Former fighter turned coach John Scully explains to Matt Christie why he can’t stop caring about a sport dear to his heart
Top coach John Scully has dedicated his entire life to boxing. A former light-heavyweight contender who regularly sends donations to fighters in need, Scully attempts to get to the bottom of his fixation with the sport
BN: What attracted you to boxing in the first place?
When I was a kid I stayed with my father on the weekends and he had a lot of books for me to read, the main ones being the autobiographies of Muhammad Ali, Willie Pep and Sugar Ray Robinson as well as the Ring Record Book from 1952. Every weekend I would read them again and again and the images they put into my head intrigued me just as much as watching the televised fights on the weekends with my father did.
If I remember correctly the first upcoming fight I ever heard about was the ‘Thrilla In Manila’ in 1975 when I was eight years old and the first fight I ever actually watched on TV was Ali versus Jimmy Young in 1976 so between Ali, the 1976 Olympics and the release of the first [i]Rocky[i] movie, I came up at a perfect time when all the stars were perfectly aligned to draw me into sport of boxing full steam ahead.
BN: You’ve experienced more than most as a boxer, trainer and analyst. You’ve seen more than your fair share of the bad. Why are you still drawn to this business?
I still love boxing at the ground level because I’m still involved there as I’m at the COBA gym in Hartford, Connecticut regularly working with young local amateurs in between training camps with [Artur] Beterbiev. For me it’s all about the boxing and the training. I’m not a fan of the business of boxing at all and that’s why I would never, ever be a promoter, matchmaker or manager.
I stay connected to the aspects of boxing that I first was in love with as a kid and I’ve always, always believed that to stay enthused about something you need to be involved in it in the same way that you were in the beginning. I try to maintain the same general approach and connection to the sport now that I did when I was still a kid.
BN: Have you ever been tempted to turn your back? If not, what was the lowest point?
There have been three different occasions when I wanted to get out of boxing completely. In 1990, 1993 and 1998 I was just completely confused, disillusioned and frustrated with making weight for my fights and also with that aforementioned business of boxing, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.
It was so much different than amateur boxing. When I was an amateur it was all cut and dry. You go to a tournament and you get to fight whoever you are matched up with, there’s no debate or negotiation. I fought at the weight that was most comfortable for me and it was easy to figure out.
As a pro there is so much behind the scenes business reasoning for the moves that are made. I was made to turn professional against my wishes at 160 because I was told that super-middleweight “wasn’t a real weight class” and that middleweight was where the money and exposure was. So even though I had to starve myself and wear rubber suits while running and sparring to make weight, I was still made to go to middleweight.
It eventually caught up with me and before I left my manager and moved up to super-middleweight; I was literally hating boxing. So at that point in 1990 at just 24 years of age, after a weight-drained loss to Kevin Watts, I just felt I wanted nothing to do with sport anymore.
Same exact thing happened after similar losses to Tony Thornton and Drake Thadzi. It’s definitely been a love-hate relationship with the game but it’s still absolutely, overwhelmingly, been a lot more love than hate in my mind.
BN: You recently went to the Atlantic City Hall of Fame annual ceremony. What is so special about the event?
I told the event director, Ray McCline, several years ago that I believe the Atlantic City Hall of Fame will eventually be able to rival that of any other including the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota and I believe we are definitely on our way to seeing that come to fruition.
I say that not just because the guest list is smaller but just as impressive but also because the whole vibe is one of a family atmosphere. Fans and former fighters all hang out together in the same places like they are on vacation together. It really is incredible. The access to and interaction with the champs is second to none.
BN: What was the highlight of the weekend?
It would almost impossible to pinpoint one single moment as the absolute highlight of the weekend. I mean, it could be getting off the elevator on the first day and realizing that Robert Duran is in the room next to you or it could be at the reception that night watching Ray Mercer, Pinklon Thomas, and Tim Witherspoon on the dance floor in front of you. It could be when I unexpectedly found myself standing next to Mike Rossman or it could be on that Friday night when I found myself outdoors on the hotel rooftop with the Atlantic City Steel Pier in the background as I reminisced with Michael “The Silk” Olijade, Michael Nunn and James Toney about our histories together.
It could also be when I found myself in the hotel lobby lounge watching a Saturday night fight with a group that included Iran Barkley, Reuben Olivares and Kelly Pavlik.
Being among my fellow fighters really is something special, especially at this point in our lives and careers. The camaraderie is phenomenal, I mean amazing to feel and witness. Everyone is talking about when they fought each other, when they sparred each other, just reminiscing over all the old war stories. They show each other so much respect.
It’s surreal to have guys you admire even know who you are and they address you by your first name. For a period of time you really do feel like you are with your idols but also with your friends.
I mean, I remember one instance in particular when former middleweight contender Michael Olijade pointed across the room and asked me, “Is that Marlon Starling over there? Wow, I used to watch him all the time back in the 1980s!” before going over to say hello.
BN: You continue to help boxers in need. How important is that to you?
As I’ve gotten older and more experienced in the game I’ve realised, with great sadness, how many former fighters aren’t able to enjoy these times as much as they should. We can have fun recalling some of the greatest memories a lifetime can produce but we are also forced to remember that not everyone of us makes it through. The brutal fact is that men like Prichard Colon, Wilfred Benitez and Gerald McClellan will never be able to experience and enjoy these events together with us as we do. They are affected and damaged beyond repair. I think it is the duty and responsibility of those of us who are still able minded and bodied to at least spread the awareness, if not actually help financially a bit.
I sat with Wilfred in his living room in Puerto Rico one time, me in a chair and him in a hospital bed in the middle if the room, and for the majority of the time there he was holding my hand. I am very sure he has no idea who I actually am but his sister told me that he knows that I was a boxer and he felt close to me because of that. That was a powerful moment for me, really. This great champion holding my hand, like somehow he is able to connect back to the game in some way by holding hands with a fellow fighter. It was pretty deep for me, I have to admit.
BN: Why is it left to you? Should more not be done to help ex-boxers in need?
I love what I do, I feel it is appreciated, but at the same time I have to wonder why more big-time people in the game aren’t doing something similar. I mean, without naming names, no one is required to do anything at all, I know that. But let’s just say there are several people in this game who could easily help guys like Gerald McClellan, Prichard Colon and Wilfred Benitez with donations that would be a tax write off but also would be money not even needed or missed. It would be like me dropping a quarter on the street and not even realising it was gone. But to the former fighters in need it would be humongous.
I mean, let’s say – hypothetically of course – that money-makers from the sport like Jake Paul or Floyd Mayweather were to set aside just one thousand dollars a month each for Wilfred, Prichard and Gerald, just $3000 a month in total. They wouldn’t even miss that money! To Wilfred, Prichard and Gerald and their families, though, it would be life-changing assistance!
I know one thing is for absolute certain, one million per cent: If I had that kind of money to burn I can guarantee you that these three families would never have to worry about food or a mortgage ever again.
BN: Does it concern you that one day all the punches may catch up with you?
It’s a funny thing that I’ve thought about much more in recent times now that my career has long been over but when I was actively fighting I never thought about getting hurt. I mean, that’s what training for fights is all about. You train yourself not to think that way because, if you do, then this sport is definitely not for you. It’s why only a small percentage of humans on this earth can even do it with any success because the average person would be thinking about both the instant and the long-term effects.
Honestly, though, it’s a mindset that you have to have. I remember for example when I first started boxing I had a headache that essentially lasted for a year-and-a-half. I mean, every single day and night I had this headache.
Crazily enough, the only times it didn’t bother me was when I was in the gym. Before and after going to the gym every day, though, it was a very rough time for me. I just lived with it. I never told anyone about it either because I figuted if my father knew about it he would make me quit boxing. I figured I’d rather deal with the pain of the headaches every day than be told that I couldn’t go to the gym anymore.
I also feel like if at some point in the future I started to develop boxing related issues, not so deep in my mind I would feel like I could wear them with a certain amount of pride and honour that maybe only former fighters would understand.
BN: If you could live one day of your life all over again, which one would it be?
Sometimes when I think of my life and what I might do differently if given the chance I often conclude that what should have happened did actually happen and changing something in history might actually inadvertently lead to an even worse result.
With that being said, if I was inclined and able to change a day or moment it would more than likely be the Drake Thadzi fight on ESPN in 1998. Physically, mentally, emotionally I had no business at all being anywhere near a boxing ring that night. I absolutely knew that I shouldn’t go through with the fight but I never wanted anyone to think I was afraid so no matter what was going on I was always going to go through with it and try and figure it out as I went. If I was my own trainer there is no way on earth I would have allowed me to fight that night but for the vast majority of my career I stayed quiet, I never told anyone about any issues I may have had, and I tried to work the situations out for myself.
I was stopped for the only time in my entire amateur and professional careers, stopped only because I wasn’t throwing punches back for fear of getting tired and opening myself up to punches I knew I wasn’t prepared to take.
Maybe the worst night of my entire life, psychologically at least.