On a Saturday night in July, one second wiped out the 1,500 or so that preceded it. All it took was a well-placed right hand, a fist that doubled as an eraser, which didn’t stop time so much as negate it, cleaning the slate in a flash of leather.
In the co-main event to Keith Thurman and Luis Collazo’s liver-smashing clash in Tampa, Florida, this summer, then-undefeated 154-pound prospect Tony Harrison (21-1, 18 KOs) took on human telephone pole Willie Nelson, a towering presence at 6 feet 3 inches.
Although Nelson possessed the height advantage, he wasn’t able to keep Harrison off of him, as the latter was the busier fighter, controlling the pace of the bout through eight rounds.
The action was fitful, however, coming in spurts, like water making its way through a tangled hose, which led to plenty of jeering from the stands.
“The crowd, the boos, that stuff kind of gets to me, because I always want to entertain,” Harrison says. “I let a lot of things get in the way of the true goal at hand, and that was to just get the win.”
With Harrison leading on all three judges’ scorecards heading into Round 9, he was primed to seal said victory. But rather than preserve his lead and box his way to a ‘W,’ Harrison stepped on the gas, trying to give the crowd—and his opponent—a little something to remember him by.
Then, with 25 seconds left in the round, Nelson, a skilled counterpuncher, caught Harrison with a right hand that changed everything.
The blow led to a quick combo that set up another right hand that sent Harrison down to the canvas. Harrison beat the count, but as he did so, he turned his back to referee Frank Santore and leaned into the turnbuckle for support, which was enough for Santore to stop the fight.
“The ref did his job—I’m not mad at the ref—but I think if he just let me get up and show that I was OK one time, at least once, then I get through the fight and I win,” he says.
Instead, just like that, it was all over.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s difficult to wrangle with the psychology of a fighter attempting to reconcile with his first pro loss.
Everyone’s tasted the acidic tang of disappointment, no matter their lot in life, and the anger and self-doubt that can cast shade over even the sunniest of dispositions. But it must be different for a fighter, who has to enter the ring feeling as if he’s the better man lest he be proven otherwise.
How does it feel, then, when that actually happens for the first time? Don’t ask Harrison. He doesn’t feel like he experienced true defeat against Nelson.
"I wasn’t disappointed in myself. I looked at the fight and I was doing real well,” he says. “I wasn’t getting hit with shots. I got under a lot of right hands he was trying to throw. I fought when I wanted to fight; I boxed when I wanted to box. I felt like it was more of a sparring match for me.
“I think it was one of those fights where the fans got to see me move my feet a little more, use my boxing IQ a little more, use the ring,” he continues. “But sometimes the fans don’t appreciate it, and that’s when I got the boos. That kind of led to something different in my head. It was a very, very, very great learning experience for me. Experience is the biggest teacher for me.”
What’s more, Harrison take solace in his belief that future opponents won’t be able to take much away from the loss.
“That’s not the blueprint to beat Tony Harrison, to take him to the ninth round and hope the referee stops the fight when he’s up on his feet,” he says. “All applause goes to Willie. I’m not trying to knock him or the fight. He did what he was supposed to do. He’s supposed to be happy, but him and his team know that they walked out with a gift.”
And that’s a gift Harrison doesn’t intend to keep on giving.
As he prepares for his next fight, against Cecil McCalla (20-2, 7 KOs) in Houston on October 31, the Michigan native has turned to his hard-knock past, which included his family being evicted from his childhood home when he was a teenager, to steel himself for the future.
“This isn’t the hardest defeat that I’ve faced,” he says. “Detroit has hit me a lot harder than that.
“I’ve been through a lot of scenarios where I was facing defeat,” he adds with a measure of finality. “I overcame it every time.”
For full coverage of Harrison vs McCalla, visit our fight page.