Junior middleweight world titlist Tony Harrison and former titleholder Jermell Charlo, the man Harrison controversially won the belt from a year ago, sat across from each other at a small table inside a Los Angeles television studio a few weeks ago, and one thing was clear: Neither man wanted to be there.
They were taping the Fox-televised "PBC Face To Face" show that puts rival fighters together, with moderator Brian Campbell sitting between them, to discuss their upcoming bout. Sometimes the shows yield respect and humor between combatants, authentic or grudging. Sometimes, as in the case of Harrison and Charlo, it can be a tension-filled session.
But even the most bitter of pairings typically ends with a modicum of respect and perhaps a hand shake. That wasn't the case when it came to Harrison and Charlo, who, even when they thought the cameras had gone dark as they exited the set, continued to bark at each other and had to be separated as the cameras, unbeknownst to them, continued to roll.
"That was just a continuation of two guys not liking each other," Harrison said of the post-taping situation. "It just so happened the cameras were still on and caught it for once. But that was, like, the fifth time that happened."
"I don't like 'Phony' Harrison. It's easy to explain why the rematch will be different. I'm knocking him out. I can't let them judges make any decisions." Jermell Charlo
Often in boxing, fighters go the extra mile and claim bad blood in order to add hype and spice to a fight, but the Harrison-Charlo beef seems genuine as they head into their rematch, which headlines a Premier Boxing Champions card on Saturday (Fox and Fox Deportes, 8 p.m. ET) at Toyota Arena in Ontario, California.
Harrison flatly denied playing up the animosity as a way to build up their bout.
"People understand what real is and what fake is," Harrison said. "There's nothing fake between us. We don't like each other. I get paid what I'm gonna get paid. I don't work for the promoter, so for me to put on an act for something I'm not getting paid more for is stupid. I'm not doing it for promotion.
"There's not a drop of love in my heart for him. There's a lot of animosity, bad blood, and there's only one way to settle it. That's fighting."
Flash back to almost exactly one year before they meet again: Dec. 22, 2018. Charlo came into the first fight as an undefeated 154-pound titlist making his fourth defense against the underdog Harrison, who had been knocked out in his two losses, one of which came against Jarrett Hurd for a vacant world title in 2017.
The Harrison-Charlo I buildup was cordial and respectful. They both expected to win but lauded the other.
On fight night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Charlo appeared, to many, to win the fight. The Fox broadcasters had him up 117-111, as did most ringside media and the Twitterverse. Then Harrison was awarded a decision and the belt by scores of 116-112 and 115-113 twice, and the crowd, with no particular rooting interest, booed loudly.
Charlo raged, and Harrison celebrated wildly.
"I didn't see this animosity in the lead-up to the first one, but the decision that night changed everything," said TGB Promotions president Tom Brown, the promoter of both bouts. "I said it at a press conference for this rematch that when Jimmy Lennon read those scores and said 'and the new,' you truly saw that old 'Wide World of Sports' saying. You truly saw the thrill of victory on Tony's face and the agony of defeat on Charlo's face. They were both at such an extreme in their emotion."
In the aftermath, Charlo (32-1, 16 KOs), 29, of Houston, had a lot of negative things to say about the decision and about Harrison, whom he never gave any credit for winning. Harrison (28-2, 21 KOs), 29, of Detroit, felt quite disrespected and took it personally. That led to a feud that has been emotional for both men heading into the rematch. It was originally supposed to take place June 23 but was postponed three weeks before, when Harrison tore ankle ligaments in training. Charlo went on to stop replacement Jorge Cota in the third round, and Harrison is returning from a year layoff with bad feelings still simmering.
"I gave him respect for the first fight, and then he lost, and then he started s----ing on me, so all the respect went out the window," Harrison said. "He tried to slander my character, and that shows a lot about him. I got no respect for a guy like that."
If Charlo and Harrison agree on one thing, it's their distaste for each other.
"I don't like 'Phony' Harrison," Charlo said. "It's easy to explain why the rematch will be different. I'm knocking him out. I can't let them judges make any decisions. That's what I need. He's going to sleep. Cold."
Harrison still shakes his head at the fact that there was any controversy over the decision in December.
"You got three judges. All three said I won," Harrison said. "So it don't bother me. It was a fair decision. Three judges -- not one judge, not two judges, three judges -- said one person won it, and there are so many people who say I didn't. It just shows that the world wants to see this man win. And that bothers me, man. It don't affect me, but it bothers me. The judges saw one person, and it don't matter. It's crazy. That's the world we live in."
"This is going to be easy because I'm already in his head. I think he's trying to figure out what he has to do different to beat me. I've got the mental battle won." Tony Harrison
Charlo maintains that he won and that Harrison hasn't wanted to fight him again, going so far as to accuse him of faking the ankle injury and call him "a fraud."
Harrison believes he has already won the mental battle because though he has been more laid-back when they have been in front of each other at media events, Charlo has typically been the one to become animated and raise his voice.
"This is going to be easy because I'm already in his head," Harrison said. "I think he's trying to figure out what he has to do different to beat me. I've got the mental battle won. I have him all riled up. Now it's just about capitalizing.
"I'm living rent-free in that head. He's mentally weak -- period. He's emotional. He fears me, and he fears everything about me. He knows I'm a threat."
"This energy he's portraying isn't really him."
Brown said he believes the ill feelings are real but said they need to be careful to not let their emotions overcome them once the bell rings.
"It's not a street fight," Brown said. "You have to be smart, relaxed and be a professional. They have to go in the ring and do what's gotten them there -- be relaxed, do what was designed by their trainers and be smart. They can't let the emotion get the best of them."
The boxing tradition has always dictated that when a fight is over, the boxers let any bad feelings go. There is usually a handshake, a fist bump or a hug.
Harrison said he isn't so sure he's going to bury the hatchet with Charlo once the fight ends.
"When somebody s---s on you, it's hard to go back to a place where I can respect you," Harrison said. "I think he's a good fighter. This has nothing to do with him as a fighter but everything to do with him as a man, so it's hard for me to respect that man from here on out.
"No matter what happens in the fight, he's a good athlete, so I'm not s----ing on him as an athlete. But I'm just questioning everything he does as a man unless he humbles himself and apologizes for the s--- that he did. Winning this fight right here is bigger than any belt. This is man to man."