Had he just been a boxer, the death Sunday of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter might have passed largely unnoticed. After all, Carter fought only once for a world title, losing a 15-round unanimous decision to Joey Giardello in 1964.
But Carter was more than a boxer. He was a cause celebre because of his conviction in 1966 of a triple murder charge and his subsequent 19 years of wrongful incarceration before the conviction was overturned in 1985. His story was told in song by Bob Dylan and portrayed by actor Denzel Washington in the 1999 movie "The Hurricane."
News accounts of Carter's death from prostate cancer at the age of 76 said he weighed only 90 pounds at the end of a battle he couldn't win. That vision of human frailty lies in stark contrast with the memory of Carter in his boxing prime as a foreboding ring figure equipped with a vicious left hook and bad intentions.
"Irish" Bobby Cassidy, 70, a retired middleweight who fought on the undercard of Carter's split-decision loss to Joey Archer in 1963 and victory over future heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis the following year, on Sunday recalled Carter's intimidating ring presence.
"He was like the Mike Tyson of the middleweight division," Cassidy said. "He was a terrific left-hooker. He used to wear a hooded robe a lot of times. He had a scowl on his face and he wouldn't talk to you. He'd just look to throw that left hook and take you out."
The nickname "Hurricane" was no misnomer. It described the style of a fighter who, though he stood a compact 5-8, possessed surprising power that was fueled by a rage that reflected a hard youth. He dropped out of school, wound up in reform school and later served prison time for assault and robbery. Upon his release in 1961, he began his boxing career.
"He would try to intimidate you immediately by going right after you and throwing punches," Cassidy recalled. "Joey Giardello outboxed him, but that was the only way you could beat him. If you stayed there and slugged with him, you were going to get knocked out."
Emile Griffith, who was welterweight champion at the time, made that mistake when he moved up to a 157-pound catchweight for a 10-round non-title bout with Carter on Dec. 20, 1963. Carter floored Griffith with the left hook and put him on the canvas a second time with a flurry of punches before the bout was stopped after only 2:13.
Maybe Carter still was angry about losing his previous bout to Archer. "I was rooting for Archer," said Cassidy, who watched after winning his own preliminary at Madison Square Garden. "In the 10th round, Archer got staggered. I figured, 'He's going.' But he lasted the 10th and got the decision. It was close, but I thought Carter won."
Carter's subsequent wins over Griffith and Ellis gained a title shot against Giardello on Dec. 14, 1964, but he lost a unanimous decision that sent him into a decline in which he went 7-8-1 in his final 16 bouts before going to jail with a friend, John Artis, who was convicted of the same crime.
At a time when the racial divide was at the forefront of America's social problems, Carter's vicious ring image hurt him in the court of public opinion and helped prosecutors sell a case that later was found by the judge who overturned it to be "predicated on racism rather than reason."
"I was hoping it wasn't true because it really hurt boxing," Cassidy said. "He claimed he didn't do it right from the beginning. I'm so glad he was exonerated."
That record mattered most to Carter at the end.