Tony Hirsch (right) against Jose Celaya in November 2009 (photo by Jed Jacobsohn-Gettyimages)
As much as boxing needs to continue developing young fighters into stars, the sport needs just as much a solid foundation of gatekeepers and stepping-stones to provide tests on the way up the ladder.
What about those fighters who were relegated to those labels not because of lack of talent, but lack of opportunity? Oakland, Calif., junior middleweight Tony Hirsch, a longtime sparring partner of RING super middleweight champion Andre Ward, hopes to prove he can be a contender one day.
Saturday night, Hirsch (14-5-2, 6 KOs) gets his first real opportunity. He’ll travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands to fight John Jackson (18-1, 14 KOs) in an eight-round main event that can only be seen on a web stream on GoFightLive (gfl.tv) for $9.99.
Jackson suffered his only defeat last year in a competitive untelevised scrap against Willie Nelson. It was a good learning experience for the 24-year old.
See, Jackson can easily bounce back. He’s got a name and one of the best advisors in the sport in Sampson Lewkowicz. Just three fights and seven months after his loss, Jackson was in an ESPN2 Friday Night Fights opener.
Hirsch has no name to benefit from and never had a real manager. He came to boxing at a late age after a football career didn’t work out. He turned pro shortly afterwards and was stopped in his fourth professional fight by an unheralded fighter. From that point on, Hirsch only got calls to be an opponent.
Oftentimes, he proved to be much tougher than the promoter who rang him up anticipated. Reno-based promoter Terry Lane, of Let’s Get It On Promotions, knows all too well.
“We used him against Derek Hinkey, the first fighter we signed,” recalled Lane. “It was early in Derek’s career. We had used the agent Repo Ric to look for opponents, and this time Repo proposed this guy to us, Tony Hirsch.”
This writer was present in Reno for that fight, which was easily the best of the night. Though Hinkey got the better of Hirsch early on, Hirsch rallied and stopped his unbeaten foe in impressive and dominant fashion.
“Hirsch came and showed he could fight,” said Lane. “You don’t expect that from guys who were with Repo Ric at that time but he was a sleeper and he just never had the backing or management or platform to show his skills as a boxer.”
At 29 years old, the not-having-a-manager part has changed for Hirsch. Fellow Bay Area boxer and current junior welterweight contender Karim Mayfield brought Hirsch to the attention of his own manager, Marlon Sullivan.
Relatively new to the boxing game, Sullivan is a sports agent who has succeeded in getting Mayfield to the next level. After years of trouble catching on with a major promoter, the undefeated junior welterweight caught on with promotional powerhouse Top Rank earlier this year and will make his debut with them next month.
“I’m looking for guys with upside,” said Sullivan when asked about Hirsch. “Tony is a guy who will get in there with anybody. I see a guy who doesn’t have a budget or financial backing and he’s in the gym every single day.”
“I think it is great that someone else saw what we saw and actually made a move on him to represent him and get him opportunities,” said Lane when he heard that Hirsch now has a manager.
“I still think he’s a guy that might be avoided. He has a record and a profile that might not be considered as a good win on paper, but the situation is ten million times better than just being a guy trying to get B-side slots on non-TV shows. I think he’s put in his dues enough to get opportunities and I’m hopeful. I’ll keep my eye on him.”
Hirsch will no doubt be more of a project. Whereas Mayfield never suffered a loss as a pro, Hirsch has a few blemishes against him. Though his record isn’t terrible, it will take a little bit of time to transform him into a contender.
Hirsch is hopeful that a win this weekend can change the perception of him.
“I think if I can win this fight, hopefully a promoter will sign me,” said Hirsch. “If I beat John Jackson in his hometown and his promoter signs me and gets me a few wins, then maybe I can get a big fight.”
Those who are familiar with Hirsch all believe he can do some damage now that he has someone looking out for him.
One who has nothing but praise for Hirsch is his famous sparring partner, Ward.
“I think we’ve used him in every camp I’ve had since I turned pro,” said Ward. “He’s a durable fighter who always brings it and works hard.
“In the sport of boxing, a lot will have to go his way in order for things to happen. This is a big fight for him and I definitely think being able to be a full-time fighter will help him.”
Hirsch has looked up to Ward as a big brother in the sport since the two became acquainted at King’s Gym in Oakland. Hirsch was new to boxing and recalls getting pounded in the gym by Ward early in his learning.
“When I started boxing I was 21, 22,” said Hirsch. “He was beating me down every day. He started showing me the ropes on how to box and how to fight. He just told me to have confidence and that I can fight.”
Ward also made sure that when he fought Chad Dawson last September in Oakland, Hirsch got a spot on the undercard—and not as an opponent.
Ward has always appreciated Hirsch’s work ethic and says he’s never had a sparring partner’s mentality.
“He’s gonna work,” said Ward. “He’s not going to lie down. He respects me but not to the point where he’s not gonna go in there and work and earn his money. I know he’s gonna push me.”
Many of Hirsch’s previous losses came when getting calls on short notice or in a weight division that he doesn’t belong in. Even then, he always has put in an honest effort.
One of these instances particularly stands out. Hirsch is a 154-pounder. In December of 2011, he took a short-notice fight against unbeaten Dmitry Chudinov on SoloBoxeo. The weight? 180 pounds.
“That was like 16-hour notice,” laughed Hirsch. “They didn’t even give me 24 hours.”
Despite those facts, Hirsch acquitted himself well and earned the nod in most ringside observers’ views. The judges gave it to Chudinov by majority decision.
His last fight came in December, when he handed Louis Rose his first loss in Hollywood. Rose has gone on to beat three undefeated fighters himself, including Lou DiBella prospect Delen Parsley.
When asked what kind of difference fighting on short notice versus a full camp makes, Hirsch paints a clear picture.
“It makes a big difference,” said Hirsch. “When you get calls, you think you’re training, sparring maybe once a week, you’re not really eating right. You’re not learning the way you’re supposed to learn. You’re not focused on anything. You just get a light workout and then you leave. “
“When you know you have a fight, you’re mentally there and are focused on what you have to do.”
Hopefully for Hirsch, those days of short-notice, above-the-weight fights are over. Saturday there will be no excuses, and for perhaps the first time, a fully prepared Tony Hirsch will appear.