For boxer Tony Harrison, winning a world title comes second to helping at-risk youth

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Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
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Detroit native Tony Harrison (above) faces interim WBC super welterweight champion Jermell Charlo on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
Detroit native Tony Harrison (above) faces interim WBC super welterweight champion Jermell Charlo on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

Most parents get that phone call from school every now and then. You know the one, telling them their child has misbehaved, or gotten into a fight, or missed school, or something else.

Boxer Tony Harrison gets plenty of those calls, though it’s not that his own children are acting up. He has a 2-year-old son, Tony Jr., and a 4-month old daughter, Jaia, so he thus far hasn’t had to worry about them getting into trouble at school or away from home.

But Harrison, who on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn will challenge Jermell Charlo for the interim WBC super welterweight title in a fight broadcast on Fox, essentially serves as a fill-in parent for many at-risk kids who play on his youth football team or work out in his gym, Super Bad Fitness on Puritan Avenue in Detroit. When things occasionally go wrong with one of the children, it’s often Harrison who is called.

Puritan Avenue, Harrison says, is a rough place where it is easy for a kid to wind up on the wrong side of the law.

“You can drive up and down that street and there’s nothing you can really hang your hat on as a positive thing, especially for kids,” Harrison said. “There are liquor stores every couple of blocks. There is nothing for a young generation that would make them proud. Crime? Oh yeah. Of course there is. It’s a rough place. For kids who have a lot of time on their hands, nothing good is going to happen there.”

Well, he should have said not much good because Harrison has interceded to try to provide some direction for the kids on Puritan Avenue. He’s the coach of a youth football team, the Michigan Bulldogs, that initially began with members of his family but now includes the at-risk children in the area.

Because football is a seasonal sport, Harrison also invites the kids to train with him at his gym, hoping to keep them out of trouble. He learned from an early age that the worst thing a kid from an area like that could have was time on his hands.

“It’s easy to get into things that aren’t positive, or productive, when you have time on your hands,” he said. “What I learned was to keep my free time so limited. I wanted to be active, so that when I did have a bit of free time, I was so tired that I just was home and tired and stayed out of trouble.I love to help these kids. It’s so amazing to see. They really just need mentors and role models. They’re not bad kids.

“They’re products of their environment and there is a lot of negativity around them. So we’re just trying to be there for them and push them in the right direction and show them that they have value and they have the ability to do things if they put their minds and energies toward it. I’m able to show them where I messed up, and where so many others messed up, and help them not be the one who messes up.”

Even as he’s training for what will be the biggest fight of his life, Harrison has himself immersed in the kids’ lives. It is, he said, an everyday struggle trying to keep the kids on the right track and away from the lure of the streets.

Making a difference in the lives of the children he works with is “tenfold more important” to him than winning a championship. But the championship is important, he said, because of what it will represent to the kids he’s mentoring.

Jermell Charlo and Tony Harrison go face to face during a press conference on Nov. 13, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
Jermell Charlo and Tony Harrison go face to face during a press conference on Nov. 13, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

“Being a world champion is something that people will take notice of, and it will help me open doors to get them to listen to me,” he said. “It will make a difference to the kids because they’ll be able to listen to my words and see it led me all the way to the top. It will be proof what I’m saying works.

“But it’s also important to people who are in position to help us help these kids. They hear world champion and they’re more willing to open their minds and their hearts and to share ideas about what we can do to make this better for all these kids. Being a champion would change the entire dynamic of what is going on.”

Harrison was stopped by Jarret Hurd in the ninth round of a previous title bid. But he said not only was Hurd not a big name at the time, but Harrison only had five weeks of camp.

For Charlo, which he admits is his biggest fight, he’s had a full eight weeks to prepare.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve had the right time to prepare and I’ve had everything I need,” he said. “I didn’t have to cram. I had probably the best camp I’ve ever had. I had a lot of time to work and I have had quality sparring partners and I’ve put every piece of me into this.

“So often in the past, I’m looking at five weeks, maybe four, sometimes five-and-a-half, and you are behind the eight ball. Like, when you start out doing your road work, instead of going out and running three miles and building up to six miles, you have to start at six right away. The way I’ve done it this time, I was able to get my body to peak and so I’m as prepared and as ready as I’ve ever been.”

He hopes he’ll be able to set an example the kids he mentors will never forget.

“It’s our responsibility, I believe, to try to help the next generation if we can,” Harrison said. “I have the opportunity to do something positive and so that’s what I’m trying to do. Every day when I see a kid walk through that door and come into the gym, I know I’ve done something right. When a kid doesn’t show up and misses a couple of days, that’s when we have to worry and have to get out there and find out what is going on.

“I’ve gotten into my share of trouble, but I’ve been fortunate that I had help. And I want to the same for the kids coming up behind me. They face more challenges than anyone ever has, so they need the help and that’s what I try to provide.”

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