PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - March 18, 2016  
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Story by John DiSanto
Photos by Darryl Cobb Jr. -


Philly boxing took a trip back to the good old days Friday night with a nine-bout card at South Philly's 2300 Arena. It was an evening full of rowdy fans jammed into a sold out house, competitive old school ring battles, and a main event that was exciting, significant, dramatic, and very, very memorable. It was a real throwback, and it wasn't even Thursday.  If only all boxing shows could be like this one. 

North Philadelphian Jesse Hart, son of local legend Cyclone Hart, won a hard-fought, 10-round thriller against upset-minded Californian Dashon Johnson in the terrific main event. Hart took the unanimous decision by a wide margin on two of the three official scorecards, but victory only came after the rising contender was pushed to the limit and dangerously tested for the first time in his four year professional career.

With a potential world title fight hanging like a gold-plated carrot before Hart's eyes, Jesse entered the ring with a spotless 19-0, 16 KOs record, which came after an accomplished amateur run that already had local fans dreaming of his eventual coronation as a pros. Although Hart eventually secured his win on Friday, he had to rise from the floor to do it, and was forced to rely on a heart that turned out to be as big as his fan base. 

Hart's foe on Friday night was an experienced fighter with a modest-looking record  of 19-18-3, 6 KOs. On paper, he looked safe and ripe for a flogging by the streaking Philadelphian. To his credit, Johnson was on a four bout winning streak, but previous losses to Philly's Julian Williams and every other name opponent on his record, whispered the message that Hart would easily grab his 20th pro win before the sold out, hometown crowd.

However, Dashon Johnson didn't come to Philly to hand Jesse the fight. He made the most of his trip East and almost derailed Hart's train to the top of the super middleweight division.

Jesse Hart began the fight exactly as expected. The undefeated star picked apart his compact opponent with a stiff jab and kept his right cocked and ready to fly. Hart piled up points and banked the early rounds. However after a couple of those rounds, it became obvious that Johnson was a stubborn pro who wasn't going away easily. 

Hart opened up in round three and began landing vicious right uppercuts that jarred Johnson but did not wilt his spirit one bit. Instead of crumbling (as most of us expected he would), Dashon fired back with wild looping right hands. Johnson had to reach to get anywhere near the much taller Hart's jaw, and although most of these early shots missed their mark, each swipe was getting closer to finding Hart's chin.

In round four, Hart whacked Johnson with a right hand and a follow up flurry that had him staggered. However, Johnson survived the assault, and hung in there. Hart was building a commanding lead, while getting in some rugged practice rounds and putting on a solid display for his legion of fans. Jesse continued the show in round five, making the first half of the fight a clean sweep in his favor, but things were about to get interesting.

In round six, Hart was again on track to collect another round, but then suddenly the gutsy Johnson unleashed an overhand right that crash-landed on Jesse's noggin. Johnson followed up with a left and another right, as Jesse stumbled along the ropes. The bell sounded to end the sixth, but Johnson kept chugging. Another right put Hart down on the seat of his pants, but Pittsburgh referee Ernie Sharif chose not to call it a knockdown, given that the determining blow came late.

Hart answered the bell for round seven still looking a little wobbly and Johnson jumped out strong, aching to pull the upset. He landed again and Jesse felt it. However, Hart did not collapse like a spoiled prospect. He sucked up the punishment and fought back.

Hart worked to gain a little space from his hard-charging opponent, and once he put some air between himself and Johnson, Jesse's jab re-established his control and gave him time to clear his head.

The fight returned to the earlier pattern, but now every time Johnson surged (which was regularly) Hart's fans held their breath, hoping their fighter could withstand the storm. It wasn't completely clear that he would, but Hart was showing his grit and beginning to put his fans at ease.

By round eight, both fighters looked winded. Hart repeatedly used his right uppercut to spear Johnson and the punches were more and more effective. Toward the end of the round, Hart appeared to almost have Johnson on the brink of going down, but the Californian simply refused to go away.

Hart won round nine and Johnson looked like he was running out of gas, but of course we were wrong about him once again. Round ten put the perfect cap on this great fight and wonderful night.

While Hart's supporters hoped that he would just box carefully and sit on his lead during the final three minutes, Jesse showed everyone that regardless of any advantage in points that he might have, he was a fighter of rarified bloodline and a proud hometown that required him to fight. And fight he did.

Jesse relied heavily on his right uppercut in the tenth. Over and over again, Hart blasted Johnson with that weapon and the determined underdog felt every one. Dashon's flesh was fading, but that stubborn fighting spirit was as strong as it had been all night.

Despite taking a ton of hard rights from Hart, Johnson kept plugging along. Dashon kept the fight as claustrophobic as he could, and Hart came away from one close encounter with a cut above his left eye. A trickle of blood streaked down his face and emphasized the difficulties of this particular assignment.

After the fight, Hart said that it was a head butt that caused the cut, but the wound never became a factor in the bout. 

Suddenly, with time winding down in the last round, Johnson landed a right hand that stunned Hart. Jesse stumbled backward and Johnson followed up immediately with two more rights that also landed with authority. Hart fell to the floor. His descent felt like slow motion.

Was this the end of Jesse's quest for a championship? Were his days as an undefeated star suddenly over? 

With his seat flat on the canvas and his long legs high in the air, Jesse struggled to rise. He looked rattled but clear-headed. Hart climbed to his feet and dutifully went back to work on this very tough day at the office.

Before Johnson could do anything else, the bell ended the fight. Hart had made it.

"Philadelphia fighters got this," Hart said pointing to the heart beating deep on his chest. "Everyone wanted to see how I handle adversity. I showed them.  You get knocked down, you get back up. You handle adversity." 

After ten full rounds, there wasn't much question that Hart had won the fight on points. Yet official judge Lindsey Page saw the fight a close, 95-94 for Hart. Judge Julie Lederman saw Hart comfortably ahead, 97-92. Judge Dave Braslow had it the widest at 98-91. My score was 97-92 for Hart. I gave Johnson the sixth and tenth round (and the tenth by a two point margin).

"Boom! Boom! Boom! I'm hitting him," Hart said. "I'm hitting him... Boom! It was becoming easy. I'm touching him. I'm doing it every round. On my legs, boxing him with every jab that I throw. Pop! Get him to the body. Get him to the head. I hurt him, more than two, three times. I couldn't finish him! Tough guy. Tough cookie. Everyone wanted to see if I can handle adversity, and I think I did it." 

Certainly some may say that this fight was proof that Hart isn't ready for the elite of the division and that the possibility of his fighting for a world title in his next bout would be a premature risk. However, Hart won a fight on the toughest night of his career. Many young fighters would have folded under such adversity, but Hart showed heart. He showed determination and he showed a lot of skill. He fought hard and got his win.

Who knows? The experience gained by Hart in this fight might make the difference when the chips are down in a title bout.

Beating Johnson made Hart 20-0, 16 KOs, and he defended his USBA and NABO regional title belts. According to Hart's pre-fight comments, he will now wait to see who wins the WBO world title contest between champ Arthur Abraham and challenger Gilberto Ramirez on April 9th. Last week, Hart said he was certain that he would be matched against the winner.

Whether or not Hart fights for the world championship next, he is indeed getting close to such an opportunity. After Friday night's war, Jesse is more ready than he's ever been. Tough fights are good for young fighters. They may scuff the shine a little, but fights like Friday's are learning experiences that make a boxer better.


Just before the main event, a last-minute Philly vs. New York match up proved almost as exciting as the feature bout. In a lively welterweight brawl, Greg Jackson, Southwest Philly, 6-2-1, 2 KOs, won a four round split decision over Gladwin Ortiz of the Bronx, 3-1, 3 KOs. 

After two rounds, it seemed that Ortiz had the fight under control. However, Jackson stormed back in round three and decked Ortiz. The fallen fighter returned to his feet, but it appeared Jackson would have plenty of time to finish his wobbly opponent before the third ended. However, Ortiz survived the round. 

With the extra point earned by Jackson for the knockdown, the fight was suddenly even as it entered the final round. The fighters traded left hooks in the fourth, but Jackson edged the action with several right hands that kept him in control after that sudden shift of momentum the round before.

When the official cards were announced, Jackson had the lead on two of the scores. Judges Lindsey page and Lynn carter had it 38-37 for Jackson, while Alan Rubenstein favored Ortiz by the same score (38-37).

In a junior middleweight battle of Garcias, Vineland, NJ's Ismael "Tito" Garcia, 10-0-1, 4 KOs, edged Carlos Garcia of Puerto Rico, 10-15-1, 8 KOs, over six rounds, in a slow-moving bout. The first and fourth rounds were extremely close, but the official scores were 58-56, 58-56 for Ismael Garcia and 58-56 for Carlos Garcia, in a split decision. My score was a 57-57 deadlock.

Dominican lightweight Ramesis Gil, 10-13-5, 6 KOs, stopped North Philly war horse Victor Vasquez, 19-11-1, 9 KOs, at 2:01 of round two. Gil floored Vasquez twice in round one, and finished him with a series of punches in the following round.

Vasquez was as game as usual, but appeared to have little to offer against Gil tonight. The sold out crowd booed loudly - and Victor complained - when referee Blair Talmadge halted the fight. However, this was a smart and safe stoppage.

Vasquez has been one of Philly's most exciting and popular fighters for the past decade. Every one of his fights has been "must see" for any true boxing fan in the area.

On this night however, Vasquez looked like a fighter with little left in his tank. Each time Gil landed on Victor, the boxing barber felt the punch to his core. He responded poorly with every attack, and although his fighting will was still intact, Vasquez didn't seem to have any of his old ability to rev his engines when the tables were turning against him. Instead he took unnecessary punishment and would have taken more if the referee hadn't saved him.

Northeast Philly's Scott Kelleher, 4-0, 2 KOs, made short work of South Philly "Kamikaze" Josue Rivera, 2-7, 2 KOs in their scheduled four rounder. Kelleher jumped right on Rivera in the opening round and immediately hurt him with a barrage of power shots. 

A body blow put Josue down, and it appeared he wouldn't get up. However, Rivera jumped to his feet just before referee Shawn Clark reached the count of ten. When the action resumed, Kelleher continued to throw - and land - hard shots.

This was a typical "kill or be killed" outing for Rivera. When he's throwing punches, he can't stop throwing them. Similarly, when he's receiving punishment, Rivera is like a sponge. Punches land on him with frightening consistency.

In his entire career, eight fights prior to this one, Josue has never heard the final bell. Judges for his fights never earn their keep. In fact, Rivera has only seen the second round twice in his career. His fight with Kelleher was unfolding in the same way. 

Finally on Friday night, less than one minute into the opening round and after one knockdown, Kelleher landed a left hook that dropped Rivera a second time. He fell along the ropes, and the moment he hit the canvas, Clark stopped the fight. The time was 0:59.

Rivera complained about the stoppage and had a look of disbelief on his face. He is a warrior always ready for more. That's the Kamikaze in him. However, the decision to end the fight was correct and in Josue's best interests.

Kelleher remained undefeated and collected his second career KO.

In a scheduled four round junior middleweight fight, LeShawn Rodriguez, Shirley, NY, 1-0, 1 KO, knocked out Jose Cortes, West Palm Beach, FL, 1-1, 1 KO, in round two. After winning the first round, Rodriguez took a nice right from Cortes, before immediately landing with a crushing left hook of his own that put Cortes down and out. The time was 1:54 of the second round.

In a six round lightweight bout, North Philly's Jerome Conquest, 5-1, 1 KO, thwarted the comeback of Phoenixville, PA's Jules Blackwell, 8-5-2, 3 KOs. Conquest won an easy unanimous decision by scores of 60-54 (Julie Lederman), 59-55 (Dave Braslow) and 59-55 (Alan Rubenstein) on the official cards. Blackwell hadn't fought in nearly three years, but held up under Conquest's hard right hooks and workmanlike effort in this battle of southpaws.

In the opening bout, Isaiah Wise, North Philly, made a successful pro debut with a fourth round KO of fellow North Philadelphian Kareem Gladney, who was also making his first start.

The bout was action packed and closely contested for three rounds. Wise was aggressive throughout, while right hands from his opponent nearly closed his left eye. Gladney entered the final round with a slight lead (two rounds to one on my card).

However in the final round, Wise caught Gladney with a hard right hand midway through the round that stunned him. A series of subsequent rights had Gladney out on his feet before one final shot from the right side sent him crashing to the canvas. Referee Blair Talmadge halted the fight without a count, perhaps one punch too late. The time was 1:42 of the fourth.

In the walkout bout, junior welterweight Mike Reed, Waldorf, MD, 18-0, 10 KOs, beat Baltimore's Samuel Amoako, 17-9, 14 KOs, by six round unanimous decision. All scores were 60-54.

The fight took place just after the main event, and most of the big crowd hit the streets before this bout even began. The action was one-sided and felt like nothing short of a let down after the top-notch feature bout. Then again, anything would have.

This was a great night of Philly boxing. The event was completely sold out about two weeks prior to fight night. A subsequent printing of 200 "Standing Room Only" tickets also sold out before the doors opened, making this the biggest boxing show that Philadelphia had seen in quite a while.

Responsible for the success were promoters Peltz Boxing, Bam Boxing, Top Rank, as well as star attraction Jesse Hart and his wife Starletta Hart, all of whom publicized and sold the fight with gusto for the past six weeks.

Atmosphere and action like Friday night's are the reasons we go to the fights. Not every show is as satisfying as this one, regardless of how much we hope they might be. But when a night like Friday comes along, it reminds us why we love boxing and explains why we keep coming back.




John DiSanto - South Philly - March 18, 2016