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Iceman John Scully: “I think Riddick Bowe potentially could have been one of the best heavyweight champions ever”
Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – I was recently afforded the opportunity to have a very nice discussion with ‘Iceman’ John Scully. As a professional boxer, Scully posted a record of 38-11 with 21 wins coming by way of knockout during a career that spanned from 1988-2001. Scully shared his views on many of his contemporaries, including some of the biggest names in boxing from his era, including: Roy Jones Junior, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, George Foreman, Julio Cesar Chavez, Hector Camacho, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, and more! Here is a complete transcript from that interview.
GEOFFREY CIANI: Hello everyone. This is Geoffrey Ciani from East Side Boxing and I am joined by trainer Iceman John Scully. How’s everything going today, John?
JOHN SCULLY: Everything is spectacular. I’m very happy to be here with you.
CIANI: Great! Thanks John. Now when you turned professional, the biggest star in boxing of course was ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, and in fact, about two and a half months or so before you made your professional debut, Tyson was arguably at the peak of his career with his impressive victory over Michael Spinks. During that time period what were your impressions of Tyson?
SCULLY: I’ll tell you, I didn’t think he was ever going to lose and I’ll tell you a funny thing. I’ll tell you a good story. In 1987 it was the end of May. I was in the US Olympic training camp. I was on the United States Boxing Team and I was in Lake Placid, New York, a real tiny little town up in upstate New York, and the fight with Pinklon Thomas was on. I was like, “I got to see this fight”. So I went, and I walked a couple of miles. I walked to the center of town, and I went all over town looking for a place to watch the fight. I finally got to a sports bar. I was 19 years old. I found this sports bar, and Pinkon Thomas was a solid fighter, a good fighter. Tyson blew him out with those left hooks at the end and that right hand. I remember I had to walk a couple of miles back to the training center. Distinctly I remember saying to myself, “This guy is never going to lose. There’s just nobody in the world that’s going to beat this guy”. And I think a lot of people thought that. You just couldn’t picture anybody lasting with him, and there is a good chance that nobody would have had he stayed on course the way he was going.
CIANI: It would be just a couple of short years after that, of course, that he would wind up losing to Buster Douglas. What were you thinking at that time?
SCULLY: I actually remember I didn’t even watch the fight. I went out with my friend. I remember we went out, and I came home and I turned on the TV. I can’t remember if it was the news or the actual broadcast, but when it dawned on me what I was watching when they were recapping the fight it was just disbelief. You know at that time, people have to realize that people were at a loss for words. Nobody could believe that that happened. I’ve heard people say, “Oh I knew! I bet against him in that fight”.
I’m like, “Man, I’d like to see the stub on that one, because I don’t think very many people bet on Buster”. The only reason they may have, I don’t think they bet on Buster necessarily because they thought he was going to win. But they figured to put $50 on him and whatever the odds were they would have made a killing. So I guess a few people did.
CIANI: Now Mike of course, shortly after that he would have a couple of fights with Razor Ruddock that were good fights, and then he would have his prison stint. What were you thinking when Mike went away, and did you ever think that he would return and ever come close to being what he was again?
SCULLY: I remember specifically having my doubts that he would be able to come back at that peak. One thing I do remember, I was training with Roy Jones Junior at the time and we were down in the gym in Pensacola, Florida. I remember specifically I heard big Roy, Roy’s father, I remember him saying they shafted him and they got him a tax lawyer. If you remember that Don King got him a tax attorney, however that possibly worked out. But a tax attorney’s the one that actually represented him I guess, and I remember big Roy saying it was all orchestrated, that they made sure he was guilty—and he called it—so that when he comes out of jail it will be the biggest thing ever, and he was right. I don’t know if it was actually a conspiracy, but that’s the way it turned out.
You know when he came back and fought Peter McNeeley I remember having this gut feeling. Like during the first round, and Peter to his credit really came out fast. Peter came out trying to win. He actually tried to win the fight. He was throwing big bombs, and I know from being out of the ring for awhile you don’t necessarily take the best punch right away and it could surprise you. There were a couple of hooks he threw when Mike was against the ropes, and it actually occurred to me, I said, “Man! If he lands one of his best punches here something may happen with Tyson. Tyson hasn’t been hit in a few years”, but obviously Mike came through that fight. But I just had my doubts that he would ever have the aura he created in ’88.
CIANI: Now the two main guys that wound up becoming the successors to Tyson so to speak, were Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe. Of course they had their great trilogy there in the mid/early-90s. What were your thoughts on them as champions representing the heavyweight division?
SCULLY: Oh! I mean you know what? I thought they were both excellent. I actually fought on the undercard when they fought their first fight. I was the last fight before them, and I remember I had cuts on my eye, and I actually stayed. Before I went to get stitches I stayed so I could watch the fight, and it was a great fight. I think Riddick Bowe potentially could have been one of the best heavyweight champions ever. He had all the tools and all the talent. I mean he fought with skill that very few heavyweights have ever exhibited. You know he was a good body puncher, he was very intelligent, he had a great jab, he had heart, everything. And Holyfield, I mean obviously Holyfield was the warrior who fought everybody. They maybe weren’t as exciting punch-for-punch as Mike. They didn’t have quite that aura, but they were obviously very worthy successors.
CIANI: Another guy that was becoming a player was Big George Foreman. When he first came back, that was also around the time you started your professional boxing career. What did you think of the return of Foreman initially when he came back, and were you surprised he went on to have the type of success he did at his age after a ten year absence from the ring?
SCULLY: Oh sure, but at the time he came back in 1987 I was 19. He actually had only not fought in I think eleven years, but when you’re 19 eleven years is quite a long time. It might as well be 100 years. In 1987, to say that he last fought in 1976 or 1977, that might as well have been 1877 to me at that age. So when he came back, it’s funny looking at it now because he was relatively young, but when he came back I thought he was way too old and heavy, and I thought he was going to get massacred. When he fought Holyfield I remember, it’s funny because all of these fights actually coincide with my own boxing career. I was actually in Pensacola, Florida at Roy Jones’ manager’s house watching the fight when he fought Holyfield, and I couldn’t believe the effort that he actually put up. There were a couple of moments there where I thought he was actually going to pull it off and get Holyfield out of there. Then when he came back and beat Michael Moorer, it’s funny. I’m actually friends with Michael. I’ve known Michael Moorer since he weighed 156 pounds, and I don’t know Foreman at all. But when Foreman hit that shot I was happy, not that Michael lost but just because of the significance of it. It was so incredible for a guy literally twenty years later after winning the title for the first time—twenty years—that was just unbelievable to me. It still is. To this day it still is.
CIANI: Changing things up to a couple of the smaller guys that were popular names at the time during your professional career. One of them I’d like to get your views on is ‘Sweet Pea’, Pernell Whitaker. What were your thoughts on him as a fighter and the unique style that he brought into the ring with him?
SCULLY: Oh he was just super smooth. I mean he had gifts and instincts that whatever the very low percentage of fighters in history ever had. He’s just a brilliant, brilliant fighter. He was so calm and so relaxed in the ring, and he was like a scientist. You know I kind of compare him to in a way, as far as his boxing brain, to you know I’d say Mayweather, Mike McCallum, James Toney, and guys like that, guys who just execute things so well where it seems so easy for them. ‘Sweet Pea’ was in many ways I think in a class by himself.
CIANI: What were your thoughts when he fought Julio Cesar Chavez in a fight that was ultimately ruled a draw?
SCULLY: I remember specifically, the only time I ever watched it was when it actually aired live, and I watched it with a guy who loved Chavez. I just remember every round looking at him and going, “Man, we’re killing you”. I was going for ‘Sweet Pea’ and he was going for Chavez. I haven’t seen it again, but I remember specifically thinking that it was the easiest fight to score that I had ever seen.
People often now, you hear people say, “Well if you watch it again, Chavez was doing good body work” but you can’t watch it again! You have to go by the first time you saw it. You have to, and the first time I saw it I thought it was a very, very bad robbery.
CIANI: Switching things to a guy you mentioned before a couple of times: Roy Jones Junior. Now he was the guy that throughout a large portion of the 90s he was considered the ‘Pound-for-Pound King’. He was a long time champion in the light heavyweight division that you competed in. Give us your thoughts on Roy?
SCULLY: I think Roy Jones is by far the most talented guy that I’ve seen. If you add up all the guys that I sparred and all the guys that I fought in my life, as an amateur and pro, it’s over 1,000. I’ve kept track. It’s over 1,000. I would say by far the most naturally gifted and talented was Roy Jones. People love to hate on Roy Jones for some reason, especially in light of his recent years, the last six or seven years. But you can’t go by that. You just can’t! It would be like judging Ali when he fought Berbick, Spinks, and Holmes. On his best day Roy Jones was the man. At his best I don’t see anybody beating him. I don’t care about he didn’t have the greatest technique and all that stuff people like to say. I mean he fought a great technical fighter in James Toney. He fought a great technical fighter in Mike McCallum. He fought top class fighters and he solved them all. In his prime he solved them all, and you can’t take that away from him. The guy was superhuman.
CIANI: Well one thing I’d like your views on regarding Roy, one of the fights that most people do assume Roy would have one, but one of the fights he gets some criticism for that never happened was a fight with Dariusz Michalczewski. The two of them reigned together as champions in the same division for quite a number of years. (1) What do you think would have happened if they would have fought sometime around 1997-1999 when the fight seemed to be in the biggest demand? And (2) how come you think we never got that one?
SCULLY: In all honesty I’ll tell you this: I think Michalczewski was underrated. I know guys that have sparred him and guys that fought him, and one thing they all say, every one of them, is what an amazingly hard jab Dariusz had. It was phenomenal. I’ve talked to several guys that fought him and they say the same thing: What an amazing brutal jab this guy had. You could see it when he fought Virgil Hill and in different fights. He’s better than I think a lot of people might give him credit for, but at that time, one thing about Roy is he got up for the fights. He got up for James Toney, and he got up for John Ruiz, and he got up for high profile fights where he really needed to shine. I don’t think Dariusz had a prayer of beating Roy Jones at that time.
I don’t know the inside info on all the negotiations, but I’ll say this, I can only say this: This much I do know about boxing. What people think they know about boxing and what it really is, is often two different things. I mean there’s a lot that goes into negotiation, and a lot of stuff you never hear about. At his worst I don’t think Roy Jones ever thought he was going to lose on the straight up to Dariusz. I don’t think that. I don’t believe that for a second. I think there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t hear about, and for whatever reason he didn’t take the fight. It didn’t come into play. I don’t know why. I’ll say this: Maybe he was a little leery of going overseas because of his Olympic experience. Especially at that time, a lot of guys from the United States weren’t going overseas. It wasn’t as much as a practice as it is now, but like I said, I’ll say this: I don’t think he was afraid of the guy personally.
CIANI: What do you think of the fact that Roy Jones, well past his prime, is still out there boxing today? Do you think, as good as he was, that he might be one of those rare instances that hanging around too long might be having a negative impact on his overall image?
SCULLY: You know for me it doesn’t, but with a lot of people I know for sure it does and it’s terrible. I mean the fact of the matter is you have to judge a guy by his time and that’s it. Like no matter what happened, take a running back in the NFL, whoever the record holder is for the most yards in a season. Well if he goes and stays on too long, and he can’t even get two yards a carry, and he gets blitzed every time he runs the ball, that doesn’t change the fact of who he was. You know Roy in his prime was unstoppable. There was nobody close to that guy. Unfortunately, through the eyes of many, what he’s doing now affects his standing. I hate it! I mean I love Roy Jones. I saw Roy Jones when he was 139 pounds in the Nationals in 1986. So I go back quite a ways with this guy. I’ve seen him come up, and I sparred with him before the Olympics, and everything. So for me to see him like this I hate it, because for me, him staying on is pointless to a certain degree because if he can’t be the best then I don’t see what the point of staying is. Right now at light heavyweight I don’t think he can beat Chad Dawson. You know. So I hate the fact that he stayed around, and also I remember when we were amateurs just turning pro, I remember specifically him saying he would never do this. Exactly what he’s doing now, he always said he would never do, so I’m a little bit disappointed in that. But by the same token, he was a professional fighter and he was a champion, and I know that feeling of not wanting to give it up because you know once you give it up, that’s it. The thing that you loved the most in life is gone forever, and I just think he’s having a hard time letting go.
CIANI: Now it’s hard to discuss Roy’s career without also considering another guy that I know you’re familiar with: Bernard Hopkins. He actually made his pro debut the same year that you debuted, and here you guys were all these years later, and you trained Chad Dawson to just beat Hopkins last time out, where in his career, unlike Roy’s, Hopkins has managed to maintain a level of competitiveness where he hasn’t really damaged his legacy in the way that Roy may have in the eyes of some. What has enabled Bernard to go on for this long the way he has in your view?
SCULLY: I think one thing is he’s notorious and legendary for being fanatical about his conditioning and his diet. I mean this is a guy who doesn’t eat junk food and he doesn’t drink soda. I believe it. I strenuously believe that that’s a huge factor. I myself, I eat pretty good. I never drink soda, no drugs, no anything, no cigarettes, no alcohol for my whole life, and I believe Hopkins said that he’s the same type of guy, and I definitely believe he’s an example of what proper living can do for a guy. He just has that mentality. I’ll give you an example. Nazim Richardson, his trainer, I remember back around 2004 we were actually in a training camp together up in the Catskills. He was working with I believe Hasim Rahman at the time, and I remember him telling me about Bernard and he said they had a guy come up there, a good fighter, a contender who came up there and sparred with Bernard for training camp. He said after like a week or ten days of seeing how Bernard lives, and how Bernard goes to bed early, and the food he eats—I’ll never forget it. He said the guy told him, “Man! If this is what it takes to be a champion I don’t even want to be a champion. He can have it”. The guy obviously never became a champion, because he just said man, Bernard is taking it to the next level. He’s fanatical about his training. He’s a good example for young fighters out there. I mean this is a guy who’s 47. He didn’t embarrass himself against Chad, not at all. I actually would pick him to beat several other top light heavyweights right now. If they were to fight I’d pick Bernard. When I saw Bernard a few weeks ago I told him this. So he’s a poster child for clean living and intensity.
CIANI: Now looking on a specific bout of Bernard’s here, Bernard in the aftermath of 911, which I remember very well living here in the Manhattan area, he had the fight with Felix Trinidad. It was one of the first big sporting events in Manhattan after 911. I was wondering if you could tell us what your views were going into the fight and what you thought of the fight itself between Hopkins and Trinidad?
SCULLY: Actually my last fight was actually three months before that fight. My last fight was June of 2001, but I remember this. I remember the back and forth between people on who was going to win was huge. People were on such a Tito high. It just seemed like he had magic gloves, and if he touched you you’d fall down. At the time Bernard wasn’t known like he is now. He’s more famous and more respected now than he was then, and I think it was harder to envision Tito losing than it was envisioning Hopkins losing at the time. I actually picked Hopkins, but I know that I had a lot of opposition. A lot of people were going for Tito.
CIANI: Now sticking with Trinidad here for a moment, a couple of years before that of course we would have the battle of unbeaten welterweights. It would be him and Oscar De La Hoya at the time. While the fight might have wound up turning out a little bit disappointing, the hype going into the fight was certainly big. What did you think of that whole thing?
SCULLY: Well let me tell you, it’s amazing that you’re bringing up all of these instances for me to recall. They all have something that coincided with my own boxing. We watched that fight, I was at Disney World at the Hard Rock I believe it was. We were at the 1999 National PAL amateur tournament. I had an amateur team of boxers down in Disney World fighting, and that fight happened that week. I guess the statute of limitations is up. We actually snuck into the place that was charging like $20 for everybody to come in and watch. We snuck in and we watched the fight, and I distinctly specifically remember after the eighth round, I turned to one of my boxers. He was a Puerto Rican kid who just loves Trinidad. He just loves him, and I remember saying to him, “Man! I feel bad for Tito. He’s getting embarrassed, like this fight is so one-sided”. I thought that Oscar was, for the first nine rounds I guess, controlling the whole fight with his jab, the double-jab, I saw him feinting and jabbing. I thought Oscar put on a masterful show, and look, he did run! He did run away the last three rounds. There is no disputing that, but the fact of the matter is rounds are rounds. It doesn’t matter if you lose the last three rounds. If you won the first nine, or eight out of the first nine, you win the fight. Period! It wasn’t a satisfactory ending, but in no way do I think that Trinidad won that fight.
CIANI: What do you think it was about Oscar that enabled him, especially as a non-heavyweight, to celebrate the type of success he had during his career where it seemed to me, whenever Oscar was fighting, even people that weren’t that into boxing would be sure to tune in?
SCULLY: Oh! He captured. Some fighters capture people. Tommy Hearns and Aaron Pryor didn’t, and Sugar Ray Leonard did. Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, and Ken Norton didn’t; and Muhammad Ali did. All of these fighters had great success, but having that “it”—that quote/unquote “it” factor—Oscar had it. He had the whole Olympic thing, and the thing with his mother dedicating the Olympics to her, and he had the good looks, and was well-spoken. He magnified that to the people and he took advantage of it, and he was marketed properly. Some people say that with disdain. They say it like he wasn’t a good fighter; he was just a properly marketed guy. But I’m not even a fan of Oscar really, but he was a very, very good if not a great fighter. The guy proved himself over and over. I mean very few people ever have had the resume of Oscar De La Hoya, win or lose. I mean the resume of the people he’s fought and beaten is one of the most impressive out there, ever.
CIANI: Now one of Oscar’s rivals, Sugar Shane Mosley, he was also a guy that was a fairly big name throughout the 90s, and a guy that had great success, and even for a brief period by some was considered the ‘Pound-for-Pound King’ that rivaled Jones and, for awhile there, Trinidad. When you look back at Shane’s prime years, particularly as a lightweight, do you think that people that watched Shane these last few years who might not have been into boxing, may have forgotten the type of talent he was in a similar sense to Roy?
SCULLY: Yes. You know what I actually hate that part of boxing. I’ll give you the perfect example of what is happening to Shane. You take Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho. People, younger guys, you know guys that are adults but they’re younger guys, you go, “Hey did you ever see Camacho?”
“Oh yeah! I saw him fight De La Hoya, I saw him fight Trinidad”. No, no. Then they go, “Well he wasn’t that much. He’s slower, and he didn’t throw that many punches”.
I’m talking 1982, ’81, ’83, ’84—I mean this guy was phenomenal! People don’t know that or they forgot that, and I think it’s similar with Shane. People are going to remember him losing to Canelo, and it’s sad in a way because at 135, at his best weight, he was phenomenal—and if he ever stayed there for his whole career like Hopkins did at 160 pretty much, I think his legacy would be much, much, much stronger.
SCULLY: Looking back as a fan during these years when you were a professional fighter John, was there any one match that you really hoped would get made that never came to be?
SCULLY: Oh wow! Let me see. I would say probably the biggest one from my era, and I was an amateur at the time, but Sugar Ray Leonard and Aaron Pryor. I think that’s the one that we probably missed out on. The world really missed out. I think during my active years as a pro I would say, and it happened but it didn’t happen, if you take Lennox Lewis and Tyson. If they would have fought much earlier I think it would have been awesome, and I think Bowe and Tyson. I think Bowe and Tyson would have been a spectacular clash of styles. I think that would have been a pick’em fight. I think Bowe would have been right there in it. I think he would have had a lot of success with Tyson, but Tyson would have been able to hit him and it would have been interesting to see how it would have played out. I think overall probably Tyson and Bowe is the one that I wish would have happened that didn’t.
CIANI: John, when you think back about some of these names that we discussed here today, and you look at the current crop of stars like Pacquiao and Mayweather, and emerging stars like Chad and Andre Ward—what do you think when you compare the two eras?
SCULLY: Well you know it’s hard to actually compare because it’s such a different time in the world, and in the world of marketing, and things like that. Sugar Ray Leonard and those guys, you knew them from when they first came out. They were known to the public. By the time they reached HBO you had already seen them on network TV numerous times. You had seen them on ESPN. Guys were built up, built up, and people got to see them and were exposed to them. Now it’s kind of different. These guys when you first get to know them it’s when they’re already in the big money fights. Like Canelo say. Canelo is out now, and he’s a big star, but we didn’t see him when he was fighting early on, on undercards, or as a six round fighter. So I think it’s unfortunate.
The era back in the day was better. You had the network TV, you had ESPN, and you had USA Tuesday Night Fights. So all those fighters out there, even Roy Jones! Before he got on pay-per-view, he was on USA Tuesday Night Fights frequently. So everyone knew him. As far as the talent level, people always like to say that oh the guys back then were better. I remember in the 80s we were saying oh, they were better in the 70s. I’m sure in the 70s they were saying oh in the 60s they were better. I mean these guys are good. The guys are good today. Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver and all of these guys, they certainly would have been hanging in there with Dwight Braxton and Matthew Saad and all of those guys. It’s their time. It’s a different era. But I just think the only thing that’s changed is the marketability and the notoriety is different.
CIANI: John, my final question for you—looking back through those years of your fighting career as a boxing fan, what would you say are your fondest memories as fan looking back on that era?
SCULLY: Oh! Without a doubt, as a fan from when I first started boxing, specifically I would say Hagler-Hearns, Hagler-Leonard, Leonard-Duran, Holmes-Cooney, and then on HBO you had Pryor and Arguello, which now would have easily been a pay-per-view blockbuster. Back then it was on HBO. But those fights in that era, and actually Gerry Cooney! He’s actually a friend of mine and I was actually talking to him. I discussed this actual fact with him. I said I remember when you were fighting Larry Holmes, the fight was in June of ’82. For months and months and months before that fight, twice a week at least the New York Post would have full stories on that fight. That fight was built up for months and months and months. The biggest newspapers, all the newspapers had stories on it. Even my local paper, The Hartford Courant, the sportswriters would write editorials about that fight. Now, you take a fight now—look at Chad and Ward is a big fight, right? I guarantee you some newspaper in Akron is not going to have it. They’re not going to have the results. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper in Cleveland, they’re not going to have it. But back in the day, Holmes and Cooney, they were on the front page. I still have the newspaper. I collected the old newspapers. With Holmes and Cooney, the day after their fight Holmes and Cooney had a big picture on the front page of the Hartford Courant; Ali and Holmes, big picture; Leonard and Heanrs, big picture; Hagler and Leonard, big picture. With the big fights now you’re lucky if there’s a big picture on the front page of your local paper. So unfortunately it’s just a different era with different marketing, different strategies, and different interests of an era.
CIANI: John, as always, it was a great pleasure to speak with you. I thank you very much for your time and insight. I enjoyed this interview, and I wish you the best of luck going forward.
SCULLY: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, and any time you need me to talk boxing I’m available. I appreciate it very much.
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