Riding high: Jarrett Hurd looks to the future

Undefeated IBF junior middleweight titlist Jarrett Hurd. Photo credit: Esther Lin/Showtime

Undefeated IBF junior middleweight titlist Jarrett Hurd. Photo credit: Esther Lin/Showtime

 

As they operate in the most demanding and calculating of sporting professions, prizefighters are not a breed known to easily entertain the eccentricities of chance. But Jarrett Hurd, 20-0 (14), the IBF junior middleweight champion, is at relative peace with the idea that his first title defense on October 14 at the Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, New York, is, in part, the work of forces totally out of his control.

 

“Man, it’s crazy,” said Hurd, after a conditioning workout at a private facility just outside of Washington D.C. “I’ve just been getting all these opportunities.

 

“And I’ve been taking advantage of all of them.”

 

Start with Hurd’s most recent fight against Tony Harrison in February. What was originally supposed to be a title eliminator became a last-second grab for the IBF belt, when then-titleholder Jermall Charlo relinquished it to pursue fights at middleweight. After a slow start, Hurd gradually wore Harrison down and stopped him in the ninth round, becoming world champion in just his 20th fight.

 

Then there was that time when he was scheduled to fight Oscar Molina on the non-televised portion of the Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter undercard. A week before the fight, the New York City Athletic Commission deemed one-half of the support act – Abner Mares – unfit to fight due to a faulty eye. Once again, luck swung hard in Hurd’s favor. His bout was bumped up to become the co-feature to one of 2016’s most anticipated matches on a major platform: a primetime broadcast on CBS.

 

But if Hurd had to choose the single most fortuitous moment of his career, there is no question that it was the late-notice phone call he received in 2015, inquiring if he had any interest in taking on hard-hitting Frank Galarza in Las Vegas.

 

“It’s crazy; I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Hurd. “(Galarza) was knocking out everyone at the time. We was in the gym jumping around, ‘We got Frank Galarza!’”

 

Lady Luck struck twice that time. Gary Russell Jr. was originally the headliner but an injury led to his bout being canceled, leaving the “ShoBox” broadcast with a hole in its programming. Naturally, Hurd’s fight with Galarza moved up the slate. Untested and unheralded, the fighter out of Accokeek, Maryland, found himself fighting outside of the East Coast for the first time and in front of a national television audience, no less. Suffice it to say, Hurd was not brought in to necessarily win.

 

“Nobody knew who Jarrett Hurd was,” Hurd said, smiling gleefully. “Showtime had all the cameras on Frank Galarza and I’m sitting in the corner; nobody showing me love. And then I went out there and put on a performance of a lifetime.”

 

In the sixth round, Hurd connected on a ruthless left hook/right uppercut combination that sent Galarza backpedaling. Instead of taking a knee, he turned his back, forcing referee Russell Mora to end the match.

 

On October 14, Hurd faces former 154-pound champion Austin Trout, 30-3 (17), who is coming off a 17-month absence from the ring, a length that constitutes not a layoff but a mini-retirement. (In that time, Trout seems to have found a taste for legalese: He has hit the WBO with a $40 million lawsuit, which perhaps tells you all you need to know about his current mindset.) The assumption is that the fighter who dropped decisions to Saul Alvarez, Erislandy Lara, Jermall Charlo and scored a legitimate win over Miguel Cotto will not be the same one who shows up in Brooklyn. For Hurd, the pressure now is to win convincingly over a credentialed, if shopworn, opponent. He notes that “out of all the four champions (in the division), I think people think I’m the easiest target…the guy everyone is doubting.”

 

But there is a vision in place, an eye toward unifying the division. Buoyed by seeing Terence Crawford recently unify an entire division at junior welterweight (“I wanna be next”), Hurd hopes to replicate the same feat in his weight class, in the hopes of creating some measure of permanence in a fragile, fickle sport.

 

“Now that I have a belt, I look at the sport differently. Now it’s time to build a legacy. I’m trying to become one of those champions that people keep talking about long after you’re gone.”

 

Hurd, however, is realistic about what he can actually achieve, given today’s fractious promotional landscape. For example, he would love a fight with Miguel Cotto but as the Puerto Rican is signed with Golden Boy Promotions and scheduled to face Sadam Ali in December, he doesn’t give it much thought. That said, match-ups with the Charlo brothers (Jermell at 154, Jermall at 160) remain a distinct possibility and, as it stands, he has already asked his influential manager Al Haymon for a fight with Lara in 2018.

 

“No more tune-ups,” Hurd insists. “We want to unify, then move up (to 160).

 

If Hurd paints himself as especially inspired, it should come as a bit of surprise to learn that his start in boxing, at the age of 15, was a laid-back affair, a sport dabbled in like an afterschool activity rather than – as the usual narrative goes – adopted out of desperation to escape poverty and violence. Indeed, Hurd grew up staunchly middle class, in “a nice area in the suburbs with both my parents.” And like most comfortable teenagers his age, Hurd preferred to loaf around with his friends, approaching boxing with a modicum of dedication.

 

“Commitment was always an issue with him,” Ernesto Rodriguez, Hurd’s longtime trainer, explained in a recent phone interview. “He was always what you would call a seasonal fighter. He’d come into the gym about a month before a Golden Gloves tournament to train. And then he’d disappear for the summer to hang out with his friends. He was that type of fighter.”

 

“I didn’t take the sport seriously back then,” admitted Hurd. “It was just sport to me.”

 

Torturous training camps, drastic weight cuts, the toll of clean blows to the head – of all the sports, boxing is naturally primed to weed out the dilettantes from the abnormally motivated. Hurd, however, early on, was able to mask any of his deficiencies through natural talent alone, winning the local Golden Gloves tournament two years in a row. Even so, Hurd was well aware that being there was a clear demarcation between him and the so-called amateur standouts of the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area.

 

“I used to see all these guys in my area, Gary Russell in the Olympics, Mike Reed, Kevin Rivers, Demond Nicholson, D’Mitrius Ballard, Lamont Roach Jr., all of them. I used to see them winning these tournaments and just looked up to them, like wow.”

 

Few can cheat a sport like boxing for long before suffering consequences and, soon, Hurd, as he puts it, began “losing to the guys who were taking (boxing) seriously.” One of his first losses in the amateur ranks came when he stepped up to participate in the 164-pound nationals in Michigan, reaching the semifinals. Not surprisingly, the trophy went to someone who goes by the moniker “Hard Work,” current 168-pound contender, Jesse Hart. Eventually, Hurd stopped boxing altogether. After graduating from high school, he went to college and started volunteer work to become a firefighter, while working at a Safeway, preparing cold cuts. Boxing was fast becoming a forgotten footnote.

 

It was not until he received a phone call during work, informing him that his amateur coach Tom Browner had died, that Hurd decided to revisit boxing. Like an odd musical phrase that keeps replaying in one’s head, Browner’s death gnawed at Hurd in the days that came and it soon became clear to him that going to school, becoming a firefighter or working at a supermarket were not things he wanted to do with his life. At the funeral, Hurd ran into Rodriguez, who was a student of Browner’s, and begged him to take him under his wing.

 

“I told him that I’ll train him, Rodriguez said, “but I said, ‘You have to be serious now if you’re going to turn pro.’”

 

“I said, ‘Alright,’” Hurd recalled. “’I’ll give it everything I have.’”

 

Hurd, however, still needed the blessing of his parents Fred and Brenda. They quickly consented but, like Rodriguez, only on one condition: It had to be with Hurd’s utmost dedication. Indeed, when it comes to all of the serendipitous outcomes in his career, Hurd feels nothing comes close to the fortune of having parents with the generosity and nerve to support him in a dangerous endeavor, both financially and emotionally.

 

“I have my parents to thank for everything. The majority of parents want their kids to be successful in sports and things like that but most think of it as a Plan B. My parents let me make (boxing) a Plan A. They allowed me to give up school, put it on hold to pursue this dream. And that’s only because they believe in me as much as I do. And look, now I’m world champion.”

 

A wry smile forms on Hurd’s face as the topic of his upbringing is addressed. As a child of the middle class, he understands that many observers may perceive him to be at a competitive disadvantage in a sport whose usual contingent grows up deprived of simple comforts, denied certain privileges. But he simply shrugs at the implication that he might not be fighter enough. After all, a Brownsville childhood did not make Riddick Bowe any more disciplined as a world champion and Sugar Ray Leonard was not a lesser boxer for not growing up under the recurrent sound of sirens. More importantly, Hurd came to a blood sport entirely by choice, not by necessity, a fact that suggests the kind genuine resolve that won’t diminish as the purses get larger and the distractions more lavish.

 

“Me not coming from a rough area but a nice area, the suburbs with both my parents, it’s also still motivation,” Hurd said. “For some guys, they know they can’t go back to where they came from. And that keeps them sharp in the ring and grinding hard. I feel like that helps with some fighters. But for me, that’s not the case. I know what I want to do for a living and, no matter what I do, I always give it my all.”

 

That Hurd, the one-time dilettante with poor stamina, would ascend quicker than most of his peers in the DMV is not an irony that will be lost on him anytime soon.

 

“Man, to tell you the truth, I didn’t think I would be in front of those guys. It’s pretty crazy because, to this day, the guys will be like, ‘Jarrett, we knew you could fight but we thought you would gas out in the third round,’ or something like that. It’s crazy now seeing where I’m at.”

 

 

 

Sean Nam is a contributor to The Cruelest Sport and UCNLive. He also writes about film for Slant Magazine and Mubi Notebook.

 

 

 

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