A father’s life and a brother’s death propel Philly boxer Jesse Hart’s dream: Be the best

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Jesse “Hard Work” Hart trains for the most important fight of his life. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jesse “Hard Work” Hart trains for the most important fight of his life. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s Tuesday — a workout day at Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties. No sparring for super middleweight Jesse Hart. Just sweat.

Assistant trainer Danny Davis wraps Hart’s hands in white cloth. Behind them, a black punching bag and a collage of fight posters.

Things are getting under way a bit later than usual. The 25-year-old boxer from North Philly had yet another on-camera interview to do.

He’s got a pretty big fight coming up.

“We’re going to get in pads, heavy bag, double in and do ab work today,” says Davis, tearing a piece of tape.

Hart nods, though he’s a bit tired from yesterday’s sparring session, when he went up against two fighters each looking to best the rising star.

“Them guys was rough. I had some real rough customers in there,” says Hart.

It’s hard to see any wear and tear on Hart. For over an hour, the sculpted boxer bounces from one exercise to the next.

Hart doesn’t know any other way.

A demanding dad laid that circuitry long ago. A shared dream and a tragic loss hard-wired it.

hard work 3Jesse “Hard Work” Hart and his father Eugene “Cyclone” Hart dream of making Jesse the greatest fighter in the world. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Hard Work’ Hart, they call him

Davis understands. Part of his job is to make sure Jesse doesn’t burn out or peak too soon. Week by week he’s got to fill up his tank slowly, but surely, until by the end of camp, Jesse’s like a Ferrari on an open racetrack, seconds before the light turns green.

“Those last couple days, we’ll pretty much have to hold him back,” Davis says.

Davis slips on a pair of punching mitts inside a back ring. The two glide around the blue canvas as Hart loudly lands punch after punch after punch.

Pop. Pop, pop. Pop.

Pop.

Hart’s head trainer, Eugene — Cyclone to anyone who knows him — leans over the ropes to dole out some strategy.

As usual, he’s got on his dark green “Team Hart” jumpsuit and a bright-orange Florida Marlins cap.

“Once you make those moves, you got to come back. Catch the punch. Hands up. Hands up. There you go!” Cyclone shouts in a gravelly voice.

At 63, he may not be quick anymore in the ring, but he knows boxing and what it takes to be successful. He lived it.

In the 1970s, Cyclone was one of Philadelphia’s top boxers. He routinely sold out arenas.

Over a dozen years, Cyclone went 30-9 and rose to third in the world while taking on some of the era’s biggest names — guys like Benny Briscoe, Willie “The Worm” Monroe and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts. All-time great Marvin Hagler too.

His left hook was particularly punishing.

“He could end a fight in an instant,” says John DiSanto, who runs phillyboxinghistory.com. “Some people say he was the hardest one-punch puncher to come out of the city. I’ve heard that a number of times.”

Cyclone hung up his gloves at 30.

A kid finds a passion

Later, he taught neighborhood kids and amateurs the sweet science at Waterview Recreation Center in Germantown, including a hyperactive, largely uncoordinated kid named Jesse Hart.

The 9-year-old fell for the sport — hard.

“I started loving the smell of the gloves. I start loving to lace up my boots when I come in the gym. I loved to get up at five in the morning to do my road run,” says Hart.

Not surprising, really. Boxing is in Jesse’s blood. You see, Cyclone is his dad.

hard work 5Eugene “Cyclone” Hart has been present for all of Jesse’s training. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

That’s never earned Jesse any special treatment, though. In the ring, Cyclone kept his compliments rare and spare, even as his son racked up the wins.

Jesse can still hear his dad after one of his knockouts.

“‘You did alright, man. It wasn’t nothing. What did you think you did?'” he remembers his dad saying. “And I was like, ‘I punished this kid. Why you not giving me my just due?’ ‘Man, you could’ve done better.’ ‘Dad, the man is almost dead here.'”

Cyclone says he knew what he was doing all along.

“I was causing damage to tell him that he’s doing this and he’s doing that right,” he says. “Now he knows, from where he at today, he knows all of that means something to him — mentally, as well as physically. He wasn’t too big for himself.”

Now that he’s a bit older, Jesse gets it. He smiles when he thinks about what seems like calculated magic.

“He built me up to break me down to build me up again,” he says.

Back in the gym, Jesse hits the heavy bag, then the speed bag. The workout winds down with some jump rope, a few ab exercises and a deep breath.

“I did a lot of work today,” Jesse tells Cyclone, now seated near the edge of the ring.

“You doing what you supposed to do,” says Cyclone, waving him off a bit.

A few minutes later, they’re on their way home. Another interview. Comcast SportsNet is dropping by the house.

hard work 4Jesse “Hard Work” Hart trains for the most important fight of his life. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY) An unforgettable call

It started with a garbled, mysterious voicemail from legendary fight promoter Bob Arum. Jesse was in the gym at the time, training for an upcoming showcase in South Philly.

“I had just got done. I saw the missed call,” he says.

So, Jesse called Arum back. Arum had some news. Huge news. Life-changing news.

“You ain’t fighting on April 10 anymore,” Arum told him.

“Why not?” Jesse asked.

“You’re fighting on May 2.”

Jesse’s heart raced — and soared.

There was only one fight card scheduled for May 2 that Bob Arum would be calling about. It had been announced the same day.

Mayweather-Pacquiao.

After years of clamoring from the boxing world, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao — the biggest names in boxing — had agreed to battle for the world welterweight title at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

It would be an instant classic. For some, the fight to end all fights.

Jesse would now be part of that history and, if he won, in a better position to write some of his own.

“I was just thanking [Bob] so much. He was like, ‘Congratulations, kid. This is the road to becoming a superstar.’ I was so astounded. So excited,” he says.

He hung up.

Things were serious now.

Keeping lean, killing time

It’s a warm Monday evening and Hundew McDonald — Jesse’s brother-in-law, driver and corner man —  is cooking dinner inside the spare Southwest Philly apartment they rented to keep Jesse’s downtime nice and quiet.

McDonald usually makes the meals. Jesse’s not great in the kitchen.

“I never eat his cooking,” McDonald says, pulling out an aluminum pan.

On the menu tonight: baked tilapia, lightly seasoned, with just a bit of margarine.

“You don’t want to have all the grease and stuff. We’re cutting weight. Eating healthy,” says McDonald.

That means no carbs, no soda and not a lot of salt — mostly lean proteins and vegetables.

Jesse slouches in a living room chair, a slight scowl on his face. He wishes beef were coming his way. A hamburger would be heaven.

“I want to eat one so bad. Gotta eat like this. This is the hard part.”

Killing time is also part of pre-fight discipline. It’s not like he can go party.

McDonald and Jesse play video games. A lot of NBA 2K15.

Sometimes, they all sit down and watch an old fight or two — the way Cyclone and Jesse did when he was little.

Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Cyclone would tell his young son he could be better.

“Muhammad Ali’s character always got me and I used to just want to talk like him, walk like him. I used to walk around my house, I’m probably like 80 or 90 pounds at the time — ‘You can’t beat me. I don’t care how big you is,'” says Jesse.

To Jesse and Cyclone, that’s still the mission: Be the best boxer there is.

“Some people are in this game for money. Some people in this game because they want fame. My dad is in this game, and it’s the same reason we turned pro: We want to win,” says Jesse.

And that’s worth sacrificing hamburgers.

A confident farewell

Jesse is shadow boxing inside Joe Hand Boxing Gym.

He throws a right, then two lefts. Another right. A flurry of lefts. Sweat pours off his lean, chiseled frame.

By now, he’s 171 pounds — down about 10 pounds from the start of the camp two months ago. Three more pounds need to come off before fight night.

By 2 p.m., the gym is filled with family, friends and reporters.

hard work 2Jesse Hart and his mother, sisters, and cousins agree Jesse’s opponent, Mike “Hollywood” Jimenez doesn’t stand a chance. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s media day, Jesse’s final workout before heading to Las Vegas to put his perfect 16-0 record on the line for the vacant USBA super middleweight title.

The music is going and everyone is smiling — a lot. Especially Cyclone. He’s grinning from ear to ear.

“Now we can put it all in God’s hands ’cause we took it from here. We here. We’re ready,” he says.

Jesse peppers in some trash talk as he works up a sweat. He says he’s going to knock out Mike Jimenez — no question about it.

“This kid is in trouble. He’s going be fighting for his life. Forget the win,” says Jesse.

Cocky? Maybe. Jesse calls it good old-fashioned confidence. All the hard work, all these years is part of it.

His older brother Damon, though, looms larger this time around.

Damon predicted greatness for Jesse. And so, more than anything, Jesse wants to honor his brother’s memory with a big win on the biggest stage with the brightest lights.

In 2010, Damon was murdered while sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car in Port Richmond. A shot to the back of the head he never saw coming.

A robbery, police said.

Jesse’s sister broke the news. Disbelief doesn’t come close.

“‘Are you sure? Is your information correct?'” he asked her. “I felt my legs get weak and I lost feeling in my right arm.”

The loss was devastating to Jesse.

He lost 15 pounds and thought about avenging his brother’s death. But that’s not what Damon would have wanted.

“He would want me to strive and be better, be greater than I ever was and live on – don’t let this dream die with him,” says Jesse.

The wins piled up — first as an amateur, then as a pro. Many of them were knockouts.

“I always say I can never be defeated, because I already took my loss,” says Jesse. “That’s why I go in the ring with my confidence high. You can’t do nothing to me that ain’t already been done.

“I’ve been knocked out of life.”

hard work 6Fighter Jesse Hart said the hardest part about training is being away from his daughter, Halo, 2. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Fight night

Six rounds.

Seventeen minutes, 13 seconds.

A head-rattling left hook from Jesse Hart, and the fight is stopped.

TKO. 17-0.

In a near-empty arena, Jesse flexes and flashes a smile. A championship smile. The one he and his brother predicted. The gesture of a dream come true.

The next day, Jesse is still in high spirits when he lands in Philly, back from Vegas.

He’s tired, but he happily chats with a handful of passengers who stop by baggage claim to congratulate him or snap a photo for their Facebook page. 

“Everything went according to plan,” he says. “I’m blessed.”

Still, it all still feels so surreal.

His first boxing lessons were in the family’s kitchen. Now, he’s on his way to becoming a household name.

“To be here from the age of 6 from where I came from. I came a long way and it’s still a long way to go,” he says.

Jesse Hart’s a contender now. His prospect days are over.

When it’s all over, though, when he’s ready to retire, he wants another noun to define him: Legend.

hard work 1Jesse Hart and his father Cyclone Hart arrive at home on Sunday. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

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