“The first time I met James Butler, he was kicking in windows” at a fast-food joint, recalls Elliott Ness, Butler’s first boxing trainer more than 10 years ago. “The owner wouldn’t let him in, so he smashed in the storefront window. I was a trainer, and I went up to him and told him he should be a boxer. He was 17 and had a ‘fuck the world’ attitude. I look for kids with anger.”
On September 23 at the Roseland Ballroom, in a show to benefit the Twin Towers Fund, Butler, now known as the “Harlem Hammer,” went nuts again. But this time, instead of busting up a fast-food joint, he coldcocked super middleweight Richard “the Alien” Grant (14-8, 2 KOs) after it was announced that Butler lost a unanimous decision to him.
The fight itself had been a bore. More than five hundred police officers and firefighters on hand at what was billed as “Fighting for America: A Night of Thanksgiving” had to wait until after the match was over to see Butler (18-3, 12 KOs) get close enough to land a punch. He let loose with the haymaker as Grant went to embrace him. It was by far the best punch of the night.
“Both of the fighters should have been thrown out of the ring,” says fight agent Johnny Bos. “It was a double no-hitter. You could see thefrustration—Butler’s being insulted after every round, and he knows half his purse is going to charity. The other guy is running the whole fight. Then Butler sees the other guy’s hand raised [at the end] and his ranking go out the window. Both guys will probably never fight on TV again.”
That’s the least of Butler’s problems. Following the fight, the Hammer was handcuffed and taken into custody. He faces a felony assault charge and he may get his boxing license revoked. Butler’s already had his license suspended, and a hearing is looming. The guy threw his sucker punch right in front of Raymond Kelly, not only the incoming city police commissioner but also the newly appointed head of the state boxing commission.
If Butler is thrown out of boxing, he will join a small fraternity of banned fighters, including Luis Resto and his trainer, Panama Lewis, who in 1983 illegally removed padding from Resto’s gloves in a fight at Madison Square Garden. After Resto gave his opponent, Billy Collins, a beating, Collins’s father went over to shake Resto’s gloved hand and discovered why Resto’s punches had so much pop: The cushioning in his gloves was gone.
The New York State Athletic Commission gave Lewis and Resto their walking papers, and each served a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Today Resto lives in the basement of the Morris Park Boxing Gym in the Bronx, in a tiny room that doesn’t have its own bathroom. He’s never fully recovered from having his livelihood stripped by the commission.
If Butler gets the book thrown at him, as many think he will, he may want to check to see if there are any other rooms available down there.