Fight of his life
Jerry Bell, once the Baddest Man in South Carolina, goes to sleep each night in a prison cell wondering if he is tough enough to go the distance against a deadly disease
By KENT BABB
Columbia (S.C.) State
On good nights, he hears prison sounds: fights, profanity and lives slammed shut by iron doors. He can sleep through that.
On bad nights, he hears his thoughts: thoughts about past gang involvement, a promising boxing career ruined by carelessness and a disease he could have prevented, and thoughts about dying from that disease in prison. Those nights, sleep might never come.
These are the thoughts he wants to talk about, the ones that knock him around the way an opposing boxer never did. The phone is pressed to his ear; he has to get it all off his chest.
The phone at the home of his sister, Dana Davis, is ringing.
Before we go any further, let's get this out of the way: Jerry Bell is five years into a 15-year prison sentence for first-degree burglary. He will say his imprisonment is a dull speck in an otherwise vibrant life, but you should at least know that much before you answer the phone. Once you do, Bell will waste little time on his life's shadows, steering the conversation whenever possible to boxing, the sport that nearly made him a giant.
He will say that the blind fervor with which he ignored pain and long odds to win three state Toughman boxing championships is the same emotion that caused him to ignore right and wrong to throw it all away. He will say that training to be the perfect prizefighter centers on overcoming weaknesses, the same weaknesses that eventually got the better of him, ending his career at its peak nearly a decade ago when he learned he had tested positive for HIV.
Ready now? Pick up the phone. Say your piece and prepare to listen to a man with a lifetime of words and a few breaths of time.
"When I first started fighting, man, I was smoking two packs a day and hadn't ever been in a boxing ring," says Bell, who was compared with Mike Tyson after needing 11 rounds to win his nine professional fights. "I've never really known how strong I was, man, until I started boxing. Some of those fights, I would just kill some of those ..."
The phone clicks.
He is calling collect from the Broad River Correctional Institution, which allows him unlimited calls to a handful of numbers with the condition that certain words – "gun," "escape," and in Bell's case, "kill" – will disconnect the call.
But Bell calls back. He refuses to let lawyers and family members and friends and former coworkers tell the whole story; if they do, you might not hear what he is determined to have you believe.
He wants to tell you about the "Blue Diamond," Bell's nickname when he became the state's toughest man three years running, whose dagger of a right hand put more than 20 men on their backs in Toughman fights and helped him become one of South Carolina's most feared ...
Disconnected. A minute later, the phone rings again.
He wants to tell you how he gambled one too many times satisfying his self-described weakness for women and contracted HIV, then continued boxing for more than two years because he could not bring himself to tell his beloved manager, Billy Stanick, that ...
He wants to tell you what really happened that night five years ago, when revenge and three pitchers of White Russians made breaking into a West Columbia home seem like the right idea – even though it landed him inside this cage, where all he can do is hope tomorrow brings new T-cell-boosting medications, which could help him run and hide from AIDS a little longer so that his three children might someday ...
Bell will keep calling, 23 times, to tell you story shards about a life continually interrupted by bad luck and worse decisions, a combination of which jerked Bell from the edge of greatness and threw him into this mess. Now, his most realistic possibility is the one that horrifies him most: That with nine years remaining on his sentence, his chances of surviving long enough to be free become grimmer everyday.
Bell admits time is running out, so he will talk fast. He will tell you as much as he can, knowing that, sooner or later, the telephone can click him silent for good – before you hear what he has been trying to tell you all along.
The phone at his sister's house rings again.
He wants to tell you that behind all the bad, Jerry Bell is good.
• • •
Stop. Rewind the story to when things were simple and innocent. Go back to the summer of 1977, when an 8-year-old boy pedals a bicycle around the outskirts of San Diego as fast as he can push the blood through his quadriceps.
He whips around street corners and flies over hills, slowing himself only to look back and make sure his 9-year-old sister, Dana, has not fallen too far behind. This day is not uncommon. The siblings travel around the city, occasionally pedaling through tunnels that connect the suburbs with downtown. They are oblivious to the fact these dark tunnels are dens of drug use and crime and that the only light to guide them is the occasional flash of a lighter torching a junkie's fix.
As long as Jerry was in front, Dana never thought twice about following her brother. He invited her into his bedroom when she was scared of the dark. And he took the blame for skipping church services when they decided a better idea was to arrive in time to say, "Amen," head to the cookie tray and walk home with a mouthful.
So it was natural that Jerry suffered an emotional gash when his sister decided a few years later to move to Tignall, Ga., with her uncle, Jimmy Thornton. Without Dana, his best friend, Jerry began sneaking out of his house and joining a new crowd, a gang whose members introduced Jerry to violence by shoving him into street fights, a number he later will estimate reached 250.
Despite being placed on house arrest when he was 16, Bell continued sneaking outside, sometimes filing through nails his mother, Faye Trammell, had hammered into the window, then easing the front gate open and running up La Fiesta Way to join his friends. But when Bell was 18, he was arrested for stealing a motorcycle and – oh, is that a gun you've got there, too? Bell was sentenced to 2½ years in jail.
"You can get things the quick way, or you can work and get them the right way," Dana says. "Jerry is drawn to the fast lane of life, and that gets him in trouble sometimes."
By the time Bell was released from jail, his mother and stepfather, Tom Trammell, had moved back to Columbia, where Bell was born. Bell, who once demanded independence from their rules, could not stomach having the whole country between them.
Bell paid $1 for a four-door Dodge with the back window shot out and left on a cross-country drive. On the way, he spent a handful of nights in jail for stealing gas. Bell learned that if he drove for several hours, the car's hood got warm enough for him to sleep on, at least for a few hours.
Two weeks after leaving San Diego, he pulled into a driveway in Cayce, and a familiar face greeted him. The woman was 23 years old, and she had three children.
It was Dana, who barely recognized Jerry, whose face she had last seen when he was 12. They hugged in the front yard and smiled so much they didn't even notice that they had burst into tears.
• • •
"So you think you're a fighter?" a man asks 23-year-old Jerry Bell, the only plausible question to someone pounding his bare fists into a stack of tires.
The man is M.L. McCormick, a Columbia tire-store owner who had offered Bell $15 a day to retread tires, then offered to introduce Bell to his friend Billy Stanick, a local boxing trainer. But there was a problem: Stanick had been out of boxing for nearly five years after his wife, Linda, pleaded with him to give up the sport.
McCormick told Bell that pulling Stanick out of retirement would be no easy task. Stanick, after all, already had his sure thing, and it had come and gone in the mid-1980s, when Monk Conners, a junior middleweight from Columbia, turned pro after winning a regional Golden Gloves championship.
After three professional fights, Conners walked in on an argument between two of his girlfriends, one threatening to stab the other with scissors. Conners raced in the middle, and one of the women accidentally stabbed him in the chest, severing an artery near his heart. Conners was treated in intensive care for a week.
Stanick knew Conners never would be the same; he no longer would be able to ignore the permanence of injury and pain and focus only on landing the perfect punch. The boxer who Stanick had waited for, the one who would carry him to the top, was finished. Stanick parted ways with Conners in 1988.
Conners never returned to boxing, and Stanick did not see him again until 2001, when he heard that Conners had contracted AIDS and was almost out of time. Stanick visited Conners in the hospital but left after a few minutes; the Conners he remembered was a lean, powerful boxer, not a pale figure in a hospital bed, struggling to pull enough oxygen into his lungs for a meaningful goodbye. Stanick got a call later that day telling him Conners was dead.
Linda Stanick wanted her husband to give it all up, stop taking advantage of the poor, uneducated bunch that sought Billy's expertise. Linda Stanick also reminded her husband that desperate men do desperate things. Could Billy stomach the thought of one of his boxers ignoring his limits, suffering an injury in the ring and winding up like Conners? Stanick needed no further evidence: In 1990, he quit boxing with barely an argument.
Then McCormick tells him about this new kid with a strong punch and nothing to lose. The kid has no boxing experience, yet he wants to be the reason for this old trainer to jump back on the apron?
One chance. That is all Bell gets, Stanick says, and the kid only gets that because Stanick owes McCormick a favor. One chance: the next night at a local Toughman competition.
Bell's first opponent is Keith Brown, a former state Toughman champion. In the first round, Stanick watches a right jab from Bell knock Brown's headgear three rows deep into the handicapped section.
Stanick looks back at Bell, who has lifted his arms in victory, and the kid's confidence reminds Stanick of what he missed during his retirement. Bell barely had broken a sweat and he was ready to fight again. After Bell's first fight, Stanick knew he had found the boxer he had waited for since releasing Conners.
"When I got out of it, I was out, and I was determined to stay out," Stanick says. "But I guess when Jerry came along I was kind of fascinated by his abilities. He was a 230-pound man who could do six handsprings like a little 130-pound acrobat.
"He had the chin, he had the heart, he had the powerful punch. And he had the determination to win. I wanted to see how far I could carry him. I wanted to be part of carrying him all the way because I thought he had it. Everybody around him thought he had it."
Even Linda Stanick. Fascinated by Bell's path – the childhood poverty and obstacles overcome – she volunteers to assign Bell a nickname. His talent was so rare. And Stanick had her blessing in bringing out the shine. It was only fitting: Bell was a Blue Diamond.
• • •
The phone rings.
It's for Jerry, but he does not answer it.
After cruising to three state Toughman championships, Bell became one of South Carolina's dominant fighters. He won the regional Toughman title and finished third at the world championship after losing for the first time, to three-time champion Gus Winterly.
The phone is still ringing, at Bell's home, at work, at Stanick's gym. He ignores it.
Bell, who turned pro after the World Toughman Championship, won his first nine professional fights, seven of them in the first round, giving him the attention and money he never had. It made him starve for more.
The phone keeps ringing, sometimes ending with messages that Bell is afraid to return. One if them is from a North Carolina doctor who pleads with Bell to call back and address an urgent matter concerning his health.
Bell's success gave him reason to travel to big-city nightspots, where women flocked to him – and he obliged them, despite having a girlfriend in Columbia. He will say later that he "does not believe" in contraceptives and never used them.
The phone rings again. More than two years after the calls began, Bell answers it and hears the voice of the doctor who administered an HIV test before the World Combat Championship, a bare-knuckle, ultimate-fighting event. The doctor confirms Bell's fears and issues an ultimatum: He is HIV-positive and must stop fighting immediately.
No. Not now. This is his path to something better, to fame and wealth and championships – and respect. How can Bell admit to his family that he has disappointed them again? How can he tell Stanick that he has betrayed his trainer's trust with personal weakness?
Bell keeps the news quiet – but he stops fighting. Instead of rising at 6 a.m. for training, he sleeps in. Instead of hurrying through work at Stanick's roofing firm so he can go to the gym to train for two hours, he heads to a West Columbia pool hall to work on his other game.
After several weeks, Stanick senses he is being lied to. Bell is noticeably slower, and his punches have lost some of their bite. Worse, Stanick hears whispers that Bell's success allowed him to feed his bad habits. Stanick has heard enough. He releases Bell. It is 1999.
Bell remains confident he will return to boxing, but in the meantime he turns his attention to playing in billiards tournaments. Then, nearly two years later, he makes worst decision of his life.
Bell will say later that a nephew of his girlfriend was beaten, and the nephew asked Bell to help him and another nephew find the men involved and return the beating. Bell says he had a pool tournament that night, but after one loss and the equivalent of six mini-bottles of vodka, Bell agreed to ride with the group.
A Lexington County police report states that at about 10:45 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2000, Bell and two others entered a home at 429 Cedar Field Lane and assaulted two men. Bell says now that he did not enter the house until he saw the female homeowner point a rifle at one of the nephews. Bell says he pulled the man outside, "removing the problem" from the house, and did not strike anyone.
Bell was arrested and charged with first-degree burglary. Because he had a violent past and a previous felony conviction, prosecutors suggested a life sentence if he was convicted; instead, Bell pleaded guilty in hope that he would live long enough for his three children to see him free again.
"I've always wound up on that wrong side of the road. I've tried like hell to get back on that right side," says Bell, whose sentence does not include the possibility of parole.
"I've paid my debt to society and then some. I've paid my debt for everything I've ever done. What time I have done, I could be spending it with my children; I could be spending it with my family. It's a crying shame. I had everything I ever wanted. I wake up from this big nightmare, and I'm in prison."
• • •
A third of the way into Bell's prison sentence, the phone calls have stopped. He has realized that many of the people in his life, other than his family and some friends, were close to him only because of his success.
Bell is allowed to call two numbers, the homes of his sister and mother, and those calls come more frequently when his T-cell count drops. He asked The State to withhold his T-cell figure because of fears that it might elicit retribution from other inmates or create a social impasse. But if his count falls below 200, Bell will have AIDS. Because he is in prison, Bell has tried cycles on three experimental HIV medications, all of which worked for no more than a few months. Bell, once a heavyweight listed at 230 pounds, now is 30 pounds lighter.
He occasionally battles depression and, worse, the pounding knowledge that he was so close to achieving greatness. Bell wrote a letter to Stanick in early August, asking his former manager to fill out the required paperwork for a visit because he hoped to answer a painful question: Why did Bell give it all up at the peak of his career?
Stanick, who has not spoken with Bell since a month before his arrest, has not filled out the form. Maybe it is because Stanick's roofing business has kept him busy the past two months. Maybe it is because Stanick's own health problems – he was diagnosed in 2002 with colon cancer, although it remains in remission – have stressed him further.
Or maybe it is because Stanick, who now knows of Bell's illness, cannot bear to see another once-promising fighter ravaged by disease. Stanick says he is not averse to visiting Bell, however; he is waiting for the right time. Despite being told that Bell's health is good, Stanick does not deny that memories of seeing Monk Conners' frail, unfamiliar body have delayed his visit to Broad River Correctional.
Stanick says that with experience and training, Bell could have beaten anyone. But it was their long talks on the way back from matches that Stanick remembers most.
Stanick says his life changed when the "Blue Diamond" stepped in and rejuvenated Stanick's career in boxing; he still spends most afternoons at his Chapin-area gym.
Stanick says he plans to write a long letter to Bell in the next few weeks. He wants to tell his former fighter that, after everything, Stanick believes in Bell's vibrancy – regardless of the dull specks along the way.
"A person's story is not finished until he dies. Even after that, his legacy lives on," Linda Stanick says. "Is a person more good than bad or more bad than good? With most people, I think it's something in the middle.
"Watching these boys fight and living with Billy, I have seen the goodness and badness of life. Jerry was good about as long as he could be good. He went right up to the edge before he jumped off. If I had my way, they'd outlaw boxing. But it gave Jerry something to be good at. You have to find your place in the world, not just going whichever way the wind blows. For most people in boxing, you'll make a living; you'll survive. And we all have to find a way to survive."