Dusty Hernandez-Harrison Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Dusty Hernandez-Harrison sleeps on the five-hour car ride to West Virginia, gathering his strength before making his long-awaited return to the boxing ring.

The 300 miles from Southeast D.C. to New Cumberland, West Virginia, is nothing compared to the hard work Hernandez-Harrison has put in to get back to what he loves. After the half dozen fights that fell through, the falling out with his father, legal trouble, the loss of his house, and death of a close friend, Hernandez-Harrison is eager to put the past to rest and push his life and career forward.

“Now, since I’m working on my own comeback, I just feel so attached to comeback stories now. I can’t help but root for it,” he says. “Before I didn’t give a shit … cause I was never the underdog.”

Hernandez-Harrison, 24, was once the hottest boxing prospect D.C. had to offer—a young, undefeated phenom blessed with physical gifts who had earned praise from boxing greats such as Mike Tyson and Andre Ward. He was one of the sport’s brightest rising stars. 

But it’s been two and a half years since he last fought. He wants to resume his chase for a world title, but first he has to return to the public eye and and shake off the rust. And that can only start in the place he knows best—the gym.

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The wiry 6-foot-tall pugilist has 11 pounds to lose and he’s less than a week out from his comeback fight as a 160-pound middleweight. In order to drop some water weight, Hernandez-Harrison dons a sauna suit—pants and a hooded long-sleeved shirt made out of a waterproof fabric designed for maximum sweating—while he runs on the treadmill in the gym this mid-February night.

Hernandez-Harrison has been sharpening his tools at Old School Boxing Gym, the facility on the grounds of the Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington that his father, Buddy Harrison, owns.

A ring consumes the center of the main room, and dented spit buckets sit under two of the corner posts. Boxing gloves hang by their laces from the air ducts above, though Harrison has the temperature set to 90 degrees, and dozens of flags hang from the ceiling. The walls hold Harrison family relics: trunks Hernandez-Harrison wore in the ring, headgear Harrison used as an amateur, and posters and photos of legendary boxers like Muhammad Ali, Oscar De La Hoya, and Sugar Ray Leonard

As Hernandez-Harrison prepares for his fight with light sparring, he looks comfortable. He pulls his head just out of range of his sparring partner’s punches and dances around the perimeter of the ring, playfully switching stances and throwing downward jabs. 

When he’s in the ring dodging punches, he finds a sense of peace. Outside the ropes, uncertainty swirls.

Hernandez-Harrison grew up in Naylor Gardens, a D.C. neighborhood southeast of the Anacostia River. He remembers hearing gunshots almost nightly. “It’s not as bad now,” he says.

His father groomed him to be a boxer from infancy. Harrison himself was once a promising amateur fighter before being convicted for armed robbery and serving 10 years in prison. He then resolved to turn his life around.  

“I didn’t want that for Dusty,” he says. 

Harrison had his son running laps and shadow boxing outside when he was a toddler and recruited students from nearby Winston Elementary School to spar with him. Harrison jokes that the neighbors “wanted to call social services on me.” Hernandez-Harrison remembers his first exhibition, when he, a 39-pound six-year-old, knocked out a 10-year-old in the second round. 

The spartan training paid off. As a teen, Hernandez-Harrison amassed an amateur record of 167 wins with 30 losses and won more than 10 national titles in his age bracket, including the Silver Gloves twice and Junior Golden Gloves three times. 

After turning pro at 17, Hernandez-Harrison fought regularly, often in D.C., where he attracted attention from area fans and celebrities. At one of his bouts, local rappers Wale, Shy Glizzy, and Lightshow each wanted to perform during Hernandez-Harrison’s ring walk and offered to escort him. They ended up compromising: Hernandez-Harrison walked out to “Southside Remix,” a song featuring all three artists.

In October 2016, the International Boxing Federation ranked Hernandez-Harrison, then carrying an undefeated pro record of 30-0-1, among the top 15 boxers in the world for his weight class. But soon, his life and his career began to unravel.

Dusty Hernandez-Harrison and his father, Buddy Harrison Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The father-son, coach-fighter dynamic has always been a tricky relationship to navigate. After training his whole life with his dad, the pair split in early 2016 and the young boxer found a new gym.

For Harrison, the falling out was the low point in his life. “We weren’t talking,” he says. “He was training at another gym, with another coach and lived a street over.”

The problems cascaded from there.

Police arrested Hernandez-Harrison in February 2017 for carrying an unlicensed, unregistered pistol and ammunition. (The charges were later dropped.) Fights weren’t materializing with his then-promoter, Roc Nation Sports, and Hernandez-Harrison lost motivation. He questioned why he continued showing up to the gym every day only for fights to fizzle out. He started training only three days a week, then two. Then Hernandez-Harrison stopped going, period.

“I didn’t want to box no more,” Hernandez-Harrison admits. “I never made it public or anything, but I decided to walk away.”

Initially, the break from a lifetime of training and cutting weight was a welcome change. Hernandez-Harrison had just bought his first house in Accokeek, Maryland.  

No longer watching his diet, the normally slender fighter who made his professional career fighting at 147 pounds ballooned to just over 200 pounds—by definition, a heavyweight.

Out of shape and out of money, Hernandez-Harrison struggled. As with many pro fighters, his resume was his record. “The nine-to-five doesn’t care about the fact that I could fight and cut weight,” Hernandez-Harrison says.

Then, last March, Aujee “Quick” Tyler, a gifted 22-year-old professional boxer and one of Hernandez-Harrison’s closest friends, was shot and killed in Southeast D.C. 

It was the toughest psychological test of his life, he says now.

But the bills persisted. Without a steady income, he had to sell his home and move back to his old D.C. neighborhood. 

“It was really bad the last three years. There’s been so much that’s happened. Not one thing has went my way,” Hernandez-Harrison says.

But then something changed. “One day I got tired of the shit,” he says. “I started running—every day.”

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Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Things began to improve once he got back into the gym.

He and his father reconnected and made amends. In June, Hernandez-Harrison split with his previous promoter and signed with Toronto-based Lee Baxter Promotions. A comeback fight was in the works.

Then came another criminal incident.

“There’s more to the comeback than what people know,” Hernandez-Harrison says a week before his planned fight. He lifts his right pant leg to reveal a court-issued ankle monitor—part of an investigation involving the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

“I’m part of my friend’s investigation I got wrapped up in,” Hernandez-Harrison says. “They charged me with more possession of guns and stuff.”

Hernandez-Harrison has a status hearing on March 1, but Lee Baxter is still betting on him.

“You gotta realize that you’re in the sport of boxing, where two individuals agree to punch each other in the face for some pocket change until they make it,” says the president of Lee Baxter Promotions. “Those type of people are not usually guys that don’t have a colorful past.”

“It’s just that much sweeter when it gets accomplished,” he adds.

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The day before the comeback fight, Hernandez-Harrison clears the weigh-in. 

Inside the Mountaineer Casino on fight night, his mother, father, stepmother, promoter, and other friends are sitting outside the venue. Harrison explains that his son’s original opponent never got on the plane from Mexico. A backup opponent had trouble getting over the border and the extra backup was ready to fight, but the state commission interfered due to a misunderstanding about his record. The fight is off. 

Harrison is visibly disappointed. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “This is terrible.”

But Hernandez-Harrison doesn’t appear too discouraged—he’s at the buffet eating barbecue ribs. Placing the night in perspective, he says, “I’ve been through so much the last two-and-a-half years—I’m still happy … I’ve dealt with much worse.” Later, in an Instagram post, he apologizes to those who traveled to see him fight and says he knows he’ll be back soon. 

Within minutes of learning about the cancellation, Baxter speaks with major New York-based boxing promoter Lou DiBella. A new fight is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 23 in North Carolina, pending approval from his case manager, Hernandez-Harrison says. Until then, he will be home in D.C., eager to continue writing his unexpected comeback story.