Martel Gordone had been wandering aimlessly through the desert when he is finally picked up by an African-American woman driving a van dubbed the "Shaggin’ Wagon". The woman, Linda, who picks him up is actually a prostitute on her way to some clients. On the way to the diner where the two parties are to meet, Linda and Gordone (nicknamed "Too Sweet" because of his uncontrollable addiction to Mr. Goodbar candy bars) spark an interest in each other, but Linda decides to wait until after she has finished with her clients, “You know, honey, it’s got to be business before pleasure, and I’m sure you’re a real pleasure.” They reach the diner and Linda meets with her clients, but when Gordone does not like how she is being treated, he decides to confront the two for their ungentlemanly behavior. The confrontation does not bode well for Gordone, for after a little tussling he is knocked out and falls to the ground. He wakes up to find that he has been charged for the murder of one of the bikers whom he had confronted earlier.
Gordone is sent to jail and becomes cellmates with a man who goes by the nickname of "Half Dead". While in his cell, Gordone has to defend himself from constant advances from the brute. The two battle it out in the cell until the walls are covered with sweat and blood. The wailing and begging attracts a lot of attention from other inmates, who cheer for "Half Dead" to rape the newcomer, but in fact Gordone manages to subdue his assailant and rises triumphantly, telling everybody to "back off".
Gordone is then put in another cell, his new cellmate being an older man going by the nickname "Seldom Seen", who has been in this jail for 35 years (adding up to 50 years as he spent another 15 years in jail in his youth), and has developed his own personal wisdom, out of sheer survival concern, considering himself "the freest man in the world" for he learned how to control his desires and focus on his core self. Gordone and "Seldom Seen" develop a genuine friendship.
Shortly afterward, an illegal boxing tournament is organized in the prison, led by Lieutenant Arnsworth. The winner of the tournament will be allowed to leave the prison on early parole because Lieutenant Arnsworth can pull a few strings on the parole board, and Gordone feels as though he would be able to win it. The only thing that stands in his way is a man by the name of Jesse "The Bull" Amos, who is in charge of everything within the prison and is the leader of the prison's strongest gang. "Seldom Seen" agrees to be Gordone's trainer.
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