Curtis Harper labored in obscurity for most of his eight-year career as a professional boxer. But by now, most boxing fans have seen the video of Harper walking out of the ring seconds after the bell rang for the start of his Aug. 24 fight against Efe Ajagba at the Minneapolis Armory.
More than 1 million viewers have watched Harper on YouTube during the past five days. Google “Curtis Harper” and 650,000 results will appear on your screen. His exit from the ring was reported by most major news organizations and featured on CNN’s home page. The commentary has been overwhelmingly derisive and centers on the demeaning storyline that Harper was terrified of his opponent.
But there are issues that go beyond the standard event coverage. Sporting News has learned that Harper has been plagued by serious eye problems. Some medical experts, including doctors at the New York State Athletic Commission, have said that he shouldn’t be in a boxing ring at all.
Harper is a 30-year-old, 250-pound journeyman heavyweight from Jacksonville, Fla. His ring record stands at 13-6 with 9 KOs and 3 defeats by knockout. He has won one fight over the past four years, a third-round knockout of Andrew Greeley. To put that victory in perspective, in 30 fights since April 2008, Greeley has emerged victorious one time.
The high point of Harper’s career came back on March 2015, when he went eight hard rounds against Chris Arreola on Premier Boxing Champions’ inaugural telecast on Spike. Arreola entered the ring at a blubbery 262 pounds. Harper weighed 265. The assumption was that Curtis would get knocked out early. And that assumption was bolstered in Round 1 when he was decked by a right hand and rose on wobbly legs, looking like 265 pounds of Jell-O. But Arreola was woefully out of shape. And Harper evinced the mindset, if not the skills, of a professional fighter. The bout devolved into two huge guys staggering back and forth in what resembled a barroom brawl highlighted by a POP-CRASH-POW seventh round. Arreola won a 76-75, 77-74, 78-73 decision. 76-75 was the most accurate of the scorecards.
That brings us to Harper versus Efe Ajagba, a Nigerian heavyweight who now lives in Texas.
Ajagba is a Premier Boxing Champions fighter. Prior to entering the ring to face Harper, he had five knockout victories in five fights with four of these KOs coming in the first round. The fight card was televised by FS1 and Fox Deportes with Warriors Boxing and TGB Promotions as co-promoters. Warriors Boxing president Leon Margules says that TGB put Ajagba on the card and arranged for Harper to be the opponent.
Everyone understood that Harper was overmatched. But boxing regularly sees fights that are more lopsided than Ajagba-Harper was expected to be.
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Harper, his wife (Sandra Rosenberg), and trainer Nate Campbell flew out of Jacksonville on Wednesday, Aug. 22. They changed planes in Charlotte, N.C., and arrived in Minneapolis at 10:07 p.m.
Ajagba-Harper was one of 11 fights scheduled for Friday night. The fighters entered the ring as planned and were introduced to the crowd. Referee Celestino Ruiz gave his final in-ring instructions. The fighters returned to their respective corners. The bell rang.
And then it happened. Harper turned his back on Ajagba, stepped between the ring ropes, and walked away from the ring, down an elevated ramp, across the stage, to his dressing room. Whatever thoughts were racing through his mind didn’t show. His outward appearance was calm, cool, and collected.
It can’t be written that Harper said “no mas” because there was nothing to be “mas” of.
Harper’s flight left Minneapolis at 8:12 the following morning. He and his wife arrived back in Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon.
Rick Glaser, who has represented Harper in past dealings and been in touch with the Minnesota Office of Combative Sports on the fighter’s behalf, says that Curtis is “a martyr under protest.” Asked to explain, Glaser elaborates: “What happened here was, on Aug. 12, Curtis was given a contract to fight Ajagba for $6,000. He specifically asked the person who gave him the contract whether the fight would be on TV and was told no. He signed the contract on Aug. 13 and sent it back that day. After that, he was treated like garbage. He and his wife didn’t get their plane tickets until Aug. 22 [the day of their flight]. They flew into Minneapolis and waited at the airport for an hour and 45 minutes before they were picked up. Then, at the weigh-in on Thursday, Curtis learned that, contrary to what he’d been told before, his fight was going to be on TV. And he still hadn’t been given a countersigned contract. So he wanted more money.”
Harper struggles when asked to explain his motivation for leaving the ring on Aug. 24.
“I’m still upset,” he says before adding, “I signed the contract, but they never gave me a signed contract back. They told me that there was no TV, and then it was a TV fight. I kept asking for the signed contract, and they wouldn’t give it to me.”
Asked when he decided that he wasn’t going to fight, Harper answers, “I pretty much made up my mind in the dressing room, but I wasn’t sure. Then, when we touched gloves and I saw one of the people who hadn’t done right by me in the other corner, that was it.”
His wife says she “was shocked” when her husband walked out of the ring.
“But we’ve talked and I understand why he did it,” Rosenberg says. “For Curt to be insulted by all these people who don’t know him is very hurtful to Curt and to me.”
It’s a dicey proposition for an outsider to speculate on Harper’s motives. He has been a sparring partner for WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder on multiple occasions — which is no easy task. And he showed courage on a national stage in his 2015 fight against Arreola.
That said, Harper didn’t have much of a chance to beat Ajagba.
The question in most people’s minds was how — and how badly — he would be beaten up? Fans have the tendency to view fighters as video-game action figures. But the reality of boxing is very different from that.
Teddy Atlas has been in boxing as a trainer and television commentator for decades. He understands the psychology of fighters at all levels of the game, having been taught his initial lessons by Cus D’Amato.
Asked about Harper, Atlas offers, “Over the years, this guy has shown enough substance and character to get in the ring and face the risks of fighting regardless of what his other faults might be. So, what happened? If you sign a contract, you should live up to it. But someone can sign a contract and then get to a desperate place.”
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“Once upon a time,” Atlas continues, “this guy was a kid with aspirations. But his dreams didn’t work out. I can understand his getting down. I can understand his saying that all these promoters and other leeches are sucking the blood out of him and no one cares. He’s thinking now, ‘I’m not getting much money for this fight. Maybe I’ll have to spend part of what I get for medical expenses when the fight is over.’ Maybe the hopelessness of his situation hit him that day. Not the hopelessness of this one fight, but the overall hopelessness of his situation. He got angry and maybe a little scared and felt like the whole world was against him. Don’t condemn him too quickly. It’s more complicated than what most people think it is.”
Don Turner trained Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes, two of boxing’s greatest warriors.
“Fighters quit all the time,” Turner says. “This guy just did it honestly. He didn’t take a dive. He didn’t hurt anybody. He didn’t bite off part of someone’s ear to get disqualified. I don’t condone what he did but I understand it.”
Harper didn’t “run” in the literal sense. He turned and (in rather dignified fashion, actually) stepped through the ropes and walked slowly down the elevated runway leading back to the dressing room. He didn’t respond to the booing and taunts from the crowd.
And what of the fans who were deprived of action that they’d paid for? Hey, the fans in attendance got their money’s worth. There were 10 other fights on the card that night. And Ajagba vs. Harper was more memorable than any of them. Years from now, when the other fights have faded from memory, those fans will be telling people, “I saw the most amazing thing one night at the fights.”
Still, there’s a line that fighters shouldn’t cross, and Harper crossed it. A fighter shouldn’t walk to the ring for a televised fight and then walk out.
Leon Margules, who co-promoted the fight card, says, “I heard from someone who was in the locker room with Harper afterward that Harper said the bell for Round 1 rang so he wanted to get paid.”
“We’re not the bad guys in this,” Margules continues. “There are promoters who would have thrown Harper and his wife out of the hotel and canceled their return flights. I think he should explain himself and apologize. I think he should be suspended for a reasonable period of time with what’s reasonable being determined by his explanation. And I think he should repay the direct out-of-pocket expenses that his doing this cost us.”
Then, Margules rattles off a list of direct out-of-pocket expenses: 1) roundtrip airfare for three people (Harper, Rosenberg, and Campbell) between Jacksonville and Minneapolis ($1,541); 2) hotel accommodations (two rooms for three nights, $1,002); 3) meal money ($40 per day for three people for three days, $360). That comes to roughly $2,900. Now double that and then some when adding in expenses for Ajagba. Margules says that direct out-of-pocket expenses for Ajagba-Harper (not including the fighters’ purses) came to $7,465.
But as noted above, there’s another issue regarding Curtis Harper. It might be that he shouldn’t be fighting at all.
Prior to Deontay Wilder’s March 3, 2018, fight against Luis Ortiz at Barclays Center, there was an issue with regard to Ortiz’s blood pressure, and the promoters feared that Ortiz might be pulled off the card at the last minute by the New York State Athletic Commission. So, as insurance, they brought in former IBF beltholder Charles Martin as a back-up opponent for Wilder. That left open the issue of what to do with Martin in the event that Wilder-Ortiz proceeded as planned. The decision was made to match him in an undercard fight against Curtis Harper.
But the NYSAC refused to grant Harper a license to fight because he’d undergone cataract surgery in 2017 and treatment for a retinal tear in 2015. And the NYSAC was further advised that, if Harper continued to fight without additional corrective surgery, it was “just a matter of time” before he went blind in one eye. The commission medical staff also believed that even if Harper had the corrective surgery, it would be too dangerous for him to continue fighting.
Harper says that the necessary corrective surgery was a minor procedure that was performed in Jacksonville in early July of this year.
Thereafter, on Jul. 26, Dr. Robert Schnipper, an ophthalmologist, filled out an ocular examination form that was transmitted to the Minnesota Office of Combative Sports. In it, Schnipper referenced Harper’s 2015 retinal tear and 2017 cataract surgery but found him fit to fight. The Minnesota Office of Combative Sports concurred with that assessment.
Harper has been given a pro forma suspension by the Minnesota Office of Combative Sports, which mandates that all fighters have a mandatory 14-day rest period after each scheduled fight. James Honerman (a spokesperson for the MOCS) says that his office is currently gathering information and will decide the status of Harper’s license after a hearing on Sept. 7.
Ironically, if Harper is allowed to fight again, he’ll be more marketable than ever before. Boxing fans now know who he is. He’s a human-interest story. If he re-enters the ring, he’ll be a name, not an opponent.
Don’t judge Curtis Harper too harshly. But remember that boxers are held to a high standard because thousands of courageous fighters who boxed before them set that standard.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected]. His next book – Protect Yourself At All Times – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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