ATLANTIC CITY -- He stood in front of federal judge, a big number about to be attached to his name, the prime of his athletic career about to be flushed away, and one thought raced through Amir Mansour's mind:
This will not define me.
It was April, 2003. Mansour had just been convicted of drug possession, a crime that could have carried a 20-year sentence. He was guilty, too. For years, Mansour had been trafficking cocaine. The day he was caught, he knew the feds were onto him. A package he had sent to a friend's house had been identified. According to Mansour, that same day he warned his friend, an unwitting participant in his scheme, not to sign for anything. When she did, Mansour says he went to the house, took the package and waited with it on the porch for federal agents to arrive and arrest him.
"There was no way I was going to sit there and watch her go to prison," Mansour said. "She didn't know what was going on. This was my deal. I had to take responsibility for it."
And he did. Mansour -- then a heavyweight club fighter with a 9-0 record -- was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Getting locked up was nothing new. In the early 1990's, Mansour was doing short time for what he calls "petty crimes." But while incarcerated, he was involved in a violent altercation with a corrections officer. The result, Mansour says, was four years tacked onto his sentence.
It was during that near five-year stint in prison that he started boxing. Fighting was something he was always familiar with. Growing up in the projects of Penns Grove, N.J., Mansour was constantly exposed to violence. Athletic talent was in his blood -- Mansour's brother, Charles Moorer, was an elite high school wrestler who went on to compete at George Mason -- but Mansour had never boxed formally. He had wanted to. His mother wouldn't allow it.
In prison, boxing became an outlet. In the mid-1990's, prisons in New Jersey organized boxing teams, ones that participated in tournaments with teams from other prisons around the state. Mansour, then a cruiserweight, took to it quickly. One year, he finished runner-up in his division.
Boxing emboldened him, inspired him to turn his life around. In 1994, Mansour--who was born Laverne Moorer, a name he hated because kids would tease him for having the same name as the title character from the sitcom Laverne & Shirley -- changed his name. He picked Amir because, at its Arabic roots, it means chieftain. He chose Mansour because it means victorious.
"I wanted a name with meaning," Mansour said. And he wanted to fight. When Mansour was released, in 1997, he turned professional without having had a single amateur bout outside of prison.
"I'm very grateful for not having fought in the amateurs," he said. "When you see a lot of these other fighters, once they turn pro, they have about three or four years [in their prime]. It's almost unheard of for a 30-year old man who has been boxing forever to be healthy. So many guys you see, their reflexes are shot, their speech is slurred. I always say, it's not because of their pro fights, it's because of all the amateur fights. Because of the amateurs, they have a very short career. Take Oscar De La Hoya. Oscar had a very short career. He had to do so much before he turned pro."
As a pro, Mansour wasn't making much money. "About $400 a fight," he said. Looking for more, he went back to dealing drugs.
"Growing up the way I did, growing up in the environment that I was in, selling drugs was considered a way of surviving," Mansour said. "It was a way of getting the nice things that we wanted. I grew up on welfare. My mother raised me and my two brothers by herself. It was difficult. Being in school, you worried about the holes in your sneakers. You did what you had to survive."
After his arrest in 2003, Mansour was shipped to Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution in Minersville, Penn. Once again, boxing -- or more specifically, a boxer -- was there to save him. Calvin Davis, a once promising lightweight contender, was also incarcerated in Schuylkill. The two had originally connected at a gym in Philadelphia in the 1990's. In Schuylkill, Davis became Mansour's trainer. They trained with gloves made out of hand pads from the leather shop. For sparring, Davis would search the yard for men Mansour's size. When he found one willing to fight, they would duck into a 10 x 10 foot closet and go at it.
"It's why when I'm in the ring now and I decide to back up, it's like I'm on the football field," Mansour said with a laugh. "They nicknamed that closet Saigon. It had a hard cement floor. You could fit three guys in there, max. Nobody ever got seriously hurt. But it was rough."
In 2010, Mansour was released. Again, he attempted to resume his boxing career, winning seven fights in a 16-month span. But in 2011, he was sent back to prison for a parole violation. He served seven months, and was released once again.
At 41, Mansour (19-0) is giving boxing one last try. He returned to the ring last January and has won three consecutive fights. On Saturday night he will face his stiffest test to date when he takes on 6-foot-7 Kelvin Price (14-1) at Resorts International Hotel & Casino (NBC Sports Network, 8 pm).
Superbly conditioned, Mansour insists that his best days are still ahead of him -- "I'm a monster in the ring," Mansour said -- but more than anything he wants to be an example to those who struggle, to give hope for redemption to those who believe it impossible.
"My story isn't about prison," Mansour said. "It's about a person going to prison and not allowing a prison experience to defeat them. I'm not someone who ran around raping and pillaging. I made mistakes. But I've always been a respectable person. I've always been a likable person. I try my best to give back. A lot of people that know that side of me want to see me succeed. I know I will."