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Storm Tracks

Hurricane found peace at storm's center
By Ron Flatter
Special to

"If I wasn't able to get rid of that hate, then my opponents would have won. They would have been able to taken far more than the 20 years that they took from me in prison," says Hurricane Carter on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury profile of the boxer.

His story was told in a 1999 movie, "The Hurricane," although filmmaker's license left some factuality to be desired. There have been books, some more faithful to history than others. Perhaps as art tried to imitate the life of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the best depiction may have come from Bob Dylan's 1975 song "Hurricane:"

Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall.
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood,
Cries out, 'My God, they killed them all!'
Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

By then Carter had become a cause célèbre, an unwilling poster child for racial injustice that, in his case, was not righted until he already had spent almost 20 years imprisoned for three murders he apparently did not commit.

Whether Carter ever would have been a world champion will never be known, though he was past his prime when he was convicted in 1967. He had only one title fight -- and he lost it, a 15-round decision to middleweight champ Joey Giardello in 1964. Before that bout, Carter had won 20 of his first 24 fights, including 13 by knockout. Afterward, he won only seven of his last 15 bouts.

"He could have gone a long way," said Emile Griffith, a welterweight champ who was the most storied victim on the Hurricane's 27-12-1 record. "I should know. He knocked me down and stopped me."

Born May 6, 1937, in Clifton, N.J., and raised in nearby Paterson, Carter was the youngest of four boys and three girls. He frequently got into trouble as he ran with the wrong crowd. "I wasn't dumb; just hard to control," he said.

At 14, Carter was convicted of assault and was sentenced to Jamesburg Home for Boys. In 1954, he escaped and to avoid capture, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. While in the military, he reputedly showed up drunk at the hall where his division's boxing team was training. He put on gloves and fought a heavyweight named Nelson Glenn. Despite being outweighed by at least 40 pounds, Carter decked Glenn in the first round and earned a place on the team.

Carter left the Army with 51 wins in 56 fights, including 31 by KO. He also resumed a troublesome life, including a 1957 conviction for his part in two robberies and an assault. After serving almost 4½ years, much of which was spent in fistfights with other prisoners, he embarked on a more serious boxing career.

After knocking out 36 amateur opponents, Carter made his professional debut on Sept. 22, 1961, at Annapolis, winning a four-round decision over Pike Reed. Then came a string of knockouts -- 11 in his next 14 fights.

At 5-feet-8, Carter did not seem tall enough to be a middleweight, but he fought most of his professional career at 155-160 pounds. His shaven head, prominent mustache, unwavering stare and solid frame made him an intimidating presence in the ring decades before such a look became commonplace.

By 25, Carter had become a fixture on nationally televised fights from Madison Square Garden at a time when New York was a boxing hub. He made his debut as a headliner on Oct. 27, 1962, with a 69-second knockout of Florentino Fernandez.

Carter's raw power and his ability to unleash either one furious punch or a rapid-fire combination of lefts and rights led some to compare him to Tony Zale, the stocky middleweight champ of the 1940s. When Carter scored an unlikely first-round knockout of welterweight champ Griffith in a middleweight fight on Dec. 20, 1963, it appeared to be a seminal victory. It turned out to be the pinnacle of his career.

After beating the acclaimed "Fighter of the Year," Carter demanded a shot at Giardello, the newly crowned middleweight champ. Finally, a year later, Carter got his wish. The more experienced Giardello bobbed and weaved his way through the 15 rounds while Carter stalked him. Carter's best chance for victory came in the fourth round, when his left hook opened a bothersome cut over Giardello's left eye.

Although Giardello's face displayed the puffy evidence of damage inflicted by Carter, there were no knockdowns, and the champ consistently scored with his left. Giardello won a unanimous decision in front of 6,000 spectators in Philadelphia. Carter begged to differ.

"I think it was mine," said Carter, who believed he had won nine rounds. "I feel I can go another 15 rounds right now." He would not go 15 rounds again.

Carter lost his next fight, but after winning three of his next four by KO, he was given the New York spotlight one last time against once and future champ Dick Tiger. On May 20, 1965, Tiger floored Carter three times and won a unanimous 10-round decision.

Eight fights in seven cities followed for Carter, who won just four of these bouts and had a draw against Skeeter McClure on March 8, 1966, in Toledo, Ohio.

Three months later, in the early morning hours of June 17, 1966, two men and a woman were shot dead at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson. Within an hour, police pulled over Carter and an acquaintance, John Artis, who were in a car similar to the one driven by the murderers. They were taken to the police station, where both passed a polygraph test.

On August 6 and in the midst of a grand-jury investigation into the homicides, Carter lost his last fight, a 10-round decision to Juan "Rocky" Rivero. Two months later, even in the face of the lie-detector tests, Carter and Artis were charged with the triple murders.

Arthur Bradley and Alfred Bello, both convicted felons, were the prosecutor's main witnesses, and they placed Carter and Artis at the scene of the crime. An all-white jury convicted the two black defendants on May 27, 1967. Carter and Artis were each sentenced to three sentences of life in prison.

By 1974 Bradley and Bello had recanted their story. Both said they were pressured by authorities to offer false testimony against Carter and Artis, whom the authorities reputedly referred to as "animals" and "niggers."

Investigative stories about the case in The New York Times gained national attention. From Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, Carter wrote his autobiography, "The Sixteenth Round," published in 1974, and Dylan performed "Hurricane" for the first time a year later. Benefit concerts for Carter were held at Madison Square Garden and in Houston.

Finally, attorneys for Carter and Artis convinced the New Jersey Supreme Court to hear their appeal. The convictions were overturned on March 17, 1976.

In a second trial, Bello did another flip-flop and went back to his original testimony. Prosecutor Vincent Hull introduced racial motivation and he made an emotional appeal to the jury. The strategy worked. On Dec. 22, 1976, Carter and Artis were found guilty again. Artis eventually won parole in 1981, but Carter remained in prison, persisting in his fight for freedom.

Finally, in November 1985, federal district judge H. Lee Sarokin released Carter on the grounds that the convictions "were predicated on an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure."

More than two years later, authorities finally decided against a third trial, and the original indictments against Carter and Artis were dismissed for good on Feb. 26, 1988.

In Toronto, Carter heads the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, going around Canada and the United States trying to help others who may have been wrongly convicted. He also delivers speeches about his life. Although he once expressed anger about his past, his reflections have changed.

"There is no bitterness," he said in 1999. "If I was bitter, that would mean they won."

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