By Lem Satterfield
Tony Harrison’s Superbad Fitness boxing gym is located on Puritan Street on Detroit’s west side, serving as a refuge for inner-city youth from the crime, violence, gangs and drugs which has cost many friends their freedom, if not their lives.
“Puritan is a war zone and a struggle every day,” said Harrson’s first cousin, Graham Hester, who housed Harrison during his senior year of high school at a location where Hester still lives within walking distance of the gym.
“It’s a mini-Iraq, so to speak. It’s drug-infested, crack-infested and there is violence all around. It’s survival of the fittest for those who live there.”
Harrison, alongside his father, former pro boxer Ali Salaam, train and mentor neighborhood youth ages 4-and-up in the disciplines of boxing at the gym. Activities include tutoring in math and reading conducted by Jasmine Bradley, Harrison’s girlfriend, a University of Michigan graduate, an aspiring doctor and the mother of his 2-year-old son, Tony Jr., and 3-month old daughter, Jaia.
“Not including adults, there are probably about 100 kids per day learning as amateurs and professionals. We’re trying to build it up to be one of the center blocks for the city in a neighborhood where there’s nothing but liquor stores on every corner,” said Harrison, whose ring nickname, “Superbad,” came from legendary Emanuel Steward, his lead corner man in four of his first 11 bouts before his death at the age of 68 on Oct. 25, 2012.
“My brother, Lloyd, is part of the strength and conditioning program, and Jasimine’s super smart. She has a kid here who, right now, has a 4.0 in high school, so the benefits have been great. That’s why I pushed so hard to have this gym smack in the middle of this neighborhood. I want these kids to have a second chance like I did, otherwise, there is literally nothing else for these kids to do.”
Harrison (27-2, 21 KOs) gets his second title shot in a clash of 28-year-olds with WBC junior middleweight world champion Jermell Charlo (31-0, 15 KOs) on December 22 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
'Superbad' has won three straight since losing by ninth-round TKO to IBF/WBA champion Jarrett Hurd (20-0, 2017) in battle for a vacant crown in February 2017, including those by unanimous decision over Paul Valenzuela Jr. in October 2017, and fifth-round TKO over George Sosa in February 2018.
That set up Harrison’s 10-round split-decision victory over former champion Ishe Smith in his last fight on May 11. Fighting in hostile territory at the Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall in Las Vegas, the 6-foot-1 Harrison repeatedly hammered right hands against Smith’s badly swollen left eye, dropping the Las Vegas-born, 39-year-old in the third round.
“I came into Ishe’s backyard, took control and was more dominant against him than anybody else. I showed that when I’m on, I possess power, speed, the ability to attack from angles, and that I’m the most dangerous guy with a more diverse ring IQ than anybody in the division,” said Harrison, who went 3-0 with two knockouts after a ninth-round TKO loss to Willie Nelson (July 2015) ended his run of 10 consecutive stoppages victories.
"Jermell Charlo is a helluva fighter. I like his attitude toward the sport and his skills in the ring. I expect to face him at his best. But that gets my competitive juices flowing. It's going to be skill-for-skill, and there will be a lot of back-and-forth rounds from 1-to-12. I know people are favoring him, but based on my last performance against Ishe Smith, I feel like I've earned this opportunity.”
Harrison gained much from his upbringing in Detroit, particularly when, as a 16-year-old high school junior, his family dug in to prevent being evicted from their home.
“I woke up in the morning, the police and a dumpster were outside, and my dad was at the door with a shotgun in his hand. My mom had a rifle in her hand. My uncle had a gun in his hand. They were willing to die for that house,” said Harrison of an event that ended without violence but nevertheless represented the first of three times during his teenage years that he was forced to live with relatives.
“My dad told me and my brother to leave. We came back a couple of hours later and the dumpster was full. I grabbed my trophies and some clothes. With that house being removed from my life after I had been living in it since two days after my birth, everything I had known was being taken away.”
Harrison lived with Hester during his senior year of high school, a routine which included shuttling two of his own children, four of his siblings and Harrison to and from school, commuting 45 minutes to classes at Eastern Michigan and then taking Harrison to evening gym workouts.
The second-youngest of eight children, Harrison’s grandfather, Henry Hank, fought professionally for two decades and was a top-10 contender at 160 and 175 pounds in the early 1960s. Steered toward boxing by his mother to quell suspensions from school, Harrison eventually met Steward, who used Detroit’s famed Kronk Gym to mold champion boxers such as Thomas Hearns.
After Harrison’s seventh professional fight, a second-round technical knockout of Ishwar Amador in Temecula, California, in May 2012, Steward began calling him, “Superbad,” derived from former Detroit fighter Bernard “Superbad” Mays, a once-promising 160-pound prospect who died from the effects of alcoholism in 1994 at the age of 33.
“If it wasn’t for boxing, I would’ve gone down a road where I was trying to make ends meet through fast money. And we all know that the fast money is in the streets, so I would have probably been into something of that sort. But my commitment to boxing came when my family was evicted that couple of times, and, it’s saved my life,” said Harrison,
“I'm doing this for my family, a city so much in need of something positive and for everybody who risked a lot to make me the man I am today. I want to give my mom the house I said I’d give her. I want my dad to become a world-renowned trainer. I'm doing it for Emanuel, who was the door opener and the first one to believe in me. I want to do it for his legacy, giving him another champion straight out of Detroit. I appreciate Detroit. It’s a city that can make you a man, and that’s what Detroit did for me.”