John Scully, Boxing’s Guardian Angel
“Work,” a word that is often used in boxing catchphrases. Phrases like ‘let's go to work,’ ‘we've put the work in,’ and ‘you've got to work the inside’ permeate gyms, interviews, and boxing corners.
It’s the word that perfectly sums up the boxing life of former light heavyweight world title contender John “Iceman” Scully (38-11, 21 KOs.)
John is a trainer at both the amateur and professional levels. In addition, he helps fighters in need, travels to different boxing functions throughout the country, and has served as a boxing expert on a Hollywood movie set.
I set up a time to chat, and I can tell John was tired from putting in a full day's work at the gym. But, nevertheless, Scully was in fine spirits while talking to me about his life.
Scully grew up in Windsor, Connecticut playing baseball and football. His father was a boxing fan, and John credits him for sparking his interest in boxing. “He had a big book collection,” Scully said nostalgically.
“And one of his books was the 1952 Ring Record Book.
“I would read this book every weekend. So, I knew all their records. I knew all the guys like Ray Robinson, Charley Fusari, Carmen Basilio, and even the obscure guys.” John continued, “Then I started watching the fights with him. All the big fights, Ali vs. Young, Ali vs. Norton, fights like that. I got a love for boxing from that.”
After his parents got divorced, John would visit his father every weekend. Scully’s father was in his forties when John was born. John’s dad was older than most of the fathers in the neighborhood. Therefore, he wasn't as active or involved with sports as the other fathers were with their sons.
To entertain himself on the weekends at his father’s house, Scully would recreate the boxing matches he would see on TV with his dad. “To kill time on the weekend, I would amuse myself, I would get on his bed, there was a big mirror on the wall. I would set a clock, I had a notebook, and I would fight an imaginary guy for 3 minutes for 15 rounds on the bed.”
Scully laughed as he recounted the story. “I had a pair of gloves, and I would splash water on my face and pretend it was sweat. I put Halloween blood on my eyes and pretended it was a cut. When it was over, I would do post-fight interviews and score the rounds. Usually, I’d win.”
Eventually, his father noticed and saw that John would do this every weekend. His father figured it would be best to take his boy to the gym, so he did. “That was March of 1982, and I loved it ever since,” said Scully.
John is heavily involved in amateur boxing. He coaches and travels the country to tournaments with his fighters. He loves amateur boxing and describes his time as an amateur boxer as “the best time of my life.” He loved the traveling, sparring, and camaraderie he experienced in amateur boxing.
During the 1980s, Scully would develop into an accomplished amateur boxer. He won numerous tournaments that included 7 Golden Gloves titles throughout New England. However, Scully didn't have the desire to become a professional boxer. His goal was to win 15 Golden Gloves titles. But he saw his peers were turning professional and having successful careers. So, he thought to himself, “if they were being successful, so can I.”
Additionally, Scully's manager urged him to become a professional, believing that he had accomplished enough as an amateur. “I have a love-hate relationship with the pros. It wasn't fun as the amateurs – we weren’t fighting for money- you were fighting for the glory. Pro is such a different game. Money is the motivation factor for everything. So, I didn't like the business aspect of it,” said Scully.
John Scully’s professional debut was on September 16th, 1988, against Paulino Falcone at the Civic Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
He would win 12 of his first 13 fights by knockout. In his 14th fight, he suffered his first professional loss, to Michigan native Brett Lally. Scully would grind on to win 22 of his next 25 contests for the next six years.
In 1995 Scully would fight the most important fight of his career up to that point. Two-time former world champion Michael “Second To” Nunn was on the comeback trail after losing his WBA super-middleweight title to Frankie Liles.
Scully knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime. He excitedly accepted the fight, but it seemed surreal at the time. “I couldn’t picture fighting Michael Nunn because I was a fan. If I saw him prior to the fight, I would’ve asked for an autograph,” said Scully as he chuckled. “But when I got the call, he became a different person. I didn't see him that way anymore. It was a different level, and I had to put myself on that level. In my mind, it's all or nothing, it's a championship fight.”
Perhaps Team Nunn thought Scully would be easy pickings and a minor nuisance in Nunn’s way to winning another world title.
But Scully had other plans that night.
For 12 rounds, Scully gave Nunn, then age 32, hell in a bout many believed Scully, age 28, should’ve won. According to ESPN's final “punch-stat” numbers, Scully connected on 48% of the punches he threw compared to Nunn's 29%. But, the judging panel, including Hall of Fame judge Harold Lederman, saw it differently.
Scully had a gracious attitude when I asked him how he felt about the decision 26 years later. However, you can slightly hear the indignation in his voice as he answers the question.
“I think it was a fight that depended on what you were looking for,” he said. “If you're looking for my style and the body punching – which I don't think I got credit for – you could give it to me. If you like the punching volume with the speed and the pizzaz, you can see it for him.”
Scully continued, “I knew I was doing well; I was landing good shots. I felt myself landing good shots. I had good defense, my hands were up. Some people thought he was killing me because he was throwing so many punches. But I knew I was blocking the majority of those shots. I was either slipping or blocking them.”
The fight was action-packed, and each fighter took turns imposing their will on one another. The unofficial scorekeeper had the fight tied going into the 9th round.
At the end of the fight, the two warriors embraced and awaited the decision. While the judges tallied the scorecards, Scully's body language showed an uneasy skepticism, and he wasn't optimistic that he would win despite his exceptional performance.
“I was taking into consideration who he (Nunn) was at the time. He’s Bob Arum’s fighter-it was Bob Arum’s show -it's Michael Nunn-he was a superstar. I didn’t know how the fight was going to go. And I wouldn’t have been surprised whichever way it went.”
When the decision was announced, you could see the disgust on Scully’s face. The three judges scored the bout 118-110, 120-108, 119-109, all in favor of Michael Nunn.
The commentary team was shocked at the wide margin of the scorecards and felt the fight was a lot closer than the scores indicated. “I’ll tell you something about young John Scully there, this is a boxing rebirth for him,” said the Hall of Fame commentator Al Bernstein of the performance by the Connecticut man that night.
Scully concluded his thoughts about the fight by saying, “If it was a draw, I would’ve been extremely happy. A lot of people thought I won. He's Michael Nunn, he’s a great fighter. Boxing is funny. That fight did a lot for me even though I didn't get the decision.”
“What does Michael Nunn say about the fight?” I asked.
Scully smiled and said, “We talked about it a few times. He was cool, genuinely gracious. The first thing he said to me was, ‘man, you hit hard. I didn’t know you could punch like that.’ He always gives me credit. He said, ‘man, you were a tough dude. I didn’t expect that out of you.’’
After the Nunn fight, Scully would fight 9 more times and lose 6 of those outings. That included challenging for a light heavy crown against Henry Maske. Scully gave a valiant effort, but the German champion would win a unanimous decision.
“I had a good career, I fought some pretty good fighters. And I beat some pretty good fighters. I'm happy about the way my career turned out,” said Scully.
Life After Boxing:
Scully retired from fighting in 2001. Since then, he has worked as a trainer and an assistant trainer at amateur and professional levels. At the time of this interview, John was in Montreal, Canada, serving as an assistant trainer for Artur Beterbiev’s training camp in preparation for the champ to defend his titles against Marcus Browne.
Scully has been training fighters since he was 18-years-old. So, becoming a full-time trainer was a seamless transition. Scully is a selfless trainer who puts the needs of his fighters first. Even if it means serving as a sparring partner for his own fighter, as he did for Jose Rivera, when he was getting ready to fight Alejandro Garcia for the WBA super welterweight championship of the world in 1996.
While he has trained and worked with world-class professional fighters, Scully’s heart still lies with amateur boxing. His passion I witnessed firsthand during the Christy Martin Title Invitational Tournament in Fayetteville, NC, this past summer. He sat stoically in the corner while his boxers fought, rarely raising his voice above speaking level so as to not to startle an already nervous fighter. Some were fighting their first sanctioned match. He gave simple, easy-to-follow instructions, taking care not overwhelm the boxers. He praised the winners and comforted the losers with the same energy.
In addition to training fighters, Scully has worked with actors helping them get ready for movie roles. Recently he has been working with James Madio. You may know Madio from shows and movies, like “Band of Brothers” and “The Basketball Diaries.”
Madio’s next movie role is portraying the boxing legend Guglielmo Papaleo, better known to boxing fans as Willie Pep.
Having personally known Willie Pep, Scully was familiar with Pep’s boxing style. Scully’s job is not to teach Madio how to box but instead teach him how to be Willie Pep. First, however, Scully wanted to make sure that Madio had a firsthand account of what it was like to be a boxer.
“I sparred with him (Madio). I wanted him to get a taste of what it was like to really get hit and get fatigued. I have nothing but great things to say about James,” said Scully proudly.
When he is not training fighters, doing speaking engagements, or providing analysis for upcoming fights, you can find John traveling to various boxing events around the country.
Most major sports in America have “players associations” that advocate for athletes' rights. Unfortunately, boxing has no such association. But if it did, John Scully would make for a fine president.
John is constantly advocating for and praising fighters. Especially those that can’t fend for themselves or those he feels are blatantly disregarded by boxing organizations and pundits.
Recently, Scully has been calling out the International Boxing Hall of Fame vehemently. John feels that there are fighters left off the ballot every year that are more deserving of consideration for induction than those on the ballot.
“I don't want to insult anyone, but there are people on that ballot every single year that don't hold a candle to Marlon Starling's accomplishments, not even remotely close,” said Scully passionately. A fellow Connecticut native, Starling is a former two-time world champion who beat some of the best fighters of his time.
“Marlon Starling upset huge odds. He was the first to beat Mark Breland when no one thought Mark Breland could be beaten. Then he brutalized Lloyd Honeyghan,” said Scully emphatically. Scully continued, “He beat Floyd Mayweather Sr. twice. He beat undefeated guys like Jose Baret, Tommy Ayers, and Kevin Howard. Starling beat numerous world-ranked contenders. Then he moved up and fought Michael Nunn to a majority decision. As a welterweight! He's not even on the ballot, c'mon man, that's insane!”
Scully feels that the International Boxing Hall of Fame is misleading in its name. And rather than recognize fighters' accomplishments, they acknowledge their fame.
“Lots of guys are famous. Adrien Broner is famous,” said Scully. “But I don’t care if he won a hundred titles. Look, he’s a talented fighter—he had a good run there for a while, but he's no Hall of Famer. Adrien Broner’s career doesn’t hold a candle to Marlon Starling’s. People know him more than Starling, but that's because he's insulting someone in a mall, and someone filmed it. That’s how he’s famous!
“You have people in this era that are on the board of the Hall of Fame that will tell you that “Adrien Broner is a 4-time champion in 4 divisions, he’s way better than Marlon Starling,” said Scully mockingly.
“That just tells me that they have no idea what they are talking about and the Hall of Fame in that regard is a joke. And I hate to say it because I love the Hall of Fame! I go every year, and I have a great time. I have so many friends that I meet there every year. The Hall of Fame is a special weekend. But to not have Marlon Starling there? It's criminal! Literally a criminal act against boxing that he’s not in there!”
Scully feels so passionate about ensuring the “right” people get inducted that he even suggested doing away with the Hall of Fame entirely if they aren't going to recognize fighters like Marlon Starling.
It is known that boxing is an inherently dangerous sport which poses severe risk of injury or the possibility of death to its athletes. Some know the names of combatants like Benny Paret and Duk-Koo Kim who have died from injuries they sustained during a fight. Sadly, times passes and we often forget the names of other brave souls who suffer from the effects of repeated head trauma, or perish from punishment incurred during a bout.
In 1995, after a brutal fight against Nigel Benn, Gerald McClellan collapsed in his corner and lost consciousness. He was rushed to the hospital to undergo brain surgery to remove a blood clot that formed in his brain. Since then, Gerald has been living with severe brain damage that robbed him of his eyesight and ability to walk unassisted. He has been under the care of his sister.
In 1996, Hall of Famer Wilfred Benitez collapsed and woke up three days later, suffering from severe brain damage. Doctors diagnosed him with CTE attributed to the punishment he received throughout his boxing career. He has been under the care of his sister since his mother passed away.
More recently, we saw Prichard Colon hit hard by in ring trauma. After a fight in 2015, Colon collapsed and lost consciousness due to a brain hemorrhage that he likely sustained during the fight. He has been under the care of his mother, who has documented his injuries and recovery on social media and news outlets.
Great warriors who entertained fans with their fistic gallantry now reduced to being under the full-time care of their loved ones. These injuries come at a great sacrifice and financial burden to their caretakers.
The sanctioning bodies and promotion companies, many of whom have made millions of dollars off these fighters, are under no obligation to provide any financial support or incur medical costs. These families appreciatively accept assistance from non-profit organizations and people that make donations to help them ease the financial burden.
John Scully is one of those people. For quite some time now, Scully has been sending money to the families of Wilfred Benitez, Gerald McClellan, and Prichard Colon.
Scully knew Gerald McClellan from his days in the amateur circuit. So when he heard of Gerald's condition, he felt compelled to help his pugilistic comrade.
“I knew Gerald from the amateurs, we had a connection,” he said. “And I grew up watching Benítez, so there was a connection in my mind. I recall somebody told me ‘Gerald needs money, he's in bad shape’ and I asked myself what I could I do?” I had a signed glove or poster of a famous boxer. I figured I’ll sell it and know someone will pay a couple hundred, I’ll sell it and send them the money.”
Throughout the years, John had acquired a significant amount of boxing memorabilia. He continued to sell his collection and send the proceeds to the three families. Now, wherever he travels to boxing events, John asks fighters and boxing personalities to sign posters and equipment to contribute to his cause.
His example has motivated others to want to help. “Now I literally have people….” said Scully as he paused for a second while he reflected on the kindness of the people that have offered to help him.
Scully continued, “People are good. So many people in the last year say, ‘what’s your Venmo? I’m going to send you a hundred bucks for Wilfred.’ It’s been great, but I wish more people would do it.”
Scully has been able to do a lot with the connections and friendships he has made throughout the years. But knows he can change the lives of these families if some of the more successful people in boxing would lend their help.
“These big-time guys are not obligated, so I’m not saying they have to do this,” he stated. “But what I’m saying is a guy like Floyd Mayweather can give away a million dollars and not know it's gone. He could change people’s lives. Pacquiao can change people's lives. I mean, I am doing big stuff with a hundred bucks at a time, these guys can do phenomenal things. I wish more people that made big it would help. If I was making like $80 million dollars, Gerald McClellan wouldn’t have to worry about anything else the rest of his life,” said Scully.
Guardian angels are assigned to protect and guide a particular person. At least for those of us that believe in such things. I'm sure I have had the help of one of these angels, or maybe two. John Scully is passionate about boxing and its athletes. Whether he’s traveling with a group of young boxers to a tournament or working the corner during a world title fight, John Scully’s influence stretches well past the corners of Windsor, Connecticut. Scully is genuinely one of the good guys in a sport that houses a fair number of brutes and vipers. And for the fallen warriors who succumbed to the violent nature of our sport, John Scully, bless him, serves as a guardian angel.