For the better part of nine rounds, Tony Harrison was buttery footwork and stinging jabs. He circled Willie Nelson around the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida, breaking down the taller, more experienced fighter with precision and a brainy acumen that undersold the sheer, raw power Harrison had at his disposal.
Power, though, would turn on him at the worst possible time in the July 11 fight. Harrison was well ahead in the ninth, 15 seconds from getting through that round before wrapping up a decision in the 10th, when Nelson tagged him with a right hook. Harrison went low and covered up. Nelson doubled up the right hook, then fired a left hook and another right. Harrison slowly leaned back, like he was easing into a chair.
The chair went out from under him. Past the tipping point, straight to the canvas. He barely got to his feet, turning his back on referee Frank Santore Jr. as he leaned into the corner for support. That was it. Nearly 27 minutes of near-perfect work undone. His unbeaten record and his near two-year knockout streak both gone with it.
That the outcome hasn’t sat well with 154-pound contender Tony Harrison—even heading into Saturday’s test against Fernando Guerrero at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT)—is an understatement.
“It's something I need, win or lose,” Harrison said. “It's something I want in my life. It's something every fighter wants. Before I leave this sport, I want that fight again. Let me prove it to myself, let me prove it to my fans, let me prove it to the city of Detroit that it was just a fluke.”
Harrison is matter-of-fact about how the loss affected him. Before fighting Willie Nelson, Harrison had stopped 10 straight opponents en route to building a 21-0 record with 18 KOs. His confidence was through the roof.
After tasting defeat, though, Harrison didn’t exactly grow tentative in his next fight against Cecil McCalla on Halloween night. But while he didn’t put himself in jeopardy by doing anything overtly risky, he was able to control the pace for 10 rounds to earn a wide unanimous decision. If he had been riding as high as he was before fighting Nelson, Harrison said, McCalla wouldn’t have lasted four rounds.
Harrison (22-1, 18 KOs) said he’s now put that behind him and is looking for an early finish against Guerrero (28-3, 20 KOs). Still, that doesn’t mean he isn't looking forward to getting back in the ring with Nelson.
“Whatever he wants, his terms,” Harrison said. “He holds the cards. I'm a realist. I would love a rematch. Wherever he wanted, whatever weight he wanted, whatever. It's something I think about all the time.
“Win, lose or draw, it proves my point to myself. If he wins again? Perfectly fine. [That means] I can't beat Willie Nelson. But I know for sure that it won't happen again. I had that fight in the bag.”
Nelson (24-2-1, 14 KOs), who is set to fight Marcus Willis in Miami, Oklahoma, on March 25, hasn’t been back in the ring since beating the 25-year-old Detroit native. Harrison said Nelson's team came into his locker room after the fight to tell him that he put a scare in them. That could make a man reluctant to agree to a rematch, but Harrison remains hopeful that Nelson eventually will grant him a shot at redemption.
“All I can do is pray for the best,” Harrison said. “Hopefully he's the man I think he is, and he's the man that I would be in his situation. Hopefully he's the competitor that I am, to prove me wrong that the first time wasn't a fluke.”