Boxers no strangers to the big house

In recent years, football and basketball players have probably overtaken boxers as the most-photographed athletes at police stations in North America.

But boxers have been getting their mugs shot for a longer time, and the sport is branded with an image of violent men who too often end up in jail.

It's an image that saddens Gaby Mancini, executive director of the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association. He has followed the sexual assault trial of World Boxing Council super-middleweight champion Dave Hilton Jr. with dismay.

"It's not all boxers," said Mancini. "For every bad one, I'll tell you 10 good ones.

"The sport is vulnerable. There's no one to defend it. A lot of the athletes come out of the ghettos and there's no one to speak for them."

A Quebec judge will rule on March 16 whether Hilton sexually abused two young sisters over a three-year period.

The image of jailbird boxers shaped by old Hollywood movies has had too many individuals reinforcing the stereotype, starting with former undisputed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

Tyson was king of the ring until Feb. 10, 1992, when he was convicted of raping a Miss Black America contestant in an Indianapolis hotel room.

He was sentenced to six years in prison and served three, but never regained his ring prominence after his release in March 1995.

Tyson's notoriety has helped him retain his drawing power among some fans and the pay-per-view television industry, but in recent years, he is better known for having once bit off part of an opponent's ear than for victories.

The new heavyweight champion, former Canadian Olympian Lennox Lewis, has been a model citizen.

And there have been boxers in trouble with the law who committed no crime at all, the most famous being Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most charismatic champion in the sport's history.

On April 28, 1967, Ali was stripped of his World Boxing Association title when he was arrested for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. army.

Convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison, Ali fought the charge until it was overturned in 1970 by a Supreme Court judge. He never went to jail.

There was also contender Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who spent nearly 20 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of a 1966 triple murder at a New Jersey tavern.

Some tenacious work by a group of young Canadian law students helped Carter, who now lives in Toronto, earn his release in 1985 when a judge ruled his conviction was based on racism and concealed evidence.

The boxers and crime stereotype was likely what prompted the NBC network in the U.S. to latch onto the career of James Scott in the 1970s.

Scott built up an 18-1-1 record while serving time for armed robbery (a life sentence for murder was added later) at Rahway State Prison in Trenton, N.J.

Since Scott was not allowed out to fight, his opponents came into the penitentiary for nationally televised fights before a boisterous audience of adoring inmates.

Scott fought his way up the No. 2 world ranking before the World Boxing Association, fearing the prospect of champion in jail, insisted that he fight outside and stripped him of his ranking in 1979.

Another who might have been a champion, junior middleweight Tony Ayala Jr., was 22-0 with 19 knockouts and was being compared with greats like Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran when crime ended his career in 1983.

Ayala, known as El Torito (Little Bull), was slapped with a 35-year sentence for tying up and raping a neighbour. He served 16 years and was released from a New Jersey prison in April 1999.

He ended up back in jail two years later for burglary and attempted assault. Ayala was shot in the shoulder during the incident.

Former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champ Michael Moorer, who once wore a T-shirt to a news conference that read "You have the right to remain violent," managed to get off with probation, community service and an out-of-court settlement for three incidents in the early 1990s.

Moorer was convicted once for a bar brawl, a second time for slugging a police officer and settled out of court with two men he fought with in a hotel bar.

Former middleweight champion Carlos Monzon died in January 1995 in a car crash while on a weekend pass from an Argentine prison, where he was serving 11 years for murdering the mother of one of his four children.

Then there was junior-middleweight champ Aaron (The Hawk) Pryor, who once was charged with assaulting his own mother. In an unrelated incident in 1987, Pryor got off with a fine after the alleged victim failed to show up at a sexual assault trial.

Remember Bobby Czyz? The former middleweight was given probation and a court-ordered psychiatric exam after burglarizing the home of his fiancee's mother.

A year ago, former Halifax resident and heavyweight contender Trevor Berbick won his fight before a Canadian citizenship and immigration tribunal to avoid deportation to his native Jamaica. He had already been deported from the United States because of a series of convictions.

In 1992, Berbick was handed a four-year sentence for raping the family babysitter in Florida. Earlier, he had convictions for grand theft and misdemeanour assault.

Former Canadian champ Eddie Melo of Toronto also had to battle a deportation order to his native Portugal after he was sentenced to 90 days for aggravated assault in a bar fight in 1991.

At his hearing, prosecutors painted Melo as a thug with long-standing ties to the Montreal and Toronto underworld.

Former Canadian middleweight champion Muhammad Eltassi got a three-year sentence in 1990 for a series of thefts and former middleweight contender Jerry (Mack Truck) Reddick spent 14 months in a British Columbia jail for assaulting a prostitute.

The Hilton trial reinforces the notion that fighters are a slip away from the penitentiary at a time when most of the top boxers, such as light-heavyweight champion Roy Jones and welterweight star Oscar De La Hoya, promote clean living.

"The sport is constantly being attacked, but there are good people in it," said Mancini. "You hear a lot about Hilton, but what about (WBC No. 1 contender) Eric Lucas?

"He's an excellent gentleman. The mayor of Regina, Pat Fiacco, was an amateur boxer -- and a good one. But you don't hear about them."

By Bill Beacon