By Thomas Gerbasi
Eugene “Cyclone” Hart made it to 22-0 with 1 NC before he suffered the first pro loss of his career against Nate Collins in 1972.
Then things got interesting, as the Philadelphia middleweight faced the best fighters of his era, guys like Marvin Hagler, Willie Monroe, Bobby Watts, Bennie Briscoe, Sugar Ray Seales, Eddie Gregory and Vito Antuofermo.
Win or lose, it was a resume to be proud of, but in the days before there were four world champions per division, Hart never got a crack at the title. And after a 1982 loss to Tony Suero, he called it a day at the age of 30.
Thirty-five years after that last bout, Hart’s 28-year-old son Jesse, 22-0, gets the shot at the title he never did when he faces 35-0 Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez for the WBO super middleweight crown on Friday in Tucson, Arizona.
Some fighters would shy away from the pressure of winning one for dad, but Hart is embracing the prospect of bringing a title home not just for his father, but his whole family.
“It means a lot because we never had a belt in our household,” Hart said during a media teleconference on Tuesday. “My dad wasn’t the first to do this in the Hart household. There were my uncles too, but my dad took it the furthest. He said, ‘Everything I didn’t do in boxing, I want my son to do it.’ That’s what he’s pushing me to do. It means legacy. This is personal for my family; we want to bring a belt back to our household.”
If Hart wins the belt, it would be one of the great boxing stories of the year, especially considering that if “Cyclone” was plying his trade today, a title shot most likely would have been his, and with his legendary left hook, winning a championship was within reach.
“Jesse has a very, very good punch, but his father, ‘Cyclone,’ could knock down walls,” said Jesse Hart’s promoter, Bob Arum. “He was the hardest punching middleweight of his time and he was a tremendous draw during the heyday of the middleweights.”
“My dad was a tremendous boxer-puncher,” added Hart. “He was a converted southpaw so people didn’t expect that hook to be as devastating as it was.”
Hart has something extra on his fastball as well, evidenced in his 18 knockout wins, but it was one of the fighters he couldn’t stop, veteran journeyman Dashon Johnson, who taught him the most in the ring.
“I took away some different tricks of the trade,” Hart said of his March 2016 bout with Johnson, which saw him decked in the final round before gutting out a decision win. One of them was to not let an opponent’s record deceive him.
“When you look at a guy’s record like that, the first thing that went through my mind was ‘I’m gonna get this guy out of here,’” said Hart of Johnson, who had a deceiving 19-18-3 record at the time of their fight. “And when my mind is set to do something, that’s what I believe. I believed I was going to do it. There was no Plan B or Plan C. And that was immature. Now I’m mature enough to see everything – when to box, when to move, when to hit a guy, when to tie a guy up, when to dig to the body.”
Hart has left nothing up to chance in his last two bouts, dispatching Andrew Hernandez and Alan Campa in three and five rounds, respectively. And through it all, he stayed in the gym and remained patient, waiting for his call to fight for the title. That patience was obviously instilled in him by his father, but it’s also been in his brain during his entire pro career, something he owes to Arum.
“Bob always said, ‘You’ve got to be patient,’” Hart recalled. “When I first turned pro, he said to me, ‘There are boxing stars and there are superstars. Superstars can sell themselves in the ring and outside the ring. Boxing stars can only sell themselves in the ring.’ He said I have all the qualities to be a superstar. I speak well, I have a great smile, and all of these different things come into play when you’re trying to build a superstar. The things that Oscar De La Hoya had, Bob built that up. Floyd Mayweather and the things he had, Bob built up. So I’ve been waiting patiently to become a superstar. I just don’t want to be a boxing star.”
The first step to that goal is Friday. Hart will have an ESPN audience for his bout with Ramirez, which won’t hurt in having him reach an audience outside of the boxing hardcores, and it’s impossible not to latch on to the father-son story, much like America embraced Ray Mancini’s quest to win a title for his father Lenny.
But the bottom line is still the fight, and Hart has to deliver on his promise against Ramirez. Yet as he pointed out to the media, camp had been nothing short of torture.
“I think this has been the hardest training I’ve been through in my life,” he said. “It’s a damn near-death experience in that gym. It was war.
“There were times I was like, ‘Am I still alive?’”
That’s old school Philly right there, and while Hart admits that the days of the legendary gym wars are done, there is no question that there’s a piece of that history that he will always carry with him.
“That means you have an upbringing, you have something behind you that you have to uphold and live up to,” he said. “That means a lot dedication, preparation and pride. The city of Philadelphia takes pride in its sports.”
And in the athletes who represent the city in the ring or on the field, court or ice. As for Jesse Hart, he respects that lineage, especially the one closest to him.
“When I go in there, my dad’s heart goes in there with me,” he said. “My dad started me in this at the age of six years old, so we have to recognize where we come from and how we got here. The goal was to be a world champion.”