Tony Harrison: A Fighting Tradition

The amazing story of the WBC World Super Welterweight Champion, who defends his title Saturday night when he rematches former world titlist Jermell Charlo in one of the year’s most anticipated fights, live on FOX.

You can hardly tell who the champ is when looking at photos of Tony Harrison’s annual toy drives and grocery giveaways. The Detroit native and WBC World Super Welterweight Champ doesn’t flash jewelry or pretend there’s a red carpet under his feet. In the photos, he blends in with the crowd. He still drives the same blue Dodge pickup he had before he became champ. And when you listen to him, then hear other members of his family speak, you might think is humility is hereditary.

This Saturday December 21, Harrison (28-2, 21 KOs) defends his WBC 154-pound strap against Jermell Charlo (32-1, 16 KOs) at Toyota Arena in Ontario, California, live on FOX PBC Fight Night (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT).  While the rematch is being properly hyped as a grudge match, it’ll also be a continuation of Michigan’s boxing legacy, one which dates to the days of Stanley Ketchel. It’s time we started mentioning the Harrison family among the best boxing families ever.

Harrison’s father, and trainer, Ali Salaam, is a former welterweight. He was seated next to Harrison when I called. After I rattled off the names of all the contenders his father had faced during the 1980s, a surprised sounding Harrison turned from the phone and asked his father, “You fought all those guys?” Salaam didn’t say anything but, I could feel him shrug his shoulders.

Even if his father wouldn’t confirm it, I could, because I was there for at least one of those fights. I even placed my bare feet on the same cold scale while half a dozen men fussed over the weight. I probably nodded hello to him in the hall and he probably wished me luck. I don’t remember. Humble guys don’t stand out.

The WBC champ does know a little bit more about his grandfather, Henry Hank. He was a top-five contender at middleweight and light heavyweight back in the days when there were only two champions between welterweight and heavyweight.

“My father told me ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson wouldn’t give Hank a title shot,” Harrison said.

The record book supports that claim. While Hank spent his days training and working part-time at the Detroit Zoo, contenders ranked below him - like Paul Pender and Terry Downes – got cracks at the title. Those two became champs but, neither gave Hanks a shot either. No one ever did, despite Hank lingering near the top-10 for a decade.

“When I was young, we used to visit him in nursing homes. He wasn’t talking much by then,” Harrison says of his grandfather’s final years.

“He was awesome,” he said of his grandfather’s fighting skill, a bob-and-weave style reminiscent of Henry Armstrong, skillful enough to have beaten Jimmy Ellis, Georgie Benton and Joey Giardello.

“My first amateur fight, I wore his robe into the ring,” Harrison recalled. “It was dragging on the floor.” The robe was black and gold, probably the one Hank wore when he fought Chic Calderwood. The too-big robe is gone now. “It might’ve been lost during one of the evictions,” Harrison says. 

When you become champ, you get a spotlight on you. WBC World Super Welterweight Champion - Tony Harrison

Several times in his life, he and his family had to pick up and start anew. It was “sink or swim,” he said of his days growing up in Detroit. It’s a familiar sentiment in Detroit. Ten years ago, the city’s mayor estimated the city’s unemployment rate to be “close to 50 percent.”

Though it’s gotten better, Harrison says there are still many “fighting 12 rounds every day.”

On the corner of Puritan and Wisconsin, in an area with too many boarded up homes, the Harrisons run SuperBad Fitness. A few weeks ago, about a mile away from the gym, one white car pulled up alongside another white car. Guns were drawn, shots were fired, both cars got away, and, after the smell of burnt gunpowder faded, a postal worker finishing up her rounds lay in a hospital bed. Harrison offers the youth of the neighborhood a place with no stray bullets.

About 50 kids receive help each day with their homework. Some of them workout in the gym too but not until finishing their “chores,” which includes wiping down the bags or picking up any trash on the sidewalk in front of the facility.

Earlier this year, the champ turned his gym into a “boutique” and helped give away 50 prom dresses along with matching shoes and accessories. He’s held an annual back-to-school drive over the past five years. “My Auntie is a cop; she helps us get the street closed and then we bring in bouncy houses, give away book bags, school supplies, and offer free haircuts.”

In November, Harrison gives away turkeys and groceries. In December, it’s his annual toy drive. Over 400 families helped according to a report, reports that have increased recently.

“When you become champ, you get a spotlight on you.”

His next fight will be in Detroit. “Even if I have to promote it myself,” Harrison said. He’s going to start promoting soon. “I’m gonna start an amateur program here.”

For now, Harrison is focused on the upcoming fight. When the bell rings, he’ll be continuing a lineage that started in the 1950s. A lineage that must be included among the better fighting families in history, up there with the Chavez family, the Spinks family, and even the Mayweather family. You’ll never hear Harrison, or his father, say that though.

Harrison isn’t the type to post his every thought on social media and then spend the rest of the day counting the likes and blocking those who disagree with him. Instead, he spends his day working on making tomorrow better for him and for those around him.

The streets around Puritan Avenue have too many empty lots filled with overgrown grass and teens with idle time. But, there’s a lot of churches in the area too, places where you can hear the Psalms that say the Lord guides the humble and crowns them with victory.

Because of the neighborhood champ, there’s one less place available for a liquor store to open. Instead of beer and bourbon, there’s a place now where the area youth can go to learn math, play chess, and maybe even learn how to throw a jab.

For a closer look at Tony Harrison, check out his fighter page.  

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