With mentorship, health and education services, champion boxer Tony Harrison helps set kids on Detroit’s west side up for success
Story and Photography by Anna Robb
Driving down Puritan Avenue on the northwest side of Detroit, there’s not much to see. Abandoned buildings and vacant houses, an occasional car passing by with its engine roaring. Then, as you approach Wisconsin Street, a beat-up building with a faded white brick exterior and boarded entrance sits at the corner.
The building may look underwhelming, but its purpose is substantial: It houses an escape for the neighborhood’s youth. And it’s run by one of the neighborhood’s own. Founded in 2014 by Tony Harrison, former Super Welterweight Boxing Champion of the World, SuperBad Fitness (named after Harrison) provides mentorship, health and education services to 50 kids who range from 8 to 18 years old and live on Detroit’s west side.
“People ask me why I opened a gym in the middle of the ’hood and not downtown,” says Harrison, 30. “I grew up right down the road from here and I knew this neighborhood needed it. I never wanted to take from our people and what they needed in these inner-city neighborhoods.”
SuperBad is also a hedge against keeping kids “off the streets,” says Harrison. “We have schools all around here, but they aren’t setting these kids up for success,” he says. “That’s why these kids need us. We make sure their homework is getting done and teach them life skills. Every kid that I have in my gym has a grade point of 3.5 or higher right now. Trust me, they didn’t come in here with that.”
He’s also found that giving kids a place to hang out when they’re not in school keeps them from falling prey to drugs and gangs. “Before I was in the gym I was going straight down the wrong path,” says a high-school boy who attends SuperBad every day (he asked not to be identified.) “I got into drugs and was running with some gang bangers, but Tony helped me mature and start to think positively.”
Born To Box
It’s no surprise that Harrison was destined to open a boxing gym. The sport runs in his blood — both his grandfather and father were boxers. His grandfather Henry Hank competed professionally for 19 years, and his father, Ali Salaam (who recently passed away from COVID-19), for six. Ironically, neither urged him to get into boxing. “I think my dad never introduced me to boxing because as a man who went through it, he knew how hard it was,” says Harrison. “There is a lot that goes into making you a successful boxer.”
Still, as a kid, Harrison found himself fighting on the streets of his neighborhood. “I was probably 8 or something and my mom would watch me come home from the streets and would know I was beating everyone up,” he recalls. “She finally told my dad, ‘This is the one who is going to carry on everything you started.’ ”
The following day, Harrison decided to visit a local boxing gym. “My dad never introduced me to boxing, but once I finally got myself to the gym, he taught me how to do it,” he says.
With his father by his side, Harrison’s amateur career started to flourish. Industry coaches started recognizing his potential. One was former boxer Emanuel Steward, who’s known for his Kronk Gym on the west side of Detroit — and knack for breeding world champion boxers. (He trained Harrison, even giving him his nickname, “Superbad.”) “Ever since I first walked into a gym, I loved it,” Harrison recalls. “Sometimes it was like a warzone, but that was my family right there.”
Boxing also prepared Harrison for life’s tougher moments. The summer before his senior year at Detroit’s Mumford High School, Harrison remembers coming home to find his clothes, trophies and other belongings in a dumpster following his family’s eviction. (They missed their rent payments.) “We didn’t even have a U-Haul to carry everything,” he recalls. “It was at that moment that I think I found my identity. I said to myself, it is time to grow up, be resilient and make something out of this.”
Harrison, who moved in with his cousin, considered dropping out of school to help support his parents. “When we got evicted, I decided education meant nothing to me because I had nothing,” he says. “I didn’t want to see my mom and dad out like that and wanted to help.” But with his cousin’s encouragement, he decided to stay in school and keep boxing.
After a celebrated amateur career (he’s won Michigan’s highest amateur-boxing award twice and made it to the semifinals of the National Golden Gloves tournament), Harrison went pro in 2011. He remained undefeated with a record of 21-0 until 2015 when he went up against Willie Nelson.
In 2017, Harrison earned his first shot at a world title against Jarrett Hurd in Birmingham, Alabama, but fell short in the ninth round when Hurd hit him with a single right hook. A year later, Harrison had another chance to grab the world title against undefeated WBC World Super Welterweight Champion Jermell Charlo. After a long 12 rounds Harrison was declared the winner, making him WBC’s World Super Welterweight Champion.
“I was just thinking that this shows no matter who you are, what neighborhood you’re from you can accomplish what you set your mind to,” Harrison says. “I put in that work for my family and was excited to bring the championship back to Detroit.”
Out But Not Down
Last December, Harrison faced Charlo again and tried to defend his title but lost after 11 rounds. While his professional career is not over, he’s taking time to focus on SuperBad and the community that raised him. To that end, he spends about 11 hours a day at the gym mentoring and training children alongside his brother Lloyd and fiancé, Jasmine. His dedication doesn’t go unappreciated: “The best part of going to the gym is the people I see,” says one of Harrison’s students. “Tony and all the coaches make sure I keep my head up no matter what. They actually help you better yourself.”
And while Harrison’s mission is admirable, the space he’s using to fulfill it could use some work. The 19,000-square-foot facility is plagued by a leaking roof and furnished with secondhand equipment that Harrison drove to Chicago to purchase from a gym that was shutting its doors. “These kids train in an environment that they don’t choose to train in, but they have to train in,” he says.
With the right help — approximately $200,000, he estimates — Harrison says his gym has the potential to triple in size and help over 100 kids each week. (It’s currently at capacity with half that number.) “This place is big,” he says. “A lot of it is just not safe for us to use right now because the roof is caved in and there is debris everywhere.”
In the future, Harrison’s SuperBad wish list includes creating a community space for gatherings, tutoring and other services. He would also like to add a basketball court and kitchen to help distribute food to community members in need. “We just need a little help and we could do so much more for this community. I hate the thought of turning people away because of space,” he says. “If I have to do it myself, I am going to get this done for the kids.”
To learn more about SuperBad Fitness or donate to the gym, visit tonysuperbadharrison.com.