Boxer Tony Harrison Gives Back to Detroit

The athlete is supporting the neighborhood that gave him everything
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Tony Harrison (right)beat Jermell Charlo in December 2018 to claim the junior middleweight title. // Photograph courtesy of Premier Boxing Champions

Tony Harrison is weary after a long day of interviews, but when the cameras roll, the champ comes alive. 

He’s at Fox Studios in Los Angeles on this November night promoting his junior middleweight title fight here in a few weeks. Sporting olive designer sweats, spotless Timbs, Buffs, and a black Detroit Boxing Co. hat, Harrison freestyles putdowns of his opponent, Jermell Charlo, in front of a giant image of himself. Fox execs fawn over him afterward, repeating their favorite jabs at Charlo. 

The disdain is mutual between the fighters, who traded insults at a press conference earlier in the day. Such theatrics are common in boxing, but this animosity is real. “I don’t like him,” Harrison says of Charlo, whom he defeated by unanimous decision in 2018 to win the title. “It’s hard for me not to like people …. I love people. But him, man, there’s just something different about him. He’s less than a man.”

The win made Harrison a star in the 154-pound division. But he knows the stakes are higher this time. It’s a chance to silence his remaining doubters and re-establish the Motor City as a hotbed of the sweet science. Most of all, it’s a chance to inspire the dozens of local kids he now nurtures at Superbad Fitness, his westside boxing gym. But he isn’t fazed. 

“There’s no pressure for me. I’ve been doing this my whole life,” he says. “I’m ready to relish the moment and put him to justice.”

A Born Fighter

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Tony Harrison trains with Javan “Sugar” Hill at Kronk Gym in Detroit. // Photograph by Gautham Nagesh

Few have been groomed for ring stardom better than Harrison, born to one of Detroit’s premier fighting families. His father, Ali Salaam, was a professional welterweight in the 1980s; his grandfather was Henry Hank, a hard-hitting middleweight who starred in the 1960s. Yet Harrison knew nothing about his family’s fighting heritage for much of his childhood. He only learned that his father and grandfather were boxers after taking up the sport himself at age 8, following frequent fights in school.

“My dad didn’t want me to be a fighter,” Harrison says. “That’s probably why he didn’t tell me.” Once Harrison found his way to the gym, though, his father embraced his training. 

“I taught him how to do it, through my father, Henry Hank,” Salaam says. “My father would fight anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. Tony is the same.” 

Under his father’s guidance, Harrison’s amateur career flourished, eventually bringing him face to face with a Detroit boxing icon: legendary trainer Emanuel Steward of Kronk Gym. An impressed Steward encouraged Harrison to consider turning pro instead of trying to qualify for the Olympics. Soon after, Harrison joined the Kronk family and turned professional on the undercard of heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, who was then being trained by Steward.

“Every day was like a war zone in there, fighting for position,” Harrison says of Kronk Gym. “Being in that atmosphere, if you’re not ready to be a fighter, it makes you a fighter.”

During a summer 2012 interview at Kronk just a few months before his passing, Steward predicted Harrison would become the latest in a string of champions from the gym, following in the footsteps of the legendary Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns. Steward was fond of comparing young fighters to Hearns, but with Harrison’s rangy physique and potent right hand, it seemed less far-fetched. 

Steward also pointed out one of the many black-and-white photos taped to the wall of the gym. Above the photo was the name Henry Hank. Steward said Hank was his favorite fighter growing up.

For any young boxer in Detroit, gaining the attention of Steward would be akin to being recruited by Tom Izzo. But Harrison says he didn’t understand quite how important that connection was until Steward died in October 2012. “Not till he passed did it hit me like, damn, I had the best,” Harrison says.

Back under his father’s sole tutelage, Harrison continued to rise unabated until 2015. Cruising toward an easy decision win against Willie Nelson, Harrison pressed for a knockout in the 9th round and wound up running into Nelson’s right hand. The knockout loss was the first of his career, and a much-needed reality check. “Maybe God was trying to tell me something different. It kind of got us in order as a team as far as perspective,” Harrison says. “We started doing everything right, we started taking everything a little more serious.”

Paying it Forward

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Tony Harrison Photograph courtesy of Premier Boxing Champions

Soon after the Nelson fight, Harrison bought a building on Puritan Avenue on Detroit’s west side, where he grew up, and began planting the seeds for a boxing gym and youth center to serve the neighborhood. It was a daunting project in an at-risk neighborhood with very few businesses or resources. In many ways Harrison was simply following in his family’s footsteps; his parents, Salaam and Aisha Harrison, frequently found their home filled with children beyond their own eight. 

“My wife and I, we raised all our children to give back,” Salaam says. “My wife and I did what he’s doing now.”

First came fixing the holes in the roof. Then a trip to Chicago to drive back a U-Haul’s worth of boxing equipment purchased from a closing gym. Among those helping were Salaam, Harrison’s brother and strength coach, LJ, and his girlfriend, Jasmine Bradley, who runs the gym’s tutoring program. The initial crop of students at the gym — about a half dozen kids — showed Harrison just how hard it is to train a young fighter. 

As Superbad Fitness took shape, Harrison patiently rebuilt his own career, earning a title shot against Jarrett Hurd of Maryland in February 2017. Harrison fell short again, this time fading late in the fight, which he blames on overtraining. 

Once again Harrison shook off the disappointment and went back to work, earning a second title shot against the unbeaten Charlo in December 2018. When the close fight ended, the ring announcer proclaimed Harrison the new world champion, a moment he still describes as “surreal.”

“This is where you belong,” he recalls thinking. “You’ve got something everyone who becomes a boxer dreams of getting.” 

‘About So Much More’

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Tony Harrison speaks to the press at a pre-match event in 2019. // Photograph courtesy of Premier Boxing Champions

Since he returned to Detroit as the champ, Harrison’s boundless love for his city has found multiple outlets outside the ring. “I’ve got so much I want to do, so much I want to conquer,” he says. 

A state-of-the art computer lab for the gym’s tutoring program is just the start. Harrison believes the gym could help draw other businesses and investments to the impoverished neighborhood, which has been mostly forgotten amid Detroit’s real estate boom. He’s also hoping for a partnership that could develop safe recreational areas for the many children in the area. “We want to expand but we ran out of room. It takes funding,” Harrison says. “I would like more people to get involved with the person, not the fighter — with the mind and what I have to offer the city.” 

For now, though, he’s headed to the black Cadillac Escalade waiting to whisk him from the studio lot to his hotel, so he can get to bed early and fly back to training camp in Tampa in the morning. Because this fight is about so much more than beating Charlo. “This is our chance to come back,” he says before departing. “This is our chance to bring everything back and show our kids what used to happen when I was a kid and Tommy Hearns used to fight and they used to bang.”

Following the publishing of this article in Hour Detroit‘s January 2020 issue, Tony Harrison faced Jermell Charlo on Dec. 21 in a rematch at the Ontario, California-based Toyota Arena. Charlo knocked out Harrison in the 11th round of the fight, which as part of the FOx PBC Fight Night, and reclaimed his title as the WBC Super Welterweight.