It’s an ugly fight for Khalid “Pretty Boy” Baker. Blinking away the sweat, he circles his opponent, feinting and weaving as he probes for a chink in his defence. Tonight, he wants to put on a show – let loose with jabs and crosses that flow like honey. But Sanong Seepongsert isn’t here to play. The gnarled veteran is a former Muay Thai world champion with 300 fights under his belt. As a boxer, he’s streetwise and granite-tough. Knowing he’s up against a more powerful fighter, Seepongsert constantly lunges in to clinch, muffling Baker’s attacks and disrupting his rhythm while throwing sly elbows as they grapple. The ref steps in once more to warn the Thai for holding, while the crowd in the Melbourne Pavilion hollers and yells.
Baker is visibly frustrated. With his arms entangled, he’s unable to fire off his jabs. At the end of the fourth round, his cornerman and strike-coach Pete Hatton leans in. “Bite down on your mouthguard and just go toe-to-toe with him,” he demands. “He won’t beat you with power.”
The advice left-hooks Baker back to reality. He starts to up his work rate and lands a couple of teeth-rattling uppercuts, before the inevitable clinch strangles his momentum once more. He’s dominating the close exchanges now, keeping his defence rock solid and refusing to concede any ground.
When the final bell rings, the judges’ verdict is unanimous: Khalid Baker is Victoria’s new cruiserweight champion. At the decision, the 32-year-old leaps into the air in delight, before an interviewer’s microphone is thrust into his face. “When I was sitting in my cell,” Baker says with a dazed grin, “I always dreamed of this moment”.
It’s a stark reminder of just how long Baker has waited for this chance. Barely a year ago, he was behind bars serving time for a murder that he’s always sworn he did not commit. Finally free after 13 years inside, he’s now determined to make up for lost time.
Two weeks later in a Dandenong boxing gym, Baker is lost in concentration as he peppers the heavy bag with crisp shots that echo through the room with a steady thwapthwap. His ebony frame gleams with sweat as he hurls a punch-perfect collection of head and body shots from every angle. It’s only as you scan down his body that you notice the electronic ankle bracelet.
This unwelcome memento that he’s forced to wear on parole is the one thing that betrays Baker’s years of incarceration. Straight-backed with an easy smile, he carries himself with an affable civility that the brutal grind of prison life somehow failed to erode.
To explain how he wound up in jail, you have to go back to 2005. At the time, Baker was 18 years old and a genuine contender. As the national amateur welterweight champion, he’d just qualified to represent Australia in the Commonwealth Games. But he never got the chance to compete after his life was derailed by the events of one chaotic night.
It was a Saturday in late November and the promise of summer hung invitingly in the hot night air. Baker headed out with two mates to a warehouse party in the inner-city suburb of Brunswick. One of them was a 17-year-old aspiring rapper known as LM (his real name cannot be used for legal reasons), the other a man named Ali. Inside, the party throbbed with drunken energy and LM jumped onstage to freestyle with one of the bands. But shortly afterwards at around 3am, Ali got into a fight. Baker and LM rushed over to try and break up the scuffle when it escalated into a mass brawl.
“We’d ran over to try to help him out,” Baker recalls. “I was only 18 years old and 64 kilos, but suddenly we were in this altercation with all these fullgrown men. I was like, ‘Let’s get out of here before everyone turns on us’.”
The melee spilled out onto the stairwell landing and Baker legged it down one flight of stairs when suddenly he heard a crash. LM’s account of what happened next is that he’d positioned himself between Ali and another man, Albert Snowball, to stop the two from fighting when the latter punched him. LM retaliated with a shove and ran for the stairs. But that push sent Snowball stumbling backwards through the first-floor window, landing on the street and hitting his head.
“By the time I was downstairs, the guy was on the floor,” Baker says. “I went up and put my hands on his face to see if he was still breathing, which he was. Then someone called the ambulance and we just took off.”
Snowball was rushed to hospital with brain damage. Tragically, he died from his injuries in hospital a few days later. Khalid and LM were arrested the next afternoon and put into custody. What happened next resulted in what Michele Ruyters, Associate Professor of criminology and justice at RMIT, has described as a “gross miscarriage of justice”.
Ruyters is director of The Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative that strives to help exonerate people when there is clear evidence of a wrongful conviction. She would later campaign tirelessly against Baker’s sentence. “When I first looked at the case, it was obvious to me that something had gone very badly wrong,” she says. “It didn’t seem to me to be factually possible for him to have committed the offence, when I looked at all of the material.”
Somehow Baker found himself ensnared in a complex web of legal technicalities. LM had freely admitted to police that he’d pushed Snowball near the window. But at the trial Baker wasn’t allowed to rely on this confession because of the “hearsay” rule that prevents statements that were made out-ofcourt being used in trials to prove facts asserted in those statements.
“The two years I was in custody, I just thought everything’s going to workout and I had nothing to worry about,” Baker says. “Then when the trial started, my lawyers were suddenly like, ‘You’ve got a chance of going down here’. I was like: ‘Why, LM admitted to this?’ ‘Yeah,’ they said. ‘But it doesn’t work like that.’”
The jury determined that Baker was guilty of murder and he was sentenced to 17 years in jail with a nonparole period of 12 years. “Hearing the verdict, it felt like the whole world just stopped in that moment. I couldn’t hear nothing. I looked at my lawyers like: ‘What happened?’”
Before he was led away from Melbourne’s Supreme Court, Baker pleaded to address the judge. “I didn’t murder no one,” he insisted. “I am innocent. I didn’t do nothing.” (In 2012 Baker’s case went all the way to the High Court, which granted him leave to appeal but ultimately upheld his conviction – the High Court’s judgment is available on its website.)
Bundled into a bus to transport him to Port Phillip Prison, Baker found himself sitting beside a 60-year-old armed robber who’d also just been sentenced.
“This old guy turned to me and said: ‘I heard you were found guilty? I’m so sorry for you. But mate, you’re doing a long sentence here – let me give you some advice. I’ve spent half my life in jail and the best way for you to get through it is to just get on the drugs. That way your time will fly by’.
“I said to him, ‘No, I’ll be all right. I’ll get through it the way I get through it’,” Baker says. “But I was also thinking – ‘17 years! Cars are going to be flying by the time I get out’.”
Life inside a maximum security prison was a grim education for Baker. He entered as a fresh-faced teen who still lived at home with his parents. Suddenly, he was forced to survive in a hard world where any sign of vulnerability was exploited.
“Prison is a jungle – people try to pick on the weak,” Baker says. “If you take a backward step for one person, you’re going to have to take a backward step for everyone.”
The only thing that Baker had going for him inside was that he could handle himself. He was forced to prove that a month into his sentence when two cons barged into his cell and tried to steal his Nikes off his feet. “These two big guys were like: ‘Give me your shoes, now!’ Luckily, I managed to get one over them,” he says. “They end up walking out like mugs with two black-eyes.”
These weren’t the only punches that Baker would throw in prison. Without any other diversions, he started to train like a maniac. As soon as his cell door was opened at 8am, he’d dart out to run laps of the yard or sprint up and down the staircase. At every opportunity, he headed to the prison gym to jump rope or pound the heavy bag. To work on his combinations, he fashioned makeshift pads using toilet paper and rolled-up socks.
Baker trained with such intensity that fellow inmates pointed out that he still had years of his sentence left to serve. “But I’d think to myself, ‘On the outside, guys are partying, not sleeping well, not living a good life. If I can keep training and stay strong then by the time I hit the outside world, I’ll be ready to pounce. I’ll destroy anyone who’s in front of me in the ring’.”
IN PRISON, Baker trained three times a day and prayed five times (he is a committed Muslim). “That was my life: prayer and training,” he says. Lying in his cell each night, he
stared at the ceiling, visualising himself back in the ring. He imagined the song to which he’d make his entrance, the little dance that he’d perform for the crowd, the surge of adrenaline as he squared up to his opponent – a busy southpaw one night, a feisty counter-puncher the next. He’d hear the ding of the bell and live through the entire fight round by round. “I’d picture these fights every night,” Baker says. “I just kept telling myself, ‘Your time will come. Your time will come. You will get out. Your name will be cleared and you’re going to get back to what you always loved doing. And when that happens, you’re not going to let the opportunity go’.”
While serving his sentence, Baker redesigned his body to add size and muscle to his wiry frame. Having barely done any weights before, he attacked the iron with a vengeance and started to bulk up, growing to 120kg at his peak. “I was just pumping weights all day,” he says.
Yet the real transformation would play out between his ears.
IMAGINE YOUR 20S for a moment – the parties, the girls, the hi-jinks. Baker was robbed of all these things. All his hopes were pinned on two appeals, both of which were eventually rejected. When they failed, Baker was left utterly crushed. “I was angry at the police, I was angry at the justice system, I was angry at everyone.”
Soon that tension began to manifest itself physically. Baker started grinding his teeth at night and would wake up with a sharp pain in his jaw. “I knew it wasn’t good for me. That mindset wasn’t healthy. Stress can make you sick.”
The turning point came when Baker’s mother got breast cancer. Fearing for her life, he agonised that his mum’s final memory of her son would be of a bitter man lost in despair. “I didn’t want my mum to have to see me as this angry person if she left this world,” he explains. “I wanted her to see me as happy.”
That’s when Baker made a decision: he would strive to let go of his anger. Accepting his predicament, he would attempt to forgive. It was a resolution that would help to save his sanity and ultimately redefine his life.
A GROWING BODY of research now shows that holding onto resentment can sabotage your health. Professor Everett Worthington is the world expert on forgiveness and author of more than 30 books on the subject. Harbouring a grudge, he explains, is physically damaging because the emotional stress triggers the flight-orfight response to crank up your risk of stroke, heart attack and hypertension. “It interferes with our immune system at the larger level of fighting off diseases and even at the micro level like our cells’ functioning.”
Nursing a grievance can also elevate your cortisol levels. This can corrode your sex drive, mess with your digestive system and “even cause portions of the brain to shrink,” Worthington says.
Conversely, and quite incredibly, the act of forgiveness can have a tangible impact on performance and outlook. Researchers from Erasmus University in Rotterdam conducted a study in which 46 subjects were split into two groups. Group one was asked to write about a time when they were seriously offended by someone but came to forgive the person. The second group was asked to describe an occasion when they did not forgive. Afterwards, all of the subjects were taken to inspect a large hill. The “unforgiving” group estimated the hill was about five degrees steeper than the forgiving group.
Next, the study participants were asked to jump up and down. On average, the forgiving group jumped seven centimetres higher, suggesting that resentment can literally weigh you down. “Unforgiveness is a real burden,” insists Worthington.
Sadly, he’s speaking from firsthand experience. Worthington was already an authority in this area when he was forced to put theory into practice. In 1995, a burglar entered the house of his 78-year-old mother and bludgeoned her to death with a crowbar. “At first, I sincerely wanted to take a baseball bat and beat the killer to death,” he admits.
But Worthington gradually worked to gain a form of mental truce with his mother’s killer. Establishing a sliver of empathy for the man became the pivotal step in learning to forgive him. Worthington believes the murderer was interrupted mid-burglary by his mother and, fearing prosecution, reacted with extreme violence. This process of trying to understand the man’s actions slowly began to temper his rage and nudge it in a more positive direction. “That connection allowed me to forgive,” he says.
BAKER FOUND HIS OWN way to tame his fury. For years he’d fixated on everything that he’d lost – his chance to become a pro fighter, his freedom, his youth. Now he started to concentrate on what he still had. After his mother survived her cancer, Baker realised, that in spite of his incarceration, he still had many things to be thankful for.
“Making that decision was the single biggest change in my life,” Baker says. “I realised I couldn’t be angry anymore, because it wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had to change my mindset. So, I stopped thinking about what I didn’t have and I thought about what I did have in my life that I was grateful for. I still had my health. I still had my family.”
Baker stopped railing against the legal system and dwelling on the injustice of his fate. He also forgave LM, the friend whose actions had inadvertently put him in jail. “I wish nothing but the best for him,” he insists.
“People expect you to come out of jail a very bitter person. But I’m not anymore – that period of my life is gone. I had to overcome that anger and just keep moving on with my life. Because at the end of the day, if you keep looking back for too long, you’re going to get stuck there.”
IN ROCKY BALBOA, there’s a moment when Sylvester Stallone’s ageing Italian Stallion offers some hard-won advice to his son. “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows,” he says. “It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
If Balboa’s words are a testament to the power of resilience, Baker is the real-life embodiment of that message. Knocked to his knees by the ultimate sucker punch, he’s refused to stay down. Having summoned the will to pluck himself from the canvas, he’s now determined to advance.
Baker’s plan is to clock up another four fights as quickly as possible to earn a crack at the Australian belt. From there, he hopes to fulfil the ambition he’s held ever since he first laced on a pair of gloves. What he wants is a shot at the world title.
So just how far can Baker really go? Boxing, after all, is a cold-hearted business that specialises in body blows, not dreams. At the moment, Baker is having to adapt his whole style of boxing having shuttled through the weight divisions so fast. Before prison, he traded punches at 69kg – he now fights closer to 90kg. While his upper body has expanded, his slender legs still recall his original fighting weight. “That’s like going from VFL to AFL,” says his strike coach Pete Hatton, who’d love him to start fighting at a lower weight class.
Probably the man best placed to evaluate Baker’s chances is James Roesler. The trainer has been responsible for schooling him in the sweet science ever since Baker first stepped into Roesler’s Hoppers Crossing boxing gym as a cocky 13-year-old.
There exists a rare intimacy between a boxer and his trainer. When Roesler first encountered Baker almost 20 years ago, he noticed the kid’s speed, but most of all was struck by his single-minded determination. “Khalid just wanted it,” says Roesler, standing in his bustling gym. “And I suppose every single boxer wants it. But he always really wanted it.”
Roesler is a man of curt understatement. As a veteran trainer who’s honed the skills of multiple champions, he’s a hard-knock realist who refuses to indulge in wild speculation. He is guarded about Baker’s potential. Yet even his gruff manner can’t quite hide the twinkle of excitement whenever he speaks of his charge. “We’ve got unfinished business, me and him,” is all Roesler will say. “But I believe in him. And Khalid believes in himself. Shit happens, doesn’t it?”
It’s unclear exactly what faecal matter Roesler is referring to here. Does he mean Baker’s squandered years in jail? Or the possibility of a fairy-tale ending? Either way, whatever happens in the bouts ahead, Baker is certainly moving forward. Prison took 13 years of his life but, Baker insists, it only made him hungrier to succeed. “It taught me how precious life is,” he says quietly. “Don’t just waste it. Cherish it. Now in the ring, I cherish every single moment.”