FORT WASHINGTON, Md. -- It is envisioned in 2004, in the nosebleeds of Madison Square Garden. 11-year-old Dusty Hernandez-Harrison and his dad, by the retelling of both men, are at the Mecca of boxing to watch Felix Trinidad; Dusty being Puerto Rican meant "Tito" was automatically his favorite boxer. Father Buddy tells his young son, by then hovering around triple figures in number of amateur fights, "You keep training, you keep trying, you keep striving, one day I promise you you're going to be here."
It is realized on Nov. 2, when the now 19-year-old Hernandez-Harrison will be the one in the ring at Madison Square Garden against Josh Torres, on the untelevised undercard of the HBO main event of middleweight knockout artists Gennady Golovkin and Curtis Stevens. In the nine years in between is Hernandez-Harrison turning pro at age 17 to national headlines, and more recently, spending the months since his last fight getting congratulatory phone calls from super middleweight champion Andre Ward and garnering favorable mentions from Mike Tyson.
This is the place where they made it happen: A small, leaky-roofed building on the grounds of the Rosecroft Raceway, a track with a storied history that has filed for bankruptcy twice since the 1990s. It's Thursday night at the Old School Boxing Gym, and Hernandez-Harrison is wrapping up sparring for his training camp in advance of his MSG debut. As dusk settles outside, a dim glow emanates from a window, and the muffled sound of gloves punching mitts escapes from within. When the door opens, a slice of bright light punctures the encroaching darkness, a burst of heat punctures the fall chill and the loud noise of conversation combining dissonantly with 1960s and 1970s soul music punctures the silence of the nearby empty dirt oval.
Inside, a spectacularly well-conditioned 60-year-old man spends an almost interminable number of rounds punching the mitts of a trainer in a ring that takes up much of the main room, while in the corner a six-year-old does jumping jacks. The ring is small: 14 by 12 feet, because, as Buddy notes, "It makes 'em work." In the next room over gym rats punch the heavy bags to the sound of "Have You Seen Her" by The Chi-Lites. Almost every square inch of the interior is wallpapered by fight posters, and boxing gloves hang from the rafters. Dozens of people flood in an out over the course of a half-hour, most of them talking and laughing. Some gyms are deadly serious, but the mood here is light. A sign on the outside of the front door reads, "If you want the perfect body like Buddy Harrison, then come work out at Old School Boxing Gym." A giant, stuffed, anthropomorphic Rastafarian banana sits on a ledge, absent meaning or any particularly interesting backstory. Buddy says he is looking for an excuse to get rid of it, perhaps by tying it to the back of someone's car as a prank.
A shirtless Hernandez-Harrison flits among the gym's many denizens, pausing to talk to most everyone and offering a "low five" to a three-year-old. Many of those in attendance are here for the workout, or for hands-on instruction, and despite the jovial atmosphere, they're passionately devoted to the craft of boxing; later, unsanctioned fisticuffs will nearly break out over whose turn it is to get in some sparring. (Buddy relates that such encounters are not uncommon, in part because many of the gym's most frequent visitors are from rough backgrounds.) But many are also clearly here to watch Hernandez-Harrison's last 10 rounds of his own sparring, including Buddy's ex-wife/Dusty's mother, as well as Buddy's wife now. They will drape themselves over the ropes when he enters the ring in headgear spray-painted like a 1980s t-shirt with his name and the Puerto Rican flag.
Hernandez-Harrison is already sporting the marks of good sparring before Thursday's session begins -- both cheeks are decorated with scuffs similar to rope burn, described by a few people as "black eyes." His two partners for the evening are Matt Lombardi, a tall, lanky college student at the University of Maryland who has amassed a 15-5 record as an amateur; and quick, shorter Charlie Natal, 2-0-1 as a pro, 97-7 as an amateur, Hernandez-Harrison's cousin and the winner of his most recent professional fight last weekend at a card hosted by Rosecroft Raceway, actually. Natal is kind of a pro at sparring -- he has helped names like Thomas Dulorme get ready for fights, estimates that he's been in approximately 600 sparring bouts, and between rounds he formulates devious plans meant to test Hernandez-Harrison's ability to react, like conserving his energy until late and going nuts in the final round when Hernandez-Harrison is tiring. He also cajoles Lombardi to pressure Hernandez-Harrison, forcing Lombardi to fight against his natural boxing inclinations. It does the job, at least according to one ringside observer who upon conclusion of sparring says to no one in particular, "That's as good a' work as you're gonna get."
Hernandez-Harrison seems to be focusing on defense early, and he slips Lombardi's punches well in the 1st. Natal is up next, and he catches Hernandez-Harrison off guard with some leaping left hooks in the 2nd. But as the two sparring partners alternate rounds, Hernandez-Harrison starts to get into an offensive groove, tagging Lombardi with big right crosses and timing Natal with counter left hooks and 1-2s. Anyone scoring the 10 could find rounds to give Lombardi or Natal, but Hernandez-Harrison is more or less in control even when Lombardi responds to Hernandez-Harrison's head-snapping shots with body punches or Natal sneaks in power shots comparable in the decibels of their impact to Hernandez-Harrison's best work. There's a brief moment of tension in the 6th when father becomes angry at son for stopping before he called "time" over a loose glove, and a bit of confusion in the 9th round over whether Natal, who suffers a jaw injury, will return for the final round. He does. Later, he explains that he got caught with an uppercut with his mouth open.
For his part, Hernandez-Harrison is not totally pleased with his evening's work. "It was all right. I did better before," he says. "it was good work. They pushed me because they got a break each round, and I ran today before I came. I don't think I'll have any trouble going into fight time."
But Lombardi and Natal are impressed. "He's one of the smartest fighters I've ever been in the ring with," Natal says. "That's what makes him as good as he is. he adapts to any fighter. no matter who you are, he makes changes." Adds Lombardi: "A lot of people don't have that timing or the angles that he uses."
As excited as Hernadez-Harrison is to go to MSG, he's also excited that he'll be fighting for the WBC youth title, held in the past, he recounts, by the likes of Canelo Alvarez, Danny Garcia and Timothy Bradley.
That title, along with Hernandez-Harrison's Puerto Rican heritage, New York's PR population and the ability to draw busloads of fans from D.C. -- his promoter, Jeff Fried, claims that he's sold hundreds of tickets -- helped make it possible for him to get the platform he's about to get, Fried says.
"The thing is, the people who come to see me, they're not boxing fans," Hernandez-Harrison says. "Half of them, the only fights they've been to are mine. That helps me a lot in boxing to eventually become a crossover star."
Despite such talk, and despite the congratulatory phone call from Ward after his last win, and despite Tyson mentioning Hernandez-Harrison's pedigree during a dispute with USA Boxing, everyone around him says that he's stayed grounded and mature for such a young man. "I have to give credit to my parents. My dad, even today, always says, 'Whatever you do, stay humble,'" Hernandez-Harrison says. "They didn't want me to become a cocky, arrogant person if i did well, so I listened."
Says Fried: "That's partly what makes him so special -- to be 19 years old and keep his poise and levelheadedness outside the ring is very unique. He's got a wonderful skill set, but if he did not have combination of family values and him as a person -- that formula is what creates greatness."
Fried says that the fight is a win-win situation because it will benefit the K2-promoted card, give Hernandez-Harrison a chance to see how he'll do on a larger stage and give him a chance to grow against steeper opposition. Torres, 15-2-2, is a 23-year-old Mexican fighter out of New Mexico who Buddy describes as well-conditioned, and whose record Hernandez-Harrison ticks off from memory. "We've put together a pretty good game plan -- plan A, plan B, plan C, as far as we can go down," he says.
Fried says the plan is still to be "methodical" with the young Hernandez-Harrison. He hadn't fought an opponent with a winning record until earlier this year, and he's scheduled to go 10 rounds for the first time against Torres. That's not to say Buddy is without his reservations about how quickly things are moving, only that he set aside his concerns when looking at the long-term.
"I shouldn't say this," Buddy says, "But if something were to go wrong and he did not win, in three years i'd just keep building him and we're going to look back and say, 'He lost, but he was a teenager then.'"
But if it goes right...
"I can think of no better enjoyment than watching my son or one of these kids get his hand raised. that's my passion. I love it. You can't put a price on it," Buddy says. "I'm going to Madison Square Garden. I don't want nothing. To see my son get his hand raised, welterweight title, you can imagine how happy I'd be."