By Larry Bisagni
It’s a Wednesday November evening, just after 6:00 p.m. Dusk is setting in, and many are caught in rush hour traffic when I turn into Rosecroft Raceway’s parking lot. Nearly two decades have passed since I’ve been to this horse track located just outside of the most notorious quadrant of the Nation’s Capital, Southeast Washington, D.C. The familiarity is rushing at me as I park the car and enter the Terrace Dining Room. In the lobby for less than five seconds, a middle aged woman starts to walk past me for the parking lot when I ask here where I can find Old School Boxing.
“Go that way,” she replies, pointing to her right. “It’s towards the end of the track on your right. You might want to drive there.”
I thank her, and begin my trek on foot. After a couple of minutes, I arrive at a chain link fence secured by a deadbolt. I walk around the fence, and am greeted by a black vinyl sign over a rugged white cinder block structure confirming that I have found my destination. The aged, peeling paint only lends credence to the name.
I walk around the opposite side and can hear the action as I open the gym door. Before me is a no-frills, all business gym, where respect is earned in reps and rounds. Kids as young as eight are shadowboxing, running on treadmills, and mentored on how to slip punches under a rope, while older boys are working speed bags and doing various calisthenics. I’m impressed by their diligence and commitment to learning technique.
The owner, Buddy Harrison, spots me from across the ring and greets me with a nod before returning his attention to his fighter, who is nodding his head every couple of seconds while being counseled. Although he is expecting me, I’m careful not to interrupt. School is in session, and I don’t want to distract Harrison from critiquing and correcting the slightest of nuances that could help win a round in a close match.
The bell rings. “Work time!” Harrison commands over the noise, and greets me with a bro hug. Now in his mid 50’s, Buddy is the father of of Arturo “Dusty” Harrison, the undefeated welterweight phenom. With a perfect 28-0 record and over half of his victories coming by way of knockout, the younger Harrison has been called the greatest prospect to hail from the Nation’s Capital since Olympic gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard. Like Leonard, Dusty is becoming a media sensation, recognized throughout the DMV (D.C./Maryland/Virginia, as the region is known to locals), developing a following of young female fans, and has become a regular on mainstream cable.
It’s been said countless times that you don’t open a boxing gym to become wealthy. Aware in advance that all help and equipment is appreciated, I offer Buddy two pairs of shoes and several shirts for the kids to use. “Thank you,” Harrison says with sincerity. “Really, these will go to good use.”
“I’m really glad you’re here,” he continues, giving me a pat on the shoulder. “Our house is yours. Make yourself at home. Hang on…” Buddy’s voice trails off as he immediately turns his focus to the ring. “You’ve got to keep your hands up when you pull out! Move your head…There you go! Time!” bellows Harrison, as clock strikes the three-minute mark. A chiseled, wiry African-American kid named Nate fist bumps me before he slips through the ropes to let Rock, a stocky Caucasian brawler in U.S. Navy sweatpants in. They give one another a quick hug and exchange words of encouragement. As it turns out, they are half brothers.
Rock’s physique proves true to form. He hits like a mule kicks. Harrison leans into Rock’s ear. “Don’t bang him,” he cautions, referring to the sparring partner across the ring that is chewing a mouthpiece into place. “Just give me a few body punches and focus on your balance. Balance and movement.” Rock nods, bopping his head back and forth, loosening his shoulders and bouncing on the balls of his feet as the bell rings. “Okay! It’s work time!” exclaims Harrison.
Harrison turns to me. “This ring is smaller by design,” he explains. “You have to mix it up in here, and it forces you to improve your ring generalship. If you can hold your own here, you’ll have no problem in a big ring.”
He pauses. “Kind of like life.”
Buddy Harrison is a surrogate father for so many young men. In better shape than most men half his age, he has a black head of hair that is slowly giving way to silver, a scar across the bridge of the nose, a cast iron jaw, and an addiction to Chuck Taylor sneakers. “It’s bad. I just ordered another pair. My wife’s going to go crazy,” laughs Buddy, looking sheepishly over his shoulder to see whether she is within earshot.
Lean, tattooed, and sporting a black, sleeveless shirt that advertises Old School Boxing on the back, Harrison initially resembles fictional sensei John Kreese of the Karate Kid trilogy, yet his wisdom and demeanor is much more Mr. Miyagi. In fact, Harrison absorbs the cost for many kids to train. And not unlike the character played by Pat Morita, Buddy has the foresight and poise that only life can bring with experience and time, but was equally a badass in his day, and can still bring it when called upon.
Surrounded by fight posters and aspiring boxers, the elder Harrison is just as committed to other other people as he is to his flesh-and-blood prized pupil. “I know many kids in here will never become pros, but they’re all important to me,” says Harrison. Several, such as Nate and Rock, come from very little, and many have had their own run-ins with the law.
“If I can keep a few kids off the streets and doing something productive, that’s a win for me.” He points out others that are homeless, born to crack-addicted mothers, or just simply less fortunate. “So many of these kids come from nothing, and I mean nothing.” Harrison sighs, with a heartache in his voice. “This gives them something. When they are here, they are doing something productive. It’s a place to go where they can get some structure and discipline, and hopefully build some character and self respect. The streets of D.C. can take down anyone fast.”
He knows. He lived it.
Harrison is refreshingly open about his past, his wild and rebellious years growing up in Southeast. An aspiring boxer himself, his antics – “My craziness,” he calls it – got him into scrape after scrape outside of the ring. Finally, an armed robbery landed him in prison. Along the way, Harrison experienced a spiritual awakening and has never looked back since being released in 1990.
Four years after his release, Dusty was born. Before he could walk, he was learning how to throw punches. “Honestly, I really just wanted him to be able to defend himself,” says Harrison with a grin. Barely a toddler, little Arturo was running laps around the yard, leaving neighbors wondering whether they should call social services.
However, something much more was taking place. What Buddy saw developing before his eyes was that Dusty was not just a kid who could protect himself from older, tougher children; he had a prodigy on his hands. Young Dusty’s accuracy, balance, and speed were light years ahead of his peers. At the precocious age of 8, he began his amateur career. Between the ages of ten and sixteen, Dusty captured ten national titles for his age group, and twice walked away with the Silver Gloves crown in his weight class, which is the national under-16 amateur championship. In all, Dusty fought 193 times as an amateur, winning ninety percent of the bouts.
Resisting temptation to compete in the London Olympics, Dusty elected to turn pro in 2011. At 17, he was the youngest professional boxer in America. The rise has been meteoric. Less than five years later, he’s one of the hottest prospects in the sport, represented by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports, and recently signed an endorsement contract with Fila. While Buddy has masterfully guided Dusty’s career, the Harrison express has become a full-fledged bullet train destined for superstardom, and it waits for nobody. Jump on now, or get left in Dusty’s dust.
“My pay is watching Dusty’s hand get raised in victory. When I see that, I’m paid in full. But let me tell you something,” Buddy says pointing at the door. “When I have some other kid come in here and he’s off the streets, he’s not getting caught up in what happens out there. That’s a win too. It might not go in a record book or anything, but when they are here and working towards something, I’m paid in full again. I’ve been to too many funerals.”
Sadly, less than a week after our interview, Buddy’s words rang true. A gym regular that went by Riley lost his life at just 18 years of age.
As we wrap up our talk, a couple of kids come up to say hello. After a circle of fist bumps, nods, and fives, Harrison asks me to take a group picture. “It’s little things like that that these kids appreciate,” he tells me. “They eat up getting a little bit of recognition, and taking their picture makes them feel important. We all want that.” After a couple of shots, everyone resumes training, and Buddy returns to his post, the corner of the ring. He thanks me for stopping by.
“I have a lot to be grateful for, but I still have a lot to do. Tomorrow’s a new day.” His voice rises, so that everyone can hear. “Bright and early!”
I head for the door. Behind me, the bell rings, followed by the familiar voice giving instructions.
It’s work time.