Promising old-school fighter driven by lost gold

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Jesse Hart is one of boxing's best prospects, a 24-year-old super middleweight who is 11-0 with 10 knockouts. (Tom Briglia/Top Rank)

jesse hart

Jesse Hart is one of boxing's best prospects, a 24-year-old super middleweight who is 11-0 with 10 knockouts. (Tom Briglia/Top Rank)

When he was a child growing up in Philadelphia, Jesse Hart would spend many a Saturday night in front of the television watching boxing with his father, Eugene Hart.

Eugene Hart was better known as Cyclone Hart, one of the most entertaining middleweights during the heyday of Philadelphia boxing in the 1970s. Cyclone Hart was a vicious puncher and, to this day, his left hook is regarded by experts as among the best ever.

Jesse boxed from his early days and was well-known throughout the neighborhood for boxing. When he'd meet his friends on Monday, they'd want to talk to him about the fights they'd seen on television the previous Saturday.

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They'd talk about Roy Jones Jr. or Oscar De La Hoya, and sometimes even Floyd Mayweather, and Jesse would stare blankly at them in return.

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"I didn't know who Roy Jones was; never heard of him," Jesse Hart said of the one-time pound-for-pound champion. "I hadn't seen him; I hadn't seen any of those guys."

He hadn't heard of Jones or De La Hoya or Mayweather or any of the stars of the late 90s and early 2000s because his father had him watching old-time fight tapes.

When Jones was appearing on HBO, Jesse Hart might have been watching Sandy Saddler against Willie Pep, a pair of Hall of Fame featherweights who fought four times between 1948 and 1951.

He studied tapes of Henry Armstrong and Bob Foster and many of the old-time greats, his father peppering him with tips and questions.

"My dad would ask me, 'Why does he put his left foot that way?' " Jesse Hart said. "Or, 'Why does he throw his jab that way? Why did he duck that way instead of ducking this way? Why was he punching on this angle?' And I'd ask him questions. I became like a boxing historian."

This boxing historian happens to be one of the sport's best prospects, a 24-year-old super middleweight who is 11-0 with 10 knockouts and showing every indication he's championship timber.

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He'll fight Derrick Findley on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York and predicts dire consequences for his far more experienced opponent.

"He'll be punished, beaten badly and brutally," Hart says.

But if things had gone Hart's way, the way he believed they should have during the buildup to the 2012 Olympics in London, Hart would no longer be boxing.

He was raised by his father to be a fighter, but his sole goal during most of his life was to win the gold medal and walk away from boxing.

He was inspired by watching fellow Philadelphian David Reid win a gold medal in 1996 and set that as his life's goal.

Hart lost a spot to Terrel Gausha on the U.S. Olympic team in what is known as the reload round, when he dropped a decision he believes he should have won.

Boxers who win at the Olympic Trials used to automatically earn a berth on Team USA. But in 2012, USA Boxing decreed that Olympic Trials winners who did not place high enough in the World Championships would have to win the USA Boxing National Championships to earn a spot in one last qualifier.

Hart lost a fight he felt he'd won in the reload. He was badly hurt by it and the emotion creeps into his voice even now.

"It was a crushing, crushing, crushing blow, not only to my career but also to my life," Hart said. "Everything in my life that I wanted, that I had worked for, they took away from me. My inspiration was to win that gold medal and to be in David Reid's shoes.

"Hands down, I thought [I won that fight]. It was a sloppy fight, but I felt I edged it out. I was the hungrier fighter. I wanted it more. But it was that system. That hurt, because it was the first time they ever did that. I think that whole system was designed for me not to go. The whole thing was designed for Jesse Hart not to go to the Olympics."

His voice cracks as he speaks. Two years later, the loss still haunts him. His heart still aches.

All he thought about, all he worked for, all he wanted, was to make the U.S. Olympic team and win a gold medal.

"If I'd have gone to the Olympics, I believe I would have been a gold medalist, and if I'd been a gold medalist, we wouldn't even be talking about my pro career and me being this prospect," Hart said. "I don't think I would have turned pro. I wouldn't have turned pro if I was a gold medalist. People tell me about the money I'm going to make [as a pro], but man, it's not about the money to me. It was never about the money.

"It was about being good and solidifying my name as one of the best. If I'd have won the gold medal, I'd have accomplished my dream. There would have been no drive, no desire, no motivation to turn pro. There's a lot of animosity built up. There's a lot of emotion built up. A lot of frustration. It's spilled milk now to everybody else, but it's still in the back of my mind."

Hart's life has been difficult, even before the Olympics. He felt great pressure to perform, because his family was struggling and he felt he needed to help.

In 2010, his older brother, Damian Williams, was murdered on the street, shot during a robbery. His brother had been a major influence upon him and had urged him to stay out of trouble, to keep working hard and to not get involved with the street life.

Williams, Hart said, was no troublemaker and wasn't into guns.

"I wish and pray that he was still with me," Hart said of his brother. "I pray every night about him. I wish he was standing there at my side, but I feel him there in the ring with me, helping me get out of the way of those punches."

Hart was in Marquette, Mich., preparing for the 2012 Games under the eye of former Olympic coach Al Mitchell. His family was having problems in Philadelphia and he felt helpless.

"My family was going through a financial deficit," he said of that time period. "We was starving. We was hungry. I was up there with Al Mitchell and I couldn't get no money from back home. There were just a lot of tribulations leading up to it. I feel as though, through all I overcame, I should have gotten that gratitude and that glory of being an Olympian and becoming an Olympic gold medalist."

His father was so focused on him becoming a boxer that when Cyclone learned that Jesse was playing basketball in school, he threatened to break his legs.

Hart would show up tired at the gym. He told his father he was showing up for boxing training late because he was enrolled in an after-school program and was doing his homework, but the truth was that he'd made the basketball team and was practicing before training for boxing.

Cyclone Hart was not amused.

"My dad found out and he says, 'Basketball practice? What do you mean you're at basketball practice? You ain't no basketball player,' " Hart said, laughing. "And he got this mean old look on his face and he told me he'd break my leg if I kept playing basketball.

"That's my dad, and I don't think he was going to do it, but I didn't want to find out."

Thus ended Hart's basketball career. But basketball's loss was boxing's gain, even if Hart had never turned pro.

He's not sure where his career is going to take him, but he's certain he's going to make a name for himself.

"I was raised like an old-time boxer," Hart said. "Fighters today are pampered and pansied. When [Muhammad] Ali fought, he broke his jaw and he fought the rest of the [12] rounds. When [Victor] Ortiz broke his jaw [against Josesito Lopez], he done quit. In the old days, them guys would die in there.

"That's what I want to be. I want to be a real, serious, old-time boxer, and that's all I'm working on now."

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