Make a fist. Go ahead, do it. Now look at it. Beyond the range of knuckles, the fingers curling in on themselves, what do you see? What lies there, in the center of your hand? Nothing? Everything. Blood. Bone. Skill. Hope. Danger. Glory. Living. Dying. The past. The future. Your fate. And someone else's. Can all those things really fit inside that space, inside the shape of menace, the flesh of bad intent? Or is something else there, something simpler? Like darkness. Perhaps you've never looked in there, because you've never used your fist to separate another man from his senses, from his dreams, from his will. You've never used your fist to separate a man from his life. In your hand now, you hold the story of someone who has.
In a tight, violent universe, George Khalid Jones brings the pain, and pain is the priority.
Flash back to June 26, 2001. On the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier moored on New York City's Hudson River, two light heavyweights prepare to square off in front of 2,000 fans eager to witness punishment. Jones is facing Beethavean "Bee" Scottland, a last-minute fill-in for the scheduled opponent, David Telesco. Giving up three inches and a good 10 pounds, the 5'8" Scottland is a clench of muscle in red-andwhite trunks, a portrait of how far heart can carry a fighter. He's 20—6—2 in his career, with a reputation as a tough out. He knows this fight, on national television, against a better boxer, is his last best chance at a title bout.
Jones knows the stakes too. The southpaw is undefeated in his first 15 bouts, with 11 knockouts, nine in the first three rounds. He has trained hard for this fight, so hard that he fears for his opponent. "Whoever I fight," he tells himself,
"I just hope I don't kill him."
Even before he became a boxer, and a husband and a father, Jones had gone toe-to-toe with mortality too many times to remember, on the streets of Paterson, N.J. His mother took out a life insurance policy on him when he was 9 just in case she had to pay for his funeral. He says his father, who split before he was born, handed him his first crack pipe before he was 15. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault at 19 and spent threeand-a-half years in a youth correctional facility. In 1990, less than a year after his release, he was busted for heroin possession and sent away for three more years.
It was during this stint that Jones stepped into a boxing ring for the first time, because winners on the prison team got better food. He worked at it.
He liked it. He won. But it wasn't enough to keep him out of trouble on the outside. In 1997, after 11 fights as a pro, he was convicted for dealing drugs and wound up serving another three years, including time in a halfway house. Until he found Islam, violence was his central faith.
When the bell rings for the Scottland fight, Jones immediately works his size advantage. His jab easily connects and, 90 seconds into the fight, he throws a cross and a right uppercut that find their mark. In Round 3, he lands 50 punches to Scottland's 11, leaving the shorter man with a cut over his left eye. By Round 5, Scottland is no longer returning the leather. Jones lands a right to his temple, then follows with a livid storm of nearly 30 punches. Scottland does not go down, but trainer Adrian Davis threatens to throw in the towel before Round 6. The fighter talks him out of it.
Bee Scottland never relents, and this is his principle gift in the ring, the blind shaft of courage that makes a fighter. Every fighter has a plan … until he gets hit. Scottland is sticking to his plan, working through the pain. Before this fight, he had considered giving up boxing, maybe driving a truck or opening an extermination business to support his wife and three kids, but he wasn't ready to walk away, not with an $8,000 purse at stake.
Now he's pinned against the ropes in Round 7 as Jones thunders through with uppercuts and right hands, snapping Scottland's head back. ESPN analyst Max Kellerman watches in disbelief, his voice climbing ringside: "If you're in Scottland's corner, you have to ask yourself, is it worth it, winning this fight for the damage he's sustaining right now?"
Referee Arthur Mercante Jr. visits Scottland's corner after the round. He won't let it go much longer unless Scottland fights back. But this is the one thing Scottland will always do-it's in his DNA. He always fights back, until the fight is over. And so it is this night. He fights Jones closely in the eighth round, then outpunches him to win the ninth. Going into the 10th, Scottland and Davis believe he has a chance.
What they don't know is that Jones has a much better one. He has taken the last two rounds off, coasting on his large lead, guarding against mistakes. Now the final round is here, and Jones is ready. With 48 seconds to go, he lands a left hand, then two right hooks. Scottland's legs wobble. He falls to the canvas.
The fight is over.
"The guy isn't moving! Don't celebrate! Get down off the ropes!" Jones hears this from his corner, steps back into the ring and sees what his fists have wrought. Paramedics kneel above Scottland as he tries to raise his gloves to his head, pawing at his face. They hold down his hands. Soon he is strapped to a board, lifted off the canvas and placed in an ambulance headed for Bellevue Hospital. Jones stands at a distance in the ring, clenching and unclenching his hands over and over again.
At home in New Carrollton, Md., Denise Scottland sees her husband fall. She watches and waits, certain he will get up. That's what he does, that's who he is. But as the minutes pass and the swarm around him does not break, she knows this is different. This is wrong. This is fear. She leaves the kids with her mom and jumps in her car, heading for New York.
By the time she arrives, a neurosurgeon has operated to relieve the swelling in Bee's brain. He is unconscious when she enters the room, his limbs arranged by nurses, tied to machines and tubes. She takes her fighter's open hand. For four nights, she does not leave him, and he does not wake up. Finally, she leans in and speaks the hardest words she's ever had to say:
"You can just go. Go be with God."
Two nights later, Bee Scottland dies, his wife and relatives at his side.
KHALID JONES stands outside Metropolitan Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C., more frightened than he has ever been in his life. That first time he was shot at, that first night in prison, that first moment he stepped into a boxing ring … all fade away.
Inside the packed church lies the body of a light heavyweight, his casket draped by a belt that reads "Our World Champion," with a pair of blue boxing gloves hanging over the sides. Even in death, there is space for fists. An organ plays one note, its mournful tone echoing 10 times, like a bell, in memory of Bee Scottland's last fight. Outside, Jones stands on the street with his trainer, Lou Duva. No one in Scottland's family knows they have come.
Jones sees all the faces as he passes the pews. He recognizes many as colleagues in the business, other fighters and trainers who straighten up and acknowledge him with a glance or a nod. He sees Denise Scottland, sitting still and looking straight ahead. He wants to approach her, to tell her he's sorry, but he's too scared.
He finds a way to move forward, to reach the casket, to say a silent prayer over Bee Scottland's body. The widow watches, and through the haze of her grief, she sees more than a man paying his respects, and understands more than Jones can possibly know.
She sees it on his face and in his movements. "I can feel his spirit," she says to herself. "His heart is broken."
So, it seems, is his future.
Jones returns home and tells his family he's quitting. He won't get into a ring again, not ever, not after what has happened. At night he dreams of Scottland, of those three children, of the fight and its gruesome end. He can't bear the weight of the visions, let alone the possibility that it could happen again.
He goes back to his full-time job as an inventory specialist at a Paterson printing shop, and stays away from the gym. Instead of running the hills of Garrett Mountain during lunch hour, or working on the bags with his trainer, he retreats into his own inner world. His fiancée, Naomi, listens and tries to comfort him, but he is out of reach, in the dark corners of memory and guilt, searching for meaning, anything to make some sense of it all. Seeing someone fall and die has meant little to him until now. "If I could give my life, I would," he thinks. "Why wasn't it me?"
As summer ends and autumn deepens, Naomi decides to deal with the situation in the most direct way she can. She wants to talk with Denise Scottland, to share a prayer. She knows Bee's widow is the only one who can give Khalid what he needs: forgiveness. She dials the number in Maryland over and over, day after day, but never completes the call.
Finally, on a date no one precisely remembers, the call goes through. But it isn't Naomi who dials. It's the widow who connects, who has something to say to the man who … the man whose fists …
"I don't blame you," the voice says.
She forgives him.
Khalid hears her words and begins to weep. The voice makes sense, the words have meaning, this is what he has hoped for, what he has been afraid to seek out himself. "It's hard for me to believe this," he tells her. She has taken the darkness from his heart.
But the widow isn't finished. She has something more to say. Not about the past, but about the future. "Don't give up," she tells him. "I know boxing is your dream." She feels her husband's spirit so strongly, as if he were right there next to her, telling her what to say. "I know Bee would want you to keep going. Don't stop."
When the tears dry and the call ends, Jones understands. He is not finished with fighting.
INSPIRATION AND purpose are powerful forces, but they don't always prevail over faster hands and harder punches. In December 2001, his first fight back, Jones faces Eric Harding. He also stares down Boom Boom Mancini and Emile Griffith and every other boxer who killed an opponent and tried to come back. With "Bee R.I.P." stitched into his trunks, Jones carries the memory of his last fight into the ring with him. He believes he is ready; the fight teaches him differently. By the end of the opening round, the necessary bad intent behind his blows has already begun to dissolve. He holds back punches while wondering, did I hurt him? Compassion has crept in. Jones is knocked out in the seventh-his first loss.
There will be others. He goes 3—2 in his first five bouts since the Scottland fight. And those four words—since the Scottland fight—are as much a part of who he is now as his left hand and his address and his dreams.
It will take three years after that night on the Intrepid for Jones to feel whole again. On Aug. 3, 2004, he prepares to enter the ring for a bout at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, Md. He is facing a local favorite, Darnell Wilson, a solid opponent who's 16—1—2. But this fight will test Jones in a different way, as he comes closer than ever before to the dead man's memory. After forging a slow but deepening friendship with Denise Scottland over the phone, after sending her holiday cards and money at Christmas, he will finally meet her in person tonight.
But first he must fight. He must find a way to push her from his mind, where she possesses an emotional authority that has no useful place when the bell rings, other than to conjure anguish and loss, to derail him from the task at hand. Without her, he never would have fought again. But thinking about her now would invite him to open his hand, to unclench, to let light inside that space where he needs darkness.
She finds him anyway. In the din of the crowd cheering for Wilson, her voice makes contact. "Come on, Khalid! You can do it, Khalid!" The sound, that voice of forgiveness, stuns him so much that he leaves himself open, and Wilson lands a blow squarely on his chin. It is his weakest moment in the fight, and yet Jones feels the greatest strength, as if 1,500 people were calling his name.
"Come on, Khalid!" She tries to will him through the combinations and clinches, away from the uppercuts and off the ropes. She doesn't care that her presence here couldn't possibly make sense to anyone else. She has already endured the darkest suffering of the sport and come out on the other side. She shouts and roots and claps her hands, knowing Jones can hear her, knowing she's helping them both. She is doing what Bee wants her to do, and with every cheer she feels her husband in her blood, in her heart.
The fight ends in a draw. When it is over, Jones prepares to meet the voice. As he sits there in the small locker room, surrounded by his trainer, promoter and cut man, he takes a deep breath and tries to calm down, wondering what he will say.
He feels like the kid he never was, "waiting to go to the senior prom." He has been out of the ring five minutes when the door opens and she appears. He stands, still wearing his black-andgold trunks. They smile, walk toward each other and embrace. What do they say? Nothing. They've already said so much to each other, in all those phone conversations. There is no need for words. Her embrace says everything.
THERE WAS a time when Khalid Jones was willing to die in the ring. Don't throw in the towel, he told his corner. But that time is gone, and so is that man. Someone new fights in his place. Yes, he still yearns for a title. He is 38, and after his last fight, a unanimous decision over unheralded Mack Willis on May 27, he's ranked fifth by the WBA. He will fight again on July 1, facing journeyman Fred Moore (30-3) for the vacant USBA light heavyweight belt. But the boxer who squared off against Bee Scottland on the deck of the Intrepid four years ago has more to live for now.
"I lived a crazy and corrupt life," Jones says. "I still question, why not me? Is there a purpose to me being here?"
If that purpose is to keep fighting in the name of a boxer now gone, and in honor of the family he left behind, then Jones is willing. He sees a therapist now, to help work through the pain. "I never want anybody to say Bee was killed by a drug addict or a drug dealer or a nobody," he says. "That's what makes me live my life better."
It's a purpose that brings light to the punches, to the fist. Because when he curls his fingers in on themselves, everything lies there in the center of his hand.
Everything worth fighting for.