Tony Harrison trying to jumpstart career after his mentor's death
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Nearly a year after his untimely passing, the presence of Emanuel Steward still ripples through boxing. Wladimir Klitschko continues to roll along, slapping around all comers with no end -- or viable threats -- in sight. Adonis Stevenson -- the ex-pimp Steward helped mold from a reckless power puncher into a more polished product -- now wears a light heavyweight belt around his waist. Andy Lee has won two straight fights since his middleweight title loss to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. last year, and could soon position himself for another crack at one.
For most of Steward's stable, soldiering on without him has been difficult, but doable. Most, but not all. At 22, Tony Harrison is the youngest of Steward's protege's, a lanky, hard-hitting junior middleweight that Steward often gushed fought like Tommy Hearns. They connected in 2008 when Harrison -- the grandson of former light heavyweight contender Henry Hank -- was knocking out fighters from Steward's famed Kronk Gym. Harrison quickly became Steward's project. He took him to Klitschko's camps, where he taught him to train like a professional. He put him on Klitschko's undercards, providing valuable experience in big time venues. He exposed a kid from the hard neighborhoods of the seven mile section of Detroit to a world full of possibilities.
"Manny, he took care of me," Harrison said. "He made sure everything went right."
Under Steward's guidance, Harrison progressed steadily. Steward loved his power, his killer instinct, often lamenting that it was becoming difficult to find opponents who could go rounds with him. At 6-foot-1, Harrison towered over most 154-pounders, firing off a piston-rod like jab and following it up with crushing right hands. This kid will fight for a title someday soon, Steward would tell me. Believe it.
But in the aftermath of Steward's death, Harrison's career has stalled. He has fought three times since Steward passed away, twice this year, but has failed to take a measurable step up in competition. Both his fights in 2013 have been in Detroit and neither have gone past the first round. He continues to spar with quality fighters -- including Gennady Golovkin -- but with Steward gone Harrison has struggled to secure quality fights. Scheduled slots on a January card headlined by Mikey Garcia-Orlando Solido and a June show headlined by Golovkin and Matthew Macklin were scuttled because of an inability to find opponents.
"There has been so much inactivity, it's been frustrating" Harrison said. "That's a part of being with Manny that I really miss. I would have already been locked in on cards, and even if I didn't fight I would have at least been compensated. Without him I've just been lost, trying to get a fight."
At times, Harrison has stood in his own way. Shortly after Steward died, Harrison had an opportunity to sign with manager Cameron Dunkin, who guides the careers of Garcia, Nonito Donaire and Brandon Rios, among others. Dunkin wanted to align Harrison with Top Rank and send him to California to work with SI.com's 2011 Trainer of the Year, Robert Garcia. Harrison passed.
"Going from Emanuel to jumping in with Cameron Dunkin, someone I knew nothing about, it just didn't feel right," Harrison said. "Before I signed with Emanuel, I hung out with him all the time. I knew him. I trusted him. Cameron is a tremendous manager, everyone knows that. But his vision for me was different than Manny's. His vision was to go to California, and it probably would have been smart. But Manny's dream was to bring boxing back to Detroit. And that is my dream too."
On Saturday, Harrison (13-0) will take the first step towards kick starting his career when he takes on Gilbert Sanchez (2-2) on the undercard of the Curtis Stevens-Saul Roman headlined show at Mohegan Sun Casino (NBC Sports Network, 10:30). Main Events is taking a flyer on Harrison, hoping he can fulfill the potential Steward saw in him.
When the subject shifts to his next fight, Harrison can't help but smile. He has watched the success of Klitschko and Stevenson and wondered when it would be his turn. Steward is gone but the desire to make him proud still burns inside him.
"Every time I'm in that ring, I can feel him looking down on me," Harrison said. "When I'm doing something wrong I can hear him going '(expletive), you do it right.' It makes me smile. I find myself wishing he was here. But I will honor him by putting on a good show. He never wanted a fight to go the distance. Saturday, my main focus is to take this guy out and show everyone that he shouldn't be in the ring with me."