Percy Harris joined a select group of Baltimore fighters when he brought the International Boxing Federation Intercontinental middleweight championship belt home after whipping Thomas Tate in Milan, Italy, on Wednesday night.
It has been more than half a century since a local fighter last won a title, with Harry Jeffra beating Joey Archibald in 1940 to claim the lightweight crown.
Before Jeffra, the Dundee brothers, Vince, a middleweight, and Joe, a welterweight, reigned as world champions in the '30s. Kid Williams ruled as bantamweight king in 1916, and Joe Gans, "The Master," was the lightweight champion at the turn of the century.
The Intercontinental crown won by Harris may not hold as much stature at a time when fractionalized boxing titles appear to be a dime a dozen. But no fighter ever won a championship on such short notice and in such bizarre fashion.
The rangy middleweight had been scheduled to appear in a six-round bout against Fabian Garcia of Rockville on the undercard of the Vincent Pettway-Frank Montgomery junior-middleweight bout at the Pikesville Armory on Wednesday night.
"That's just what I was going to do until [matchmaker] Tony Turino called me from Orlando last Sunday and offered me this match in Italy with Tate. I couldn't refuse a chance to fight for a title."
Harris accepted the fight against the advice of his Texas-based manager, Joe Costello.
"Joe felt I would need more time to prepare for Tate, especially the fact that I weighed 170 pounds and would have to shed 10 pounds in four days. But I'd already made up my mind to go," Harris said.
"Praying and fasting, that's what got the job done. I read all the Psalms in the Bible on my flight to Italy, and didn't eat anything but salads and liquids. I guess I was lucky I didn't get dehydrated. I weighed in at 160, on the nose."
Harris made the journey to Italy by himself. Costello was involved in other boxing business and several trainers he contacted could not leave the country on such short notice.
"When I got to Milan, the promoter there assigned a couple of Italian fight guys to work my corner," he said. "They couldn't speak English, and I can't speak Italian, but we communicated by sign language."
Harris, who began fighting as a 70-pound novice at the age of 9 in Mack Lewis' Broadway gym and won a national AAU title in 1984, relied on his boxing skills to outpoint Tate.
"I didn't know a thing about Tate except that he was ranked No. 6 in the world by the IBF, and that his brother, Frank, had won an Olympic medal in 1984. I just used my jab and combinations to whip him. I staggered him in the fifth round, and then I knew I had him."
After the referee raised his hand in victory, Harris said he fell to his knees, cried and muttered a silent prayer of thanks.
"All these years I've been relatively unknown and fighting for peanuts," he said. "I'd quit fighting several times and changed managers and trainers. But the Lord had a plan and directed me on the right path. He just made me work a lot harder to reach my goal."
Harris, 28, married and with a 3-year-old daughter, supplements his boxing income by operating several mobile hot dog stands. But with his newly won title, he plans to concentrate his energies on fighting.
"I'd love to defend my title in Baltimore," he said. "The No. 1 contender [Cornelius Carr] is from England, and they're already pressuring me to fight him over there.
"I'm sure the money would be good, but I've heard too many horror stories about Americans fighting in England. I'd rather take less money and fight him on my home turf."
Harris, a self-promoter, aspires to become Baltimore's favorite fighter, and his championship belt should improve his sales pitch immeasurably.