Maurice Harris: “It’s Called Faith” By Gabriel Montoya, MaxBoxing (Aug 6, 2010) Special to Doghouse Boxing
“I’m 34 years young.
“Started at age 15.”
There are few fighters active today who understand the highs and lows of the sport of boxing like veteran heavyweight Maurice Harris, 23-14-2 with one no-contest (10). Though he never won a world title, Harris was a fighter early on, despite a spotty record, that many felt had the goods to go the whole way. Tough losses, long breaks, promotional issues, a big win or two, ring robberies- you name it- plagued his career until 2007 when the trials and travails finally led Harris to take a three-year break a get a day job; the dream of being a world champion not quite dead but certainly on life support.
Harris’ fight journey began back in 1990 when, as a 15-year-old New Jersey kid known for getting into fights, he took the advice of someone and decided to turn his street rumbling ways to the ring.
“Street fighting. I was always getting in trouble,” Harris told me of his beginnings. “Just young and getting into trouble. Then a guy said, ‘Why don’t you make money for that? You always fighting so at least make some money off fighting.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I had to find a local gym first. So finally, I did The Police Athletic [League] in Newark, New Jersey in 1991. I just never looked back ever since then. I was a 15 years old; a young man just always in and out of trouble. But that saved my life though because all the time I spent in the gym, I could’ve spent getting in trouble.
“I knew I always had fightin’ in me,” he continued. “Like I was always good even before I got in the gym. They would bring out the gloves in the neighborhood and I would put ‘em on with certain people and I would hurt ‘em. But I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I always had a natural talent for fighting. But I didn’t know fighting so young, that there was a science to it. That you had to think your way through. So when certain things would come to me, I didn’t know how to deal with them because I was so young. But I always had the will and the urge to fight. I just didn’t know I would go so far with it.”
Harris, a 6’4” southpaw with a lanky frame and an 80” reach was a natural fighter with speed but not necessarily a lot of power, trained long enough to get into fighting shape and grab a few amateur fights but not long enough to fully develop.
“I went 3-6 as an amateur,” he said. “The reason I would get so frustrated was because whenever I went to tournaments and stuff, I was a walkover; guys wouldn’t show up to fight me or whatever. I started sparring with pros and I kind of developed a pro style and that’s why I would lose so many amateur fights. I would wait too long to get started; like I wouldn’t jump right on you. I would relax and take my time. So being around the pros kind of cursed me as little bit, as far as the amateurs. So I said, ‘To Hell with it,’ and that was it. I spent two years as an amateur and turned pro. I was 17.”
Harris lost his pro debut and went 2-2 in his next four. And things went like that from then on; up and down to back up again. Harris attributes this to his inexperience and youth.
“Pretty much,” Harris said, when asked about maybe turning pro too soon. “I was around Ray Mercer, Charles Murray; a lot of old pros like Robert Foley and some pros who didn’t even have names for themselves. I used to be around a lot at the old gyms coming up. They showed me so much but I just didn’t know at the time how to use it.”
Harris’ first big win came in 1996 when, coming off three straight losses, Harris took an eight-round unanimous decision over then-18-0 David Izon. Unfortunately for Harris, the opportunity was missed one fight later when he lost to a fighter who was 4-5-1 coming into the bout. And it would continue like that. Harris would lose to undefeated prospect Gerald Nobles and then came back and knockout Jimmy Thunder only to lose to Larry Holmes.
Harris would enjoy a seven-fight win streak upsetting Jeremy Williams in the process from early 1998 to late 1999 which led to the fight he is probably most remembered for against Derrick Jefferson. It would be one of the most exciting heavyweight fights in recent memory but would end with Harris getting knocked out in THE RING magazine’s 1999 “Knockout of the Year.”
After a two-fight win streak, Harris dropped back-to-back losses to Chris Byrd and Henry Akinwande. But rebounded in 2002 when he knocked out in Sergei Lyahovich, who was an undefeated prospect at the time, in nine rounds.
The following year came a fight with Fres Qquendo, a contract with Don King, and a place on the shelf where he felt incredibly helpless.
“After the Fres Oquendo fight, I got with Don King and sat on the shelf until 2006,” Harris explained when I asked him why a break in activity between 2003 and 2006.
Adding to Harris’ problems was an unnamed female manager who, in Harris’ words, “Had no recollection of boxing. She was more fascinated with the idea of having a boxer. She didn’t know how to move me. She kept saying her hands were tied since I was with Don King and she couldn’t make a move without him, which I thought was a bunch of B.S. So I got tired of fighting after awhile.”
Harris stepped away from the sport but the fire still burned, however low the flame.
“I just laid back and started working little regular jobs, little odds jobs in factories, warehouses,” said Harris. “But in the back of my mind, I always knew this is what I wanted to do. This is me. I was never ever happy doing [a regular job]. I could never hold a job because fighting would always be my first priority. So any little opportunity I could be working, I could be working; if I could get a job for sparring, I’d just drop the job and go for sparring. Like if I had to go to California or whatever, I didn’t care because this is my first; this is my passion. I had to go off it like that.”
Harris’ prayers and patience paid off when he met Dr. Mario Yagobi, who heads Boxing360, a New York-based promotional firm. It was this moment that Harris’ life changed.
“I met [Dr. Yagobi] through Al Certo,” said Harris. “He brought Mario to the gym. He came and watched me spar. He had already done his research on me before he saw. So once he did his research, he came to see for himself. I was boxing some guy he brought from New York. I wasn’t in shape at the time but he just wanted to take a look at me to see what I had. He said, ‘Man, from what people said…I see something totally different from what they’re talking about.’ Your reflexes are still there; you’re still sharp; your mind is there. Everything is there so, c’mon, let’s go.’ So he told me how long I had to get ready. I was 260 pounds. I was off so long, so I was real big. We took the [Billy] Zumbrun fight, came down to 254 pounds. Took that and we just kept rolling after that. I just found my love for the game. This is where I always wanted to be. I am back to where I want to be.”
Harris signed quickly with Boxing360 but he didn’t jump at the chance out of desperation but because he clicked with Dr. Yagobi.
“That dude is like my brother, man,” Harris said, his easy-going demeanor brightening and picking up in energy. “It’s bigger than boxing. Boxing is a business. But it’s different with Mario. He makes me want to train harder because of the things that he do. He just…it’s hard to describe him. He’s just an amazing character. He just has a heart, man. He’s a highly spiritual guy. Real, real knowledgeable about everything. It’s like we’re the same. We’re one in the same. He’s different. He ain’t no joke. He’s the nicest dude in the world until you piss him off. It’s like yin and yang. Opposites attract and come together as one. He grew up way different than me but he can relate to everything I do and I can relate to things that he do. I told him, ‘You take care of everything outside of the ring and I’ll take care of everything inside the ring.’ And that’s been our motto right there. He handles the business part and I handle the fighting part.
“[Yagobi] lit a fire under my ass,” he continued. “He saved me from being thrown to the wolves. Who knows where I would have been at? I beat everyone he put in front of me. These guys are not easy I’ve been fighting. These guys are tough guys and I’m no spring chicken. But I’ve got a lot of youth to me. I’ve never been beaten up and I’ve had time to heal. I don’t run the streets anymore like I used to. I’m a family man and I am dedicated to my job. Just being around him…they say it takes a diamond to cut a diamond. Just being around him, period, he motivates me. He’s a real great guy and I love him like a brother.”
Now, bolstered by this new alliance, Harris set about getting ready to go and in 2010, he is on a three-fight winning streak. He went from 265 pounds when he began this latest run to a slim 234 at the weigh-in yesterday. The fire lit, Harris says all it took was a shift in attitude and hard work and the pounds just flew off.
“I’m just training more and eating right,” Harris explained. “Just my mind’s focused just a little different. I believe in myself a little more because when I was young, I was just taking fights on impulse. As far as weight is concerned, I just started loving myself and caring about myself. And then Mario came in and had a lot to do with it as well.”
Many fighters would have stopped a long time ago. When you get to a certain amount of losses, networks stop looking at you; the road gets narrower. But for a guy like Harris, who has true faith in who he is and in his God, all his return took was one thing.
“I always believed that I would be back,” he told me. “I just didn’t know when it would come. It’s called faith. Faith is belief in the unseen. If you pray to the man upstairs, if you believe in him the way I believe him, then anything is possible. There’s plenty of nights, man, he knows what’s in my heart; he knows what I feel. And for someone to get in the ring with me now, they’re going to have to kill me. That’s how I feel. I’m willing to die for what I believe in. That’s what makes me prepare the way I prepare now. I’m not playing with these guys. They are in the way of everything I ever wanted. Everything I ever dreamed of.”
Who stands in Harris’ way tonight is Nagy Aguilera, a 24-year-old, 16-3 (11) fighter who was KO’ed by Sam Peter in March of this year. Aguilera’s biggest win was an upset of Oleg Maskaev. Aguilera shocked Maskaev in his hometown by stopping him in under two minutes of the first round. Now both men will fight at the Grand Casino, Hinckley, Minnesota, tonight, on the undercard of the “ShoBox” Chris Avalos vs. Christopher Martin card. Harris realizes now that at age 34, his time is now. Not next time, not tomorrow but now. What is at stake is a vacant USBA title and with it, a higher world ranking and maybe a title shot in a year or so.
“I don’t know too much about this guy,” Harris said. “He has two names on his record and one is Oleg Maskaev. I hear it was a lucky punch. And Peter stopped him. He’s a young guy. He’s never really been through anything. He’s fought like five rounds in the last two years. He didn’t have too many fights on YouTube. I’ll just make the adjustments when I get in there. I figure as long as I am in shape, I feel like no one in the world in the heavyweight division. I’m not saying I can’t be beat but I just give people problems. Because I can box and I can punch because I am not the small heavyweight I was.”
More than anything, Harris understands what is at stake and exactly what he has to do to make a dream reality. It’s a testament to his maturity and growth as a man that he feels he is finally ready to get a ranking and do something with it.
“I know that I’m going to be there when the final bell sounds or if it sounds. If you ain’t on your back first,” Harris continued with a laugh. “That’s all it is. I’m back. I’m more humble than I was before. I’m into my family and that keeps me grounded. They tell you, regardless, when you are right or wrong. As far as being in this position, it’s here now so I can’t complain. I just thank my blessings and go in there and show why I am here.”
As our conversation come to a close, I asked Harris if undefeated is overrated. As Emmanuel Augustus and Maurice Harris have shown over time, it’s not a man’s record that matters but what tests he has passed on that résumé.
“I look at it like this,” Harris said, “You got some fighters that’s special. And some fighters that fight tough fights. I look at Floyd [Mayweather]; they criticize him all the time. When you look at him, a lot of guys’ records are padded. And they look at them, and they put all this hope in them because they’re undefeated. But when it’s time for them to get to the plate, they can’t bat. They strike out. Not all of them. You have some guys are undefeated that are the truth. But a lot of people look at that and that’s impressive. But that’s if you look at the outside. You got to look at the inside. The background and see what they came from. Now Andre Ward, I love him to death. I don’t even know him. But he’s a great fighter; I like his person. I like everything about him. That’s tough. That’s coming from the School of Hard Knocks that ‘s been through everything, that’s won a gold medal. He has achieved what you could possibly achieve in fighting. Those are the types of fighters that I respect. But as far as undefeated, yeah, it looks impressive but to the real boxing fans, no. They know who the real fighters are, even with a loss.”
They say youth is wasted on the young and Harris knows that lesson all too well. But at 34, the way heavyweights mature late and how thin the heavyweights are for talent, there is room at the inn for a guy like Maurice Harris. As his career has shown, upsets can happen at any time on both ends of the spectrum. A mature father with a family to feed, Harris now gets it after all these years.
“I’ve always showed signs of greatness,” Harris added. “It was just too many outside distractions and the things that were going on in my head prevented me from being where I needed to be. I’ve been there I just wasn’t able to walk through the door. I figure everything happens for a reason. I figured the man upstairs has something different for me in store. I’m back and I’m a little older. I’m a little past my prime but I don’t feel like it. Losses to me don’t mean anything. It’s what you can show and what you can do. And that’s why I am with Boxing360. There is more to a loss.
“A grown man is definitely in the building,” he added, his smile travelling through the phone. “I’m ready to go right now, believe it or not. I’m ready. I’m ready right now.”
You can email Gabriel at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoyaand catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim or tune into hear him live on Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST when he co-hosts the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America..