Old School Boxing gym at Rosecroft Raceway Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Professional boxing is making a comeback in the D.C. area. Starting this Saturday, there will be pro fights for the next six weekends in either D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. The first pro bout in the area happened in January this year. Comparatively, the first card didn’t occur until May in 2018, according to Gary “Digital” Williams, a boxing journalist who has covered the sport in the Beltway area for 36 years.

“We definitely have had a major uptick on this, especially in Maryland,” Williams says.

Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington will host professional fights for the first time this year on Saturday, April 20 with a squad of local boxers highlighting the card.

Local favorite Dusty Hernandez-Harrison, coming off a knockout win, will continue his comeback trail to title contention while dealing with looming legal troubles; Mike Balogun, a former NFL player boasting a 75 percent knockout ratio, will test himself again as he sharpens his adopted craft; and Nate Davis will make his pro debut after a life of hardship growing up in different foster homes.

There’s also been a renaissance of DMV representation in the uppermost echelons of the sport.

“We’re in as good a place as we have been I would say since the mid to late ’90s when we had four world champions at one time,” says Williams.

Saturday’s bouts, presented by KBW Promotions, will have Hernandez-Harrison (31-0-1) headlining against Fred Jenkins Jr. (10-5) at middleweight. After a prodigious amateur career and meteoric ascension in the pro ranks, Hernandez-Harrison’s life fell into turmoil and the boxer went two and a half years without a fight. Facing personal tribulations and a stagnating career, Hernandez-Harrison lost motivation and was ready to quit, but has since rededicated himself.

Last month, the 24-year-old stormed back onto the scene in Indiana with a knockout at 1 minute and 46 seconds of the first round after stalking his opponent and unloading two rapid left hooks: the first to the body, the second to the head. But that didn’t satisfy Hernandez-Harrison. It didn’t even feel all that good when he considers the time he lost and where his career could be.

“I’m kind of happy that I felt that way because I came home, but I didn’t miss any days in the gym,” Hernandez-Harrison says. “I’m able to keep the same motivation that I gained during the two and a half year layoff.

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Hernandez-Harrison got back to work at Old School Boxing Gym, a facility on the grounds of Rosecroft that his father, Buddy Harrison, owns. Harrison was once an amateur boxer himself and started showing his son how to throw punches before he could even walk.

Harrison trained Hernandez-Harrison his whole life and insists that he is physically stronger now than he has ever been, but neither are dismissing Jenkins Jr., whose father is a lauded Philadelphia boxing trainer. “He’s been around boxing his whole life,” Hernandez-Harrison says. “He knows how to fight.”

But Hernandez-Harrison is on an accelerated schedule with more to worry about than Jenkins Jr. After being charged in an investigation involving the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Hernandez-Harrison agreed to a plea deal of 18 months in prison. He’s hoping for a reduced sentence since this is his first offense, but plans to fight until then. “I got a little bit, a couple months, I want to fight as much as possible,” Hernandez-Harrison says.

Before Hernandez-Harrison fights on Saturday, an ex-NFL player will step into the ring.

Balogun (12-0) says he didn’t play football in high school, but when he wanted to play at Lackawanna College, he made the team as a walk-on. Noted for his raw athleticism, Balogun became a standout all-American linebacker before joining the Oklahoma Sooners roster, followed by a short stint in the NFL that ended when he was released from the Indianapolis Colts in 2012.

The former NFL player says he has always enjoyed boxing for cardio, so he started training out of the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center in Palmer Park, Maryland.

Balogun and his coach both felt he had the gifts to be molded into a talented heavyweight and decided to forgo an amateur career, turning pro in 2014. Now 35, Balogun is learning on the job and knows he entered the sport late, but he’s confident in his ability to adapt and grow as a boxer. “I’m a student of the game and I’m a master of studying and absorbing information and that’s what I had to do to become successful in football,” Balogun says. “I’m used to being thrown in the fire and picking up a learning curve extremely fast.”

Of Balogun’s 12 wins, nine have come via knockout. If Hernandez-Harrison is on a comeback trail, Balogun—a name that means “warlord” in Yoruba—is on a warpath. He’s looking to end the fight early on Saturday. “I have a lot of people coming out to show support, so I’m coming to put on a good show and to get the [knockout],” Balogun says. 

Davis, making his pro debut this weekend at super featherweight, also trains out of Old School Boxing Gym. He remembers seeing Hernandez-Harrison as a child lighting up a larger sparring partner while Harrison barked, “Stay with the jab! Stay with the jab!”

Though Davis, 29, has never had a pro bout, he’s fought his whole life starting when he was born into the foster care system.

He bounced around different foster homes for years and spent a lot of time in the streets, including stints in and out of prison. On many nights, Davis says he had to trade marijuana for a place to sleep. “That alone can get you down, not having nowhere to go, feeling like nobody care about you,” Davis says. “I still had to provide for my daughters too.”

Davis has been boxing at Harrison’s gym on and off for the past six or seven years and is ready to get his pro career rolling. “You know when your back’s against the wall you find any way to get your back out of the wall,” Davis says. “My main thing was just surviving so I could get this opportunity.”