If Tony Harrison proves he can fight as well as he can talk, we might be witnessing the rise of someone truly special.
Luckily for Harrison, a junior middleweight who is unbeaten through 21 pro fights, he has shown just as much promise inside the ring.
Harrison (21-0, 18 KOs), 24, enters his toughest test to date on Saturday, when he faces veteran Willie Nelson in a 10-round bout to open the first Premier Boxing Champions card on ESPN (9 p.m. ET) from the USF Sundome in Tampa, Florida.
"Emanuel told me from day one that people want to see knockouts. He said that you can dance around all you want but that's not the sport you are in. People come to see knockouts. That's what I love to generate. People want to see that."
It's a considerable platform for Harrison, a Detroit native who proudly wears the Kronk Gym colors on his trunks. He was managed by Emanuel Steward, the Hall of Fame trainer who died in 2012 just two weeks after Harrison’s 10th pro fight.
“I’m just trying to carry on a legacy of what Emanuel thought I could do,” Harrison said. “He was the first politically connected boxing expert to give me a shot and believe that I could do something great. He saw it before everybody saw it. He saw it when I was an amateur and made plenty of mistakes.”
In today's boxing, being a businessman who protects his brand and image has become just as important as being a fighter who takes on the toughest challenges available. Harrison is the rare throwback who fights for much more than money or fame.
Every time Harrison steps into the ring, he is fighting for his beloved home city.
“I fight for the city of Detroit because I don’t feel like we get the recognition we deserve,” Harrison said. “Everybody just looks at the city as being such a negative city, but they don’t see the positives that I saw and Emanuel saw. At this point in time, the city is just dying for something great.”
Harrison, who has stopped his previous 10 opponents, believes he can be that entity his city is dying to rally behind. And in order to do that, he has heeded Steward's advice.
“Emanuel told me from Day 1 that people want to see knockouts,” Harrison said. “He said that you can dance around all you want, but that’s not the sport you are in. People come to see knockouts. That’s what I love to generate. People want to see that.”
Most major cities are thought to produce a certain type of fighter. For example, fighters from Philadelphia are known for their tough, brawling styles.
From Harrison’s perspective, a Detroit fighter is one that is skilled just as much as he is tough.
“You knew anytime you were fighting someone from Kronk that you were in for a hell of a fight,” Harrison said. “Nobody wanted to fight nobody from Detroit. Our style is so rugged and we could do it all -- box or fight. You bring your ‘A’ game when you fight somebody from Detroit, and that’s in any sport.”
Harrison said what ultimately separates Detroit fighters from the rest is their competitiveness.
“I go out to California and the competitive nature of them is not like Detroit,” Harrison said. “We bring that style and excitement to boxing. There are a lot of fighters in a lot of states who have skill but don’t bring the type of aggression and entertainment as somebody from Detroit.
“We bring it," he said. "We plan to entertain. We know what the people want to see.”
Harrison said his gift of gab comes naturally to him; it's simply how he is wired. It’s also what he believes originally drew Steward to him in the amateurs.
“Everyone just came in the ring ‘plain Jane’ and just came to box,” Harrison said. “But I have tapes of me walking in the ring with sunglasses on and just doing something extra to excite the crowd. Just like R&B and rap, this is the entertainment business, so if you’re not entertaining, I don’t care how much skill you got, people won’t pay to see you.”
The fight against Nelson (23-2-1, 13 KOs) is a considerable step up in class for Harrison. But Nelson, despite being 6-foot-3, tends to forgo playing to his height advantage in order to brawl at close range, offering Harrison an opportunity to fight his favorite style.
“That would be a plus for the fans, and a plus for the fans is a plus for me,” Harrison said. “So win, lose or draw, the goal for me is giving the fans what they pay for. At some point we know Willie Nelson is going to go into that mode and at that point the fans are going to see one amazing fight.”
Harrison said his challenge isn’t just to beat Nelson, but to exceed expectations and become the first fighter to stop him.
“My challenge is doing something no one else has done. I’m that first kind of guy,” Harrison said. “I’m that guy you call when PBC is first on ESPN. I’m that guy. You call me. I’m that guy when nobody has ever been stopped and you need them stopped. Call me. I’m just that kind of guy who leads the way.”