and then watched his opponent exit the ring on a stretcher. “But after the fight, I prayed every day that he’d live through this.”
Long before he became a contender in the light-heavyweight division, George Khalid Jones of Paterson, New Jersey was, according to a judge who once sentenced him, a “menace to society”. He was robbing at seven, on probation at nine, doing drug-runs to New York at 13, had a shotgun forced down his throat at 14, and then, by 15, had reached the point where it was considered normal to smoke crack cocaine on the couch with his father. In total, he spent 11 years in jail, off and on, and was arrested approximately 19 times.
By June 2001, however, things had changed. Khalid, all grown up, was different.
His father had passed away and prison had altered him. More importantly, boxing, this discipline he learned while inside, fuelled by the promise of better food, had altered his demeanour beyond recognition and, ironically, made him less inclined to hurt people.
In fact, on the night Bee Scottland was pronounced dead of a subdural haematoma (a rupture of the veins between the brain and the skull) at Bellevue Hospital Centre, Khalid, the ex-con whose fists did the damage, was considered a reformed and respected member of his community. Violent, yes, but only in the context of his sport.
“Some people bring up that fight in conversation and it makes me a little emotional, but I try to talk about it,” he says. “I have to. I have to say it’s a sport and, unfortunately, the worst happened.
“It would have been a good knockout win for me on any other day. It would have been the sort of knockout you’d be proud to show people. I used to train that way – to do damage.”
Mexican Gabriel Ruelas, a super-featherweight champion who killed Jimmy Garcia inside a Caesars Palace boxing ring in 1995, was never fearful as a result of the tragedy, but did, he revealed to me, take a masochistic approach to boxing in the aftermath.
“I wasn’t scared of getting hurt at all,” he says. “Truthfully, that’s why I wanted to fight. I felt responsible. I felt it was my fault and that I should be punished for what I did.
“I could only find some sort of peace by getting hurt. I know that sounds crazy, but I wanted to get hurt in the ring just as Jimmy had been hurt. I went into many fights hoping I’d get hurt.”
Both Ruelas and Jones were punished, mentally and physically, and found it hard to persist in a sport that required a mindset they’d suddenly relinquished. Yet Jones, in contrast to Ruelas, didn’t want to be punished and wasn’t even sure he wanted to be punched. No longer afraid of hurting opponents, he was now simply afraid. Afraid like the rest of us. Afraid in the human sense of the word.
“After Bee passed away, I was never the same,” he says.
“I used to train like I wanted to kill somebody. I tried to punch through my opponent. But after what happened to Bee, I didn’t want to hurt anyone any more. I just wanted to win fights. I didn’t want to kill anybody. I’m not a murderer.
“I used to tell my corner I’d die in that ring. I’d say, ‘If you stop the fight, we’re no longer friends.’ But after that fight I told my trainer, ‘I don’t want to die in there. Don’t let me die in there. You have to know when to stop it.’”
Upon hearing Khalid was going to quit boxing, Denise Scottland, wife of Bee, picked up the phone and made the call Khalid claims changed his life.
“That was the call that moved me to a place I never believed I could reach,” Khalid says. “Denise made me realise there’s nothing wrong with forgiving or with accepting something. She said it wasn’t my fault and that her husband wouldn’t be angry with me.
“She said I’d be cheating Bee if I gave up boxing. He wouldn’t have wanted to lose to some guy who quits whenthe going gets tough. He’d want to bow out against a guy who changed his life around and did some things.”
Sure enough, George Khalid Jones did some things. He won some fights, he lost some fights and, in 2004, was cheered on to a draw by Denise Scottland, his ‘fallen angel’, at ringside. Now retired, he drives trucks for a freight delivery company, is a loyal husband to his wife Naomi, a father to four children, and is guided through life by a Jewish mentor.
Every Christmas he and Naomi send presents to the Scottland family, despite not celebrating the festive period themselves, and Khalid has even promised Denise, the widow of his one-time opponent, that he will pay for her children to go to college when the time comes.
For now, he derives pleasure from small gifts – such as the pair of Kevin Durant sneakershe bought and had delivered for ‘Little Bee’ when he was trying out for the school basketball team – and does so because he knows the importance of having a father. Crucially, he knows the impact of not having one.
Taught the value of life through the experience of death, the former fighter remains in touch with the Scottlands because he feels duty-bound, and because he’s a changed character, and because Denise Scottland, left without a husband thanks to the profession he used to provide for her and their children, assured him it’s going to be OK.
“It’s boxing,” she told Khalid. “It’s just boxing.”
Dog Rounds: Death And Life In The Boxing Ring by Elliot Worsell is out now, £8.99 (Bonnier Books)
(Illustration: Josh Holinaty, Images: Screenshot/Getty)