(The reference to Eugene "Cyclone" Hart has been clarified in the antepenultimate paragraph.)
IT IS BOXING'S version of the designer label, and every fighter who has ever passed through Pennsylvania's largest city, long- or short-term, wears it with pride. That was true in the past and, to hear some tell it, the song remains the same today.
If a fighter is born in Philadelphia and moves away, he forever remains a Philadelphia fighter. If a fighter is born somewhere else and moves to Philly to ply his trade, he immediately becomes a Philadelphia fighter. Point of origin or present residence have little to do with it; once someone is identified as a Philly fighter, it is as permanent as a tattoo, as cherished as a family heirloom.
"I have a reputation to uphold," junior middleweight contender Julian "J-Rock" Williams, from West Philadelphia, said after he was elevated to the IBF's No. 1 junior middleweight ranking as the result of his recent seventh-round stoppage of Italy's Marcello Matano at the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem "I'm, like, the next guy up. Bernard Hopkins' legacy is sealed. Danny Garcia, in my opinion, is about two wins away from having a Hall of Fame career if you look at the body of work he's compiled. I'm up next. It's my turn. So I got to uphold the city's reputation.
"It's so gritty here, you know? We have such a great reputation. Every fighter wants to be identified as being from Philadelphia, whether they were born here or moved here from someplace else."
Williams' use of the word "here" is curious, as Bethlehem is 60 miles or so from Philadelphia, but his rationale is almost understandable. The Philly net is cast wide enough to include South Jersey guys who live on the other side of the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges, or Delaware guys a few miles south down I-95. Even for those who live in nearby states, but train in Philly, membership in the club is available for earnest applicants. Ask anyone the world over and they will confirm that Philadelphia fighters are expected to be tougher than a $2 steak, to always give as good or better than they get, and they probably know how to throw a left hook as naturally as the act of breathing.
Hopkins, the grand old man of boxing who still hopes to be involved in a high-profile farewell bout at 51, understands what it means to wear his Philly-ness like some sort of royal robe. Even though he has lived in Delaware for 14 years, he is always introduced as being from "the fighting city of Philadelphia." And he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Being able to say you're a Philadelphia fighter means you have a certain credibility," Hopkins said. "It still carries some weight, and even more so when you can back it up in the ring. Philly has the reputation of being the best fight town in America, and probably the world. It was a deserved distinction back in the day and I think it's deserved now.
"My friend Dave Tiberi (the former middleweight contender and a lifelong resident of Delaware) lives about 10 minutes from my house. He'd ask all the time, 'Why don't you give Delaware a shout-out sometimes?' But you got to understand, when it comes to boxing I always have considered myself to be a Philly guy. Boxing is in Philadelphia's DNA. That's just the way it is."
Must be true. The late, great Joe Frazier was born in Beaufort, S.C., but is forever identified as a Philly fighter. Former middleweight champion Joey Giardello was born and raised in Brooklyn, and for many years lived in Cherry Hill, N.J., but always considered himself a Philly fighter. Same thing with middleweight Bennie Briscoe, the quintessential Philadelphia hometown hero who few recall as having come into the world in Augusta, Ga.
"Philadelphia has a better reputation than any other town in the country as far as producing fighters that are going to give you a rough time," said J Russell Peltz, who has promoted boxing matches in his hometown since 1969. "It has to be No. 1 in that regard. I couldn't even tell you which place would be No. 2."
What makes that "Made in Philly" label so meaningful has less to do with current or even recent affairs as it does with history and tradition. In addition to Frazier and Giardello, Philadelphia fighters enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., include Harold Johnson, Jeff Chandler, Benny Bass, Tommy Loughran, Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, Midget Wolgast, Bob Montgomery and Lew Tendler. Hopkins will be a first-ballot inductee once he becomes eligible, and Meldrick Taylor has been up for election the past several years. But the regularly scheduled major fight cards at the Spectrum, where Marvin Hagler came from Brockton, Mass., to lose the first two bouts of his career, to Philly guys Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts and Willie "The Worm" Monroe, was demolished in stages from November 2010 to May 2011, and the Legendary Blue Horizon, perhaps the best-known club fight site in the country, has been shuttered since the summer of 2010 and isn't likely to reopen any time soon, if at all, because of its deteriorating condition. The last fight card staged there was on June 4, 2010.
That means that all those good Philadelphia fighters, for the most part, have been obliged to perform elsewhere. Julian Williams' reasoning for calling his appearance in Bethlehem a "home" bout notwithstanding, the IBF's No. 1-rated junior middleweight contender, with 24 pro fights, has fought only twice within the city limits of Philadelphia. Garcia, the undefeated WBC welterweight titlist, has had only three of his 32 fights in the city of his birth. Even Hopkins, who has carried Philly's boxing banner for nearly 28 years, has fought in his hometown only twice since 1993.
"That's because of the advent of the casinos," said Peltz, who noted that non-casino sites were unable to compete financially with gambling palaces that use boxing to bring in the high rollers.
But once a legacy has been established, it can be difficult to blot out. Peltz points out that super middleweight contender Jesse Hart, of North Philadelphia, turned down a spot on the Terence Crawford-Hank Lundy undercard Feb. 27 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden so that he could headline his own show on March 18 at the 2300 Arena in South Philly. Then again, Hart is the son of Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, the 1970s' knockout artist.
"He's probably heard all the old stories from his dad, and he wanted to fight at home like his dad did," Peltz said of the younger Hart. "Jesse is very excited about being in his first main event in Philly."
Maybe the good times don't roll around as often as they once did, but when they do, they're special. Just ask anyone who wears that designer label.