Fred, I see it!
Jesse Hart was timing up the big shot. This wasn’t just the typical sparring-match shot seen at the ABC gym in North Philly. This shot was symbolic. It was before one of the biggest fights of his career, one that would make him a title contender in the light heavyweight division. It was his shot to beat the opponent who defeated his mentor, Bernard Hopkins, in the final fight of his career.
So he took it. Hart hit his sparring opponent in the center of the face as hard as he could. Then, his arm went dead. He had torn a tendon in his hand.
“I’ve had so many hand problems, but this was career threatening,” Hart said. “This was a different pain I felt. Most fighters don’t come back from an injury like that.”
“He took some gambles that no other fighter would’ve did with an injury like that,” said Fred Jenkins, Hart’s trainer.
Hart, 32, fought through the hand injury but lost via split decision to Joe Smith in January of 2020. That bout was followed by hand surgery, depression, a split with Top Rank Boxing, the birth of his son and the pandemic.
Hart, known for his exuberant personality and uplifting smile, was suddenly in a dark place. His weight was up to about 210 pounds. It took his then eight-year-old daughter to tell him, “Daddy, it’s going to be OK.” She encouraged him to keep a positive mindset, and the light was turned back on.
“It brought tears to my eyes, because everything I installed in her, she’s giving back to me when I need it,” Hart said.
Hart (26-3, 21 KOs) is ending his 20-month absence and returning to the ring on Sept. 17 at 2300 Arena in South Philadelphia. An opponent hasn’t been announced.
This time, it won’t be ”Hollywood Hart” who takes the ring. Hart says that wasn’t his true identity. Growing up in North Philly on 28th and Berks, Hart was known for his hard work. It earned him the nickname “Hardwork Hart.”
When he signed to Top Rank boxing nine years ago, Hart said he went away from that. He embraced the “Hollywood” moniker as he fought on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather fights in Las Vegas.
But that wasn’t the kid who worked tirelessly and earned a contract with Top Rank. Hart has realized that..
“Other fighters, they were built here,” Hart said. “Philadelphia got a chance to see them. I never really got a chance to fight at home, and my heart was always here. A lot of people have passed away from my neighborhood and they really never got a chance to see me fight.”
Philly is excited to see him now as he embarks on his third fight at 2300 Arena. Tickets for the 1,300-seat venue sold out in one week.
“Jesse brings out the players, the good-looking women, all the who’s who,” Hart’s manager Steven Andrews said. “Everybody gets behind Jesse since he was 17 years old. A lot of people love Jesse.”
Now the question is, how will Hart look in his return? Training at the ABC gym, he appears to have the samepower, quickness and spring in his step.
He’s there everyday with Jenkins, 65, who has been by his side since birth. Jenkins said that mentally, Hart is still working his way back. Physically, the same goals as before are within the reach of Hart’s 77½-reach arms.
“He can be better because every loss is not a loss, it’s a learning lesson,” Jenkins said.
Hart’s fight on Sept. 17 is also about legacy. The tales of Philly boxing are ageless, and Hart knows that as well as anyone. He’s the son of Philly boxing legend Eugene “Cyclone” Hart. The elder Hart famously had battles with Willie “The Worm” Monroe, “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.
Hart talks to his father every day and appreciates his presence and daily guidance, which wasn’t a common thing in his neighborhood.
The photos, newspaper articles and tales of “Cyclone” Hart can be spotted in many of Philly’s boxing gyms. Now that the younger Hart is fighting back home, where all his people from 28th and Berks can sit front row and cheer him on, he feels closer to the legacy he wants for “Hardwork Hart.”
“My dad showed me a way that I can be great at something without picking up a gun or drugs,” Hart said. “I owe my life to my dad.”