By David Cruz
Had he not lost 19 years to prison, there’s no telling what kind of life Rubin Carter could have lived, what championships he could have won, what impact he could have had on the city where he grew up.
“I don’t wanna say he was a great fighter, but he was great puncher. I mean he had a left hook like one of these Joe Frazier-type of guys,” recalls Henry Hascup, who runs the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. As a youngster in Paterson, he idolized the man everyone assumed would become a world champion. But even as Carter rose through the middleweight ranks, the angry demeanor that served him so well inside the ring made his life outside the ring difficult.
“He was friendly to me, for some reason, but I was a little kid, a teenager,” he says. “But, I do hear stories, even from my brothers-in-law who went to school with him who say he was a pretty mean individual at that time, but I think boxing changed his life.”
Carter impressed fight fans by beating bigger and better established fighters. But he lost a close decision to champion Joey Giardello in his only title bout in 1964. He’d had run-ins with the police and served time for armed robbery and assault. Although he was still a folk hero in Paterson, by 1966, Carter’s boxing career was in decline. And on a June night when three people were murdered inside a bar on Lafayette Street, Carter was a perfect mark for what a judge later said was a racist police force.
“Well, it’s a post World War II story for sure, and it’s after World War II that America increasingly confronts the problem of race and racism and Rubin Carter is an example of that problem in real and historic time,” says Rutgers University Historian Clement Price.
Carter’s fight to free himself became a national cause célèbre, attracting support from movie stars and sports figures, inspiring a classic song by Bob Dylan.
Joe Grier owns the Global Boxing Gym in Paterson and trains fighters around the state. He is wistful as he remembers watching Rubin Carter train and fight in the early 1960s.
“We used to sit in awe of him and just watch him,” he remembers. “When he was on top of his game, he was knocking out guys like Emil Griffith. It was just unbelievable, and it pumped up the boxing game in the city of Paterson.”
Carter was finally exonerated and released in 1985, even after more than a dozen unsuccessful appeals by prosecutors. He wrote a memoir and his life became the subject of a motion picture starring Denzel Washington.
Like the city of Paterson itself, Rubin Carter was imperfect. He lived violently and in violent times, but died peacefully this weekend in Toronto, where, for the last two decades of his life, his fights were fought on behalf of those wrongfully convicted of crimes.