Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who died on Sunday aged 76, was a fighter. He scrapped on the streets as a boy, learned to box in the army after running away from a boys’ home and fought for the world middleweight title in 1964.
It was his fight against two convictions for the murder of three white bar patrons, however, that made him a civil rights icon and attracted the attention of celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, who immortalised him in the song Hurricane.
Born in 1937, Carter was a child of the Great Migration; his parents had moved from Georgia to New Jersey in search of a better life. Lloyd Carter, Rubin’s father, worked two jobs to support Rubin and his seven siblings. A martinet, he beat his son often and once reported Rubin, aged nine, to the police for stealing.
The discipline didn’t work, and Carter ended up in a boys’ home after stabbing a man with a broken bottle. He escaped, aged 18, joined the army and learned to box in West Germany. Freedom didn’t last long upon his return, and he was sentenced to four years jail for robbing a woman and attacking a man in 1957.
Carter had his first professional fight the day after his release. He earned $20 and won a split decision over four rounds. His ferocious style and powerful left hook saw him swiftly climb the middleweight rankings. With his fu-manchu moustache, bald pate, glowering demeanour and criminal past, he was an easy sell as a villain.
By the time he got a shot at Joey Giardello’s middleweight title, he’d compiled a record of 20 wins, 13 by knockout, and four losses –an impressive ledger at a time when boxing was one of the most popular sports in America.
The discipline problems that dogged Carter as a youth never entirely went away, though. In 1964, immediately before his fight with Giardello, trainer Jimmy Wilde complained that the boxer generally didn’t make it out of bed until two in the afternoon. By that time Carter already been through several trainers and was ordered by a court to pay a third of his purse to a former manager.
The fight with Giardello turned out to be Carter’s high water mark as a contender. Despite valiantly ploughing forward and hurting the champ in the fourth, he was outboxed and lost a unanimous decision.
“Hurricane” fought 15 more times, losing seven and drawing one. He never got another title shot, and wasn’t on the way to one when he was arrested for murder in 1966, despite his claims to the contrary.
Carter’s tenacious, hard-headed style in the ring was a reflection of his personality. Contemptuous of prison rules, he used his time spent in solitary confinement to educate himself about legal matters, history and philosophy. He maintained his innocence through a re-trial and re-conviction, long after his celebrity friends had forgotten him.
Eventually, he climbed off the canvas and walked free in 1985 when a federal court judge ruled that prosecutors had ignored evidence and that their case had been racially motivated. Carter went on to found the not-for-profit group Innocence International and spoke around the world about problems with the justice system.
Even as he was dying of prostate cancer, Carter said his “dying wish” was to see David McCallum, a Brooklyn man he believed had been wrongfully convicted of murder, freed.
“Hurricane” Carter definitely went down swinging.