For the past couple of months, junior middleweights Tony Harrison and Jarrett Hurd have been gearing up for the biggest fight of their careers -- a world title eliminator that would earn the winner a shot at Jermall Charlo's belt.
Then, last Thursday, things changed. The stakes got bigger. A lot bigger.
Charlo, coming off a tremendous fifth-round knockout victory of Julian "J Rock" Williams in December but having trouble making weight, elected to vacate his title in order to move up to the middleweight division.
That opened the door for Harrison-Hurd to be elevated to a fight for the vacant 154-pound title that Charlo relinquished. The fighters were thrilled to learn of the added significance of their fight.
"This is what all boxers dream of, to fight for the world title. I was super excited," Hurd said of his reaction. "We were jumping around the gym. We knew this day was going to come. It came faster than I expected, but I'm ready."
Harrison and Hurd both found out in telephone calls from Al Haymon, their manager.
"This is what all boxers dream of, to fight for the world title. I was super excited. We were jumping around the gym. We knew this day was going to come. It came faster than I expected, but I'm ready." Jarrett Hurd
"Al called me and makes a guy from Detroit's dream come true," Harrison said. "And I was the happiest guy when I found out. So the wait was worth it. My pop has always told me patience is a virtue, be patient. And I was patient enough."
Said Hurd: "We were sitting down in the gym and we got the call, and Al was telling me like, 'I told you it was going to be here, Jarrett. This is it. This is what you worked for.' I went home and ran a couple of miles that night, thinking about it because I know that sometimes for people it could be a once in-a-lifetime opportunity. So I don't want to take it for granted, man."
Harrison (24-1, 20 KOs) and Hurd (19-0, 13 KOs) will duke it out for that coveted belt on Saturday (Fox, 8 p.m. ET, with additional bouts on Fox Sports 1 beginning at 10 p.m. ET) at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. It's the co-feature of a card headlined by Tuscaloosa, Alabama's Deontay Wilder (37-0, 36 KOs), who will make the fifth defense of his heavyweight world title against Gerald Washington (18-0-1, 12 KOs) of Vallejo, California.
The opening fight, a scheduled 10-rounder, will also feature heavyweights, as 2012 U.S. Olympian and former world title challenger Dominic Breazeale (17-1, 15 KOs) of Los Angeles will meet Poland-born Nigerian Izuagbe Ugonoh (17-0, 14 KOs), who will be making his U.S. debut. All of his previous bouts were in New Zealand and Poland.
Even before the title was on the line, Harrison-Hurd shaped up as an outstanding fight between young, hungry contenders. Promoter Lou DiBella was pleased to have the fight on his card and even happier when it was upgraded.
"All the boxing pundits, all the boxing writers, the fans, they knew that Tony Harrison against Jarrett Hurd is a terrific matchup," DiBella said. "We knew we had a great fight going in. Now we have a much more significant fight going in."
"So for me, my confidence is at an all-time high fighting a guy like Jarrett Hurd. Jarrett Hurd, he's been sensational. But part of being a competitor is fighting the best. And if Jarrett Hurd's name is mentioned and everybody is mentioning Jarrett Hurd and they don't want to fight Jarrett Hurd, then Tony Harrison will." Tony Harrison
The 26-year-old Harrison was closing in on a title shot in July 2015 and was the favorite against contender Willie Nelson, but he was upset in a ninth-round knockout on ESPN. Harrison has won three fights in a row since, including a strong performance in a ninth-round knockout of Sergey Rabchenko in his last fight in July, and now he's on the verge of fulfilling his dream.
Harrison said that after the loss to Nelson he did not get discouraged. He simply went back to work and continued to grind toward this moment.
"It was just, 'Keep doing what you're doing. Eventually you're going to kick your door down,'" Harrison said. "So for me, it wasn't about them giving me anything. So it wasn't a schedule for me. I just wanted to take whatever they put in front of me.
"As for my defeat, I went back to the drawing board. It gave me the realization that winning or losing, they are going to talk about you. The crazy thing is, I got more talked about when I lost than I got when I won. It put me in a mindset to just do what you got to do to win. It just put me in a mindset of training hard and just be in the best shape possible and make the adjustments as you go along.
"From that loss, a lot of people probably would have stuck their heads down. I got right back in the gym and I started working hard."
Hurd, 26, of Accokeek, Maryland, has been on a fast ascent after a string of impressive performances, including knockout wins against previously undefeated opponents Frank Galarza and Mexican Olympian Oscar Molina, as well as veteran former welterweight world title challenger Jo Jo Dan in November.
Still, Harrison figures to be his best opponent so far. He said he is well prepared for the fight.
"Going into this fight, it's nothing different. I have the same mindset as I've always had," Hurd said. "It's rising stars at 154 pounds. I don't plan on slowing that down anytime soon. Come [Saturday], there will be a storm in Birmingham, Alabama, and a new champion at 154.
Both fighters have good punching power and both are well aware of that factor in the fight.
"The power is going to definitely have a lot to do with it," Hurd said. "[But] I don't think that's going to be the main factor; I feel I'm the more skillful boxer. He got put down by Willie Nelson, and he also got put down by Fernando Guerrero. He should not be able to take my big shots.
"We've got a game plan to go out there with skills. We know we've got to watch out for his power. The main thing we want to do is take that away from him. So once we get that going, the fight is going to be in my favor."
Said Harrison: "All those guys [Galarza, Molina and Dan] were really made for him to take advantage of. He hasn't fought nobody this fast, this strong and this smart. I'm going to show this guy how seasoned I am. They don't realize that I have more knockouts than this guy has fights.
"So for me, my confidence is at an all-time high fighting a guy like Jarrett Hurd. Jarrett Hurd, he's been sensational. But part of being a competitor is fighting the best. And if Jarrett Hurd's name is mentioned and everybody is mentioning Jarrett Hurd and they don't want to fight Jarrett Hurd, then Tony Harrison will."
And it won' be an eliminator. It will be for a world title.