Jay Harris earns hero status in world title challenge

Jay Harris earns hero status in world title challenge

This article first appeared in the Welsh Boxing Annual 2019-2020. Click here to buy on Amazon.

By Dewi Powell: Boxers risk and sacrifice way too much to be happy with a loss on their record. The price they pay is made worthwhile by winning and receiving the rewards that come with it. However, Swansea’s Jay Harris (17-1, 9KO) proved that there’s an exception to the rule.

Aside from being bloodied and eventually beaten, there was literally no reason for negativity when Harris left the ring after his first fight at world level. He travelled 4,750 miles from the Townhill district of his city to reach Frisco in Texas and had been given special leave from his part-time job as a forklift driver for online retailer Amazon. The appearance in the United States was nowhere near as low key as Harris’ experiences in warehouses and the 29-year-old earned recognition as a world class boxer.

The official result was a unanimous decision win for Julio Cesar Martinez (16-1, 12KO), who retained his WBC world flyweight title after 12 brutal rounds that were packed with all the trouble the champion could handle. The scorecards read 118-109, 116-111 and 115-112 in favour of the Mexican, though the former was labelled as ‘disgraceful’ by Martinez’s promoter, Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn. That scorecard was submitted by Herb Santos, a veteran of 750 fights dating back 39 years, and it did no justice to Harris’ efforts.

Although accepting his status as an underdog, even Harris was surprised at the pre-fight odds that saw him priced at 7/1. Those wide odds could have been forgiven as Martinez flew out of the traps. It was a rough introduction. The 24-year-old’s brute force made its mark in the opener, bloodying Harris’ nose and reddening the rest of his face. Whilst Harris’ face was already distorted, Martinez’s babylike features were deceiving and masked the bullish strength that made up for his technical deficiencies. It was the type of attack that stopped top talents like Barry’s Andrew Selby, Charlie Edwards and Cristofer Rosales.

“I’ve said to everyone, the first round was probably my worst round. It was a pretty bad round for myself. I probably gave him too much respect,” the Swansea City FC fan assessed honestly. “I do it all the time. I normally have a bad first round. I don’t know why, it’s just shit. I went back to the corner and had to compose myself.

“I knew about the odds because my friends and stuff were all taking bets on me. I was getting tagged in a lot of stuff on Instagram and Facebook. I knew what the odds were but I believed in my ability. I knew technically I was better than him but obviously he’s strong and what have you. It didn’t faze me. The bookies do get it wrong. They’re not always correct.”

Harris collected himself quickly and enjoyed his own moments in the second round. The Welshman was better technically, so he used his superior hand speed and fundamental skills to score with straight shots, then following it up with left hooks. Like any good champion, Martinez recognised the need to respond instantly and he rallied at the end of the third round, only to receive a flush right hand that Harris flung over the top like a frag grenade. The corner, headed by father Peter, a former British champion, encouraged more aggression in the corner, whilst he also asked his son to remain on high alert.

“What makes him pretty good is his unpredictability. As a boxer, when someone throws a right hand, you normally think a left hook or something like that is going to come over. In this case, he’d throw a right hand and on the same hand, he’d throw an uppercut or something mad,” said Harris, astutely articulating the unorthodox danger. “It’s quite hard to defend it. You just don’t know what’s going to come next. I think he throws what he feels. He doesn’t really know what he’s going to throw. That’s what it feels like.”

The distance shortened in the fourth round and they stood shoulder-to-shoulder for long spells. Harris picked up a small cut on his left eye and Martinez brutally targeted the body, a hallmark of a Mexican boxing. Martinez winged in punches from unusual angles in the fifth and sixth rounds, sending thudding soundwaves around the ring whether they landed or were blocked. Harris wasn’t far behind and clearly surprised the champion by staying with him, courtesy of a steady and accurate output.

Martinez began the seventh round with a serious onslaught and once the storm was weathered, it was Harris’ time to respond. For all of Martinez’s qualities, defence isn’t one of them and he was never hard to hit, so Harris stopped circling and obliged him. Another series of sharp straight shots backed Martinez up and led to further opportunities in the eighth round as Harris picked away at the gaps in defence.

“That’s what we practiced in the gym a lot,” revealed Harris, eager to stress that it was his pre-fight plan. “As soon as my back hit the ropes, get off. In his previous fights, as soon as he got them pinned down, he was a force and he blasted them apart. Our thing was if I ever touched the ropes, move away and get back to the centre again.

“I was the bigger fighter. Even though he was strong, there’s a lot of parts in that fight when I took centre of the ring and I forced him back. If I’m being honest… if I got to fight him again, I’d probably do that a lot more often, try and push him back. He didn’t like being on the back foot at all.”

All of Harris’ hard work was almost undone 18 seconds into the 10th round when two booming body shots bounced off either side of his rib cage. He’d stood too upright and invited attention to his torso. They were sickening blows and Harris was forced to take a knee, sucking up all of the oxygen available to recover and meet the count undertaken by referee Laurence Cole. Martinez had finally got through and he fancied his chances of closing the show. Harris found himself in a worst-case scenario, especially late in a fight when tiredness naturally sets in. It would’ve been easier to stay down, after all he’d already proved the point that he can compete with world champions. Instead of surrendering, Harris stood up and put on his best poker face amidst increasing swelling around his eyes. He mustered all of his spirit into not only surviving the round but arguably winning it. The brilliant response, and threshold for pain, was unprecedented.

“What I can say… it wasn’t so much of a knockout punch where he’d knock me clean out. It was more that every punch hurt. You could feel every punch pretty much and he loaded up with every punch he threw. He could switch stances, whatever he threw, he was trying to knock me out. I could take the power but it hurt,” said Harris, unwilling to be the fall guy that others scripted him to be.

“I could’ve taken the first body shot, the left one, but then he come through with the right and hit me on the opposite side. That took the wind out of me. I did the right thing and took the eight count. I thought if I stood up, it would’ve been much worse for me. I’d have probably got stopped. I got my breath back and when the referee said box on, I got on my bike for 30 seconds or so. I thought I’ve got to at least salvage a bit of the round and I thought I won the round after I got knocked down, I thought I did very well.”

Harris cemented the effort of a lifetime in the championship rounds. The intensity had finally dropped, only slightly, and Harris worked away at distance. Martinez stuck to his clever tactics, upping his effort at the start and end of rounds, knowing he’d done enough to get a decision as the home fighter. Both embraced at the sound of the final bell, evidently oozing respect for each other after 36 furious minutes of fighting. The Mexican fans who booed, spat and threatened Harris during his ring walk, now stood and applauded his efforts in a signal of their respect for his performance.

“They were shouting stuff at me, spitting… it was disgusting. I was thinking ‘what the hell have I come into?’ I won the fans over in the end and got a great reception coming out,” explained Harris of the juxtaposition partisan fans presented to him. “It was kind of surreal. I’ve never really had it before. The messages of support I had off so many different people was unreal. Loads of Mexican people were saying how much they’re a fan of my style and how much of a warrior I am. That was the sort of compliments I got, ‘warrior’ and that stuff. It was a surreal moment for myself. I come out of the ring and pretty much got a standing ovation.”

Gary Lockett, the manager who has guided Harris to Commonwealth and European honours, bumped into an old foe during the build-up. The presence of Kelly Pavlik, the former world middleweight champion and last opponent of Lockett’s career in 2008, indicated the status of the occasion. The show featured four-weight world champion Mikey Garcia, all-time great Roman Gonzalez and former heavyweight world champion Joseph Parker. At the end of it all, promoter Eddie Hearn singled out Harris’ performance as the highlight of the night at the Ford Centre, a training facility for the Dallas Cowboys, the prestigious American football team. DAZN and Sky Sports, the respective American and British broadcasters, also showered Harris with praise.

Mauricio Sulaiman, President of the WBC, was another Mexican hailing both boxers in the aftermath, taking to social media to say: “#MartinezHarris was an authentic war! Two warriors, who respect each other, giving their best in order to conquer greatness. Congratulations to both warriors!” Key decision makers in the sport were impressed and Harris was happy he’d seized his opportunity to make an impression.

He said: “I told everybody, ‘I might not be here again so I’m going to fully embrace everything here.’ The amount of people, the interviews… I took it all in my stride and embraced everything. It was fantastic to be a part of it. I’ll never forget it. My first world title shot, one of the biggest cards to be put on and it wasn’t even pay-per-view, people could watch it on Sky Sports. To be a part of that, such a great show and a big fight week was fantastic.”

The truth is that Harris may not have made history or left with the famous green and gold belt but he did improve all other aspects of his boxing life. The eyes of fans, broadcasters and promoters were opened. It undoubtedly enhanced his career and the prospect of financial security through boxing finally seemed realistic. Like many boxers, Harris had earned far less than minimum wage for all of the hours spent training in his seven years as a professional. He’d given serious consideration to walking away as recently as 18 months ago, only to be persuaded to persist by his father. The family was due to welcome a new daughter in the coming months and Harris could now harness boxing for its benefits, rather than be burdened by it.

“Hopefully, my performance will open more doors for me and better fights. Maybe we’ll secure another world title shot by the end of the year or the start of next year. Pleasing the right people is a good thing. To work with Eddie Hearn would be unbelievable at this moment,” beamed Harris, with a level of optimism that seemed unimaginable a short while ago. “It’s been worth it, let me tell you. Thanks to MTK [Global – promoter], they’ve come through with everything they’ve ever promised to me. We’ve only been together 18 months and I’ve had a world title shot in three fights.

“We’re going to have a normal fight in the summer and we’ll try to get another shot at a world title hopefully. That’s what I’d love. I think I belong at this level, I certainly showed it.”

Fittingly, Harris’ leap of faith took place on a ‘leap day,’ though he’s almost certain to receive another opportunity before the next 29 February. Back home in Swansea, it was already St David’s Day by the time he flew the flag, representing his home city at world level like fellow natives Enzo Maccarinelli, Floyd Havard and Colin Jones did in their time. Wales has a rich history in the flyweight division, too. Porth’s Percy Jones became Wales’ first world champion in 1914, soon to be followed by Tylorstown’s Jimmy Wilde in 1916 and Cefn Fforest’s Robbie Regan won the ‘interim’ IBF title in 1995. It’s no longer unreasonable or solely patriotic to expect Harris to follow in their footsteps.

This article first appeared in the Welsh Boxing Annual 2019-2020. Click here to buy on Amazon.

Image by Matchroom.

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