By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
In this pivotal year in American politics, a power struggle of sorts with presidential-primary-type overtones is brewing in Philadelphia boxing. It involves two fighting men of the city, one a beloved older citizen and the other his firebrand son, each of whom has his own vision of how the immediate future will soon play out.
So who gets the final say?
“I do,” insists 26-year-old Jesse Hart (19-0, 16 KOs) who wants to fight for the WBO super middleweight championship before the end of 2016 and likely would be afforded that opportunity should he win his Friday night fight against journeyman Dashon Johnson (19-18-3, 6 KOs), of Escondido, Calif., at the 2300 Arena in South Philly.
“Me,” Jesse’s father-trainer, 1970s middleweight contender Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, 64, said when asked the same question. But Cyclone is of a mind that his son going for a world title this year – or maybe even in the next couple of years – would be a rush to judgment with potentially disappointing consequences.
“I wouldn’t want him fighting for no championship now,” Cylone said when asked if Jesse’s likely elevation to a No. 1 rating from the WBO and mandatory-challenger status for the winner of the April 9 title fight between champion Arthur Abraham (44-4, 29 KOs) and Gilberto Ramirez (33-0, 24 KOs), should result in a showdown for a bejeweled belt. “Jesse is saying now, right now. Me, I would prefer him to wait until he gets about seven more fights and is more comfortable in the ring. A lot of people want him to (be in a title fight soon). Why? I told Bob (Arum, founder of Top Rank, Jesse’s promotional company) I thought he needed six or seven more fights, and then he’d be ready for anybody. Jesse got the tools to get (a world title) now, but he needs to get the tools to hold onto it after he gets it.”
So, if push comes to shove, which Hart gets to make the final decision?
“The son,” said J Russell Peltz, the longtime Philadelphia promoter who co-promotes Jesse’s career.
Or it might be Arum, whom Cyclone said will have a voice in the matter.
“Bob is smart,” Cyclone mused. “Bob will know when Jesse is ready, just like I’ll know.”
Time is always a factor in boxing. How long should a big fight be allowed to simmer until it’s ready to be served at its flavorful best? Or should some matchups be microwaved and hurried to the table?
Jesse Hart’s impatience to fight for a world title is understandable. Another seven bouts worth of seasoning would take him to age 28, possibly 29, and would possibly abbreviate his championship reign, should he be fortunate enough to have one. He believes he is ready to go for the big prize now, so why wait?
But Arum also might not want to delay the process of developing the next Top Rank superstar any longer than necessary. Manny Pacquiao (57-6-2, 38 KOs), Arum’s prime attraction for what seems like forever, has announced his April 9 rubber match against Timothy Bradley Jr. (33-1-1, 13 KOs) at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, will be his farewell to boxing, so Arum, 84, can be excused for wanting to quickly determine a marquee replacement for “Pac-Man.” That might be Hart, or Ramirez, or possibly WBO super lightweight champion Terence Crawford (28-0, 20 KOs), most recently observed scoring a fifth-round stoppage over Philadelphia’s Hank Lundy (26-6-1, 13 KOs) on Feb. 27 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
It is a promoter’s duty to stroke the egos of all of his fighters, to make them feel as if each is his top priority, and Arum has taken care to ensure that Jesse Hart is showered with the requisite compliments.
“There’s boxing stars and there’s superstars,” Jesse said before a recent workout at the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. “You got to know how to talk when you get up in front of that camera. You got to have a great smile. There’s different characteristics that go into it, and Bob said I got ’em all. He said I got the total package, the `it’ factor, to be a superstar.”
It is not anything Jesse hasn’t heard before. Not long after he joined Top Rank’s deep stable, Arum told the then-24-year-old about what could happen when talent meets charisma and the fighter in question is given the benefit of Arum’s special touch.
“When we first sat down, (Arum) said, `I want you. You’re going to be a superstar. You have what (Oscar) De La Hoya had, what Floyd Mayweather has,’” Jesse said in January 2014. “I was, like, wow. Then he asked me, `Who’s the first Mexican-(American) fighter that was on a Wheaties box?’ I said, `I don’t know, who was it?’ He said, `Oscar De La Hoya. That’s how big I want you to be. You have all the qualities to be a megastar in the sport of boxing. I’m going to let you reach those heights.’”
Jesse certainly has the genes to be something special. His dad, Cyclone, began his career with 19 straight victories inside the distance and has been described by Peltz as “the best one-punch knockout artist I ever saw in person.”
Hart had the good fortune – or misfortune, depending on which way one chooses to look at it – of being one of four Philly middleweights who were all world-ranked in the top 10 in the 1970s, the others being Bennie Briscoe, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Willie “The Worm” Monroe. But elite opponents ducked the Philly Four as if they were lepers and, although Watts and Monroe did score decision victories over a young Marvin Hagler at the since-demolished Spectrum, only Briscoe ever was afforded the opportunity to fight for a world championship. He was 0-3 in such bouts, losing twice to Rodrigo Valdez and once to Carlos Monzon.
“We held down the city for, like, 20 years,” Cyclone said of that golden era of middleweights in Philly, when he and the other local kings of the ring were stars as celebrated as much as any member of the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers or Flyers. “Couldn’t nobody come in here and do nothin’ with us. The only way we could make money was to fight each other.”
Thus was the legend embellished of Philly’s down-and-dirty gym wars, where the best of the best took turns cannibalizing one another for neighborhood pride and then did so again in well-attended main events at the Spectrum. It was an era perhaps beyond replication, but Jesse Hart, who has heard all the stories of that magical time from his dad, is eager to do his part to restore at least some of that lost tradition.
Jesse had been scheduled to appear on the non-televised portion of the Crawford-Lundy undercard, but he went directly to Arum and requested that he headline his own show in his hometown. It is high time, Jesse declared, that Philadelphia fighters, the most accomplished of whom have been obliged to take their act on the road, return to America’s best fight town and remind everyone of what once was, and could be again.
“I wish I was back in that (1970s) era,” he sighed. “The mission for me has always to become one of the greatest Philadelphia fighters. I kept hearing about how great my dad was, how great Georgie Benton was, how great Bennie Briscoe was. Gypsy Joe Harris. My dad came up in that era and that’s the mindset I have. In my mind, I’m a 15-round fighter. I’m not a modern-day dude, man.”
Cyclone remembers taking Jesse to the gym for the first time when he was around 10. He has tutored him well, but no trainer can confer the gift of power on a fighter who lacks the natural capability to deliver a shot with the force of a runaway locomotive. Cyclone had that gift, and he said Jesse does, too.
“I realized he had the same qualities I had as a fighter,” Cyclone said. “He can punch with either hand, he can take you out with either hand. Once he gets a little more comfortable, ain’t nobody going to beat Jesse Hart.”
Jesse said he is pretty damn comfortable now, and he has little inclination for taking the long view espoused by Cyclone. He has a wife and child to support, and why shouldn’t he strike when the iron is hot? If he’s a superstar-in-waiting, as Arum had so often told him, why delay the inevitable?
“All I know is I get the winner of the Ramirez-Abraham fight,” Jesse said. “I don’t care who it is. That’s why I’m pushing for a win (against Johnson) in spectacular fashion. This fight is going to prove to the world that I’m one of the best super middleweights in the world, if not the best.
“This is what sets me apart. Nobody else is fighting here. I wanted to bring it home to the Philly fight fans. I’m not knocking nobody else, but what other top Philadelphia fighter is bringing it back here? Bernard Hopkins isn’t. Danny Garcia isn’t.
“That’s why we’re calling this promotion `Hart of the City.’ All our pro teams stink, nobody’s doing nothin’. But you got Jesse Hart standing up for Philly.
“Oh, and make sure to tell everybody that Philly still has the best boxers in the world.”