Six feet tall and lean, Dusty Hernandez-Harrison doesn’t have a classic, compact welterweight’s build. At 19, he still looks coltish as he stalks around the ring, launching fierce, downward jabs at his opponents before stepping in for a wicked right hook.
But if Hernandez-Harrison—Washington’s best boxing prospect since Sugar Ray Leonard—looks young, he’s Tiger Woods young. “Dusty has the ‘it’ factor,” says reigning super-middleweight champion Andre Ward, the last American male boxer to win an Olympic gold medal. In January, ESPN put Hernandez-Harrison on its list of top boxing prospects for 2013—he faces Tim Witherspoon Jr. January 31 on the network’s Friday Night Fights—and knowledgeable insiders such as Ward expect that he’ll one day fight for the title. “In another two years,” says his adviser, Jeff Fried, “he can step into the ring with anyone.”
Hernandez-Harrison is just one of a new generation of Washington boxers inspired by Sugar Ray, the charismatic, seemingly indestructible welterweight who rose as the limelight glow of the heavyweight era was fading. Born from the Palmer Park Community Center near Landover, Leonard captured national attention in a series of epic brawls in the early 1980s against Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. “What Ray did was inspire young boxers to train hard,” says Gary “Digital” Williams, who has covered boxing for decades. “Gyms sprung up all over.”
Those gyms have produced young champions lately in Sharmba Mitchell and William Joppy. Lamont Peterson took a junior-welterweight title in 2011. The DC Armory, Rosecroft Raceway, and the Washington Convention Center are now regularly booked for prize fights.
But no one has produced the excitement Dusty has, partly because of his precocious success. Undefeated in 19 fights since going pro three years ago, Hernandez-Harrison notched his first victory, by decision, when he was eight. His father, Buddy Harrison, introduced Dusty to the heavy bag when the boy was just two.
“In the beginning, I just wanted Dusty to be able to take care of himself,” Buddy says, standing outside Dusty’s apartment in DC’s Naylor Gardens. But when his son kept winning youth titles—first local, then national—Buddy recalls, “we had something here.”
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Hernandez-Harrison lives in the two-bedroom apartment where he was born, around the corner from where his father now resides. (His mother, Lynda Hernandez, lives in Waldorf.) As a boxer, he wraps himself in the city’s flag, literally: His trunks and cape bear the District’s two bars and three stars. He styles himself as the capital’s great post-racial hope.
“My father is white, my mom is Puerto Rican, my stepmother is Asian; I grew up in a black neighborhood,” he says. “There isn’t a culture or a race I can’t understand or get along with.”
Washington has returned his allegiance. Local rappers Wale, Lightshow, and Shy Glizzy show up at his bouts and have helped draw vocal young fans. When Hernandez-Harrison fought for the youth welterweight championship in November at Madison Square Garden, a loud DC contingent filled a seating section near his corner.
Last summer, Hernandez-Harrison and his father gave me a tour of Dusty’s place, pointing out where Buddy hung the heavy bag in the living-room doorway as soon as his son could walk. “I set up mirrors, speed bags, a little ring music in the basement,” Buddy said. “It was beautiful.” That original workout space grew into Buddy Harrison’s boxing facility, Old School Boxing Gym, on the grounds of Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.
Standing on the scrubby lawn outside Naylor Gardens, Buddy recalls the day in the late 1990s when he took Dusty to the local elementary school to enroll. They heard gunshots at night and woke up to police tape in the morning. On the way, they passed two cops fishing a dead body from a dumpster. Dusty never enrolled. He attended schools in Prince George’s County, where his mother had moved after his parents’ divorce, but Buddy drove him back to Naylor Gardens every afternoon.
“I trained every day and fought every weekend,” Dusty says. “I really didn’t have a choice. We never had a conversation that didn’t turn to boxing.”
Buddy pushed him to do calisthenics, even as a toddler, on the front lawn and take laps around the block. “The neighbors thought I was crazy,” he says. “They wanted to call social services on me.”
Says Dusty: “They should have.”
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In 200 amateur fights, Hernandez-Harrison racked up 173 victories. From 2004 to 2010, he won more than ten national titles in his age group, including the Silver Gloves—the national under-16 amateur championship—twice. “Dusty always boxed smart and hit hard,” Buddy Harrison says.
Well, almost always. At a crucial moment in his amateur career, Dusty became uncertain whose dream he was living, his or his father’s. When Buddy was his son’s age, he too was a promising fighter, until his boxing career—as well as one in stolen cars—ended in arrest, conviction for armed robbery, and ten years in prison. “My boxing buddies went pro,” Buddy says. “I went to jail.”
“He didn’t want me to do what he did,” Dusty says.
Buddy was so intent that his son stay on his championship course that he demanded he refrained from any other sport: “No football, no baseball, no basketball. I didn’t want him to play sports where he might get hurt.”
When Dusty was 16 in the winter of 2009, after his second Silver Gloves championship, Buddy started prepping for the following summer’s Junior Olympics trials. His son, then living primarily with his mother in Charles County, finally balked. He tried out for basketball at Thomas Stone High in Waldorf and made the team as a shooting guard.
“I got tired of not doing what I wanted to do,” Hernandez-Harrison says. “If I was going to box, it was going to be my choice.” About six weeks before the Junior Olympics in June 2010, he quit the gym and stopped answering his father’s phone calls.
When he arrived at the Junior Olympic tournament at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Dusty hadn’t worked out with his father for weeks and he was undertrained. He lost in a semifinal to a boxer he’d beaten previously and came away with a bronze. He decided not to compete for the Olympic team.
“I had no intention of giving up boxing,” Dusty says. “We just had to find a balance. What was it going to be—his way or my way?”
Buddy arranged a family meeting, with Lynda Hernandez mediating. Dad promised to ease up on his son and to delegate parts of Dusty’s conditioning to other coaches, though he kept his role as corner man. And he popped a question that had been brewing in his head: “What would you think of turning pro?”
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In his son’s first professional bout, on June 11, 2011, Dusty won in four rounds against 38-year-old veteran Alphonso Alexander; Dusty, at 17, was the youngest professional boxer in the country. One announcer compared his debut to “LeBron James coming out of high school.”
For his part, Buddy Harrison turned out to be a savvy manager, arranging bouts with low-risk targets in familiar venues. Dusty fought eight of his first 15 bouts at Washington’s convention center and three of his last six at Dover Downs Casino in Delaware. But around Christmas 2011, Buddy realized he couldn’t both train and manage—Dusty was getting too big. He signed on with Jeff Fried, a local lawyer who helped manage Riddick Bowe, the Brooklyn-born, two-time heavyweight champion who had been promoted by Washington’s Rock Newman, now a Ward 8 radio host on We Act Radio (1480 AM).
The team has given Hernandez-Harrison a renewed sense of purpose and has taken the pressure from his relationship with his father. In November, the full entourage—trainers, parents, and fans—traveled north to New York’s boxing mecca, Madison Square Garden, for the youth championship to face the toughest opponent of Dusty’s career, Josh “Pit Bull” Torres, a 23-year-old from New Mexico. Dusty held off the aggressive Torres, outboxing him for eight of ten rounds.
Before the last round, Buddy Harrison ducked through the ropes and kneeled in front of his son. “You are winning this fight,” he said. “I want to make this decision together. Do you want to plant your feet and go to war? Or do you want to stay away?”
Dusty responded: “I want to brawl.”
When the bell sounded for round ten, the two went toe to toe, slugging away for the final three minutes. The judges awarded the fight to Hernandez-Harrison, but with his face cut and puffed up like never before in his career, Dusty came away meditating on what it meant to fight for himself.
“I have given up so much for boxing,” he told me after the fight. “My friends are jealous because of the fame and all. I’m jealous of them because they get to go far away to college. There’s so much I had to give up. I hope it’s not for nothing.”
National editor Harry Jaffe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.