The ringing inside his head lasted for years and always afflicted him around the same time. Andre Harrison would instinctively wake from a sound sleep groping for something in the darkness, a mystery “The Bull” will never solve. It had its effects six year ago, spilling over into more than enough sleepless nights that Harrison cares to remember. The ennui carried over into his real life. It was if he was walking in a daze, his eyelids hovering at half-mast, dark circles forming under each eye. His feet would drag through the Bellmore Kickboxing Academy in Bellmore, New York, to the point where everyone noticed. “What’s wrong with Andre?” they asked.
Harrison feels that those tough times, when he psychologically balanced a family tragedy with a bewildering occurrence soon after, forged these good times. He is 16-0 and scheduled to defend his featherweight championship against Steven Rodriguez in the Professional Fighters League “Everett” main event on Saturday at Xfinity Arena in Everett, Washington. Harrison is strong-willed, intelligent, fast, quick and explosive, and he finds himself on the cusp of being one of top 10 featherweights in the world.
“When I would go out and fight, people will ask if I am nervous, and I’m like, ‘I’ve been through a lot worse than being punched or kicked in the face. That’s nothing right there,’” Harrison told Sherdog.com. “I became numb to what happened.”
Through time, he had to. He had no other choice.
In 2009, Garvey Harrison, Andre’s older brother, was found by their mother, Lystra, hanging from a tree with a clothesline wrapped around his neck in the family’s backyard. Garvey was 23. According to Andre, law enforcement ruled it a murder, and it remains unsolved to this day. Andre at the time was across the country, honing his rudimentary mixed martial arts skills while attending Fort Hays State University in Kansas, where he would eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. His younger brother, Keenan, made the life-altering call, as Andre could hear everyone in the background sobbing.
Andre made his way back to Freeport, New York, his hometown, for the funeral and to support his family. No textbook can genuinely cure that level of heartbreak. This was Garvey, the one who sacrificed swimming in high school so he could pick up his younger brothers, allowing Andre -- who Lystra originally enlisted for that after-school chore -- to continue wrestling and in turn reach his current station.
“There was a rush of emotions,” Andre said. “I remember being partially upset and partially confused. You’re there in disbelief when someone tells you that your brother is dead. Then you begin thinking, ‘What if I was home? Would things have been different?’ Some of the people who I was close to at the time said things would be tougher, and I had to be strong for my family. I tried to do that to the best of my ability, but to be honest, that whole time was like a blank to me.
“The police never gave us an explanation,” he continued. “I come from a very smart family (his mother has a PhD in nursing and his older sister is an engineer) and we all had to deal with it. Garvey’s murder brought out in me a different perspective. I had to start thinking differently, thinking bigger. They never found who killed my brother; someone hung Garvey in my backyard. The pain never really goes away. Time helps you deal with it, but it’s always there.
“My mother pleads with us because she didn’t want any of us to retaliate and risk something serious,” Andre added. “It is something that you never really get over. It’s messed up. You get little reminders about him. You tolerate the pain, but you never really get over it. I could have gone a different road in life. I have a girlfriend and a 4-year-old daughter. My daughter will never get to meet her uncle.”
What came a few weeks later complicated Harrison’s healing process even more. Beginning with a phone call at three in the morning, it replayed in his head for years to come. Harrison is 16-0 for a reason. All of his losses have amounted to a large lesson: Everyone pays attention when you win.
Before Harrison’s life was crudely interrupted by Garvey’s death, he was living the life of a fun-loving, college wrestling star. After a successful career at Freeport High School and a stint at Nassau Community College, Harrison found Fort Hays State University -- a Division II wrestling powerhouse in Hays, Kansas. There, he became acquainted with Justin Trevor “JT” Hudson, who was from Colorado. Hudson was considered an old man to the guys on the Fort Hays wrestling team since he was in his early 20s and started college late after trying mixed martial arts as an amateur for a few years.
Harrison’s entry into MMA came by happenstance. One weekend night as they were ready to hit the party scene on campus, the Fort Hays wrestlers made a stop at Hudson’s house. There, hanging prominently for all visitors to see was a title belt from Hudson’s amateur MMA tour. Andre was enthralled by it. Hudson told him he got it fighting amateur MMA. They began talking more about MMA and less about wrestling. Harrison had aspirations beyond a bachelor’s degree. He was thinking law school when this vision came over him.
Suddenly, he and Hudson were taking five-hour drives to Colorado Springs. They would stay weekends, mostly with Harrison’s girlfriend at the time, and learn the tools of the trade from Team Wildman’s Thomas Denny. Harrison’s wrestling coach permitted him to fight as an amateur but only during the offseason because he was on scholarship. The Colorado trek had to be taken. The facilities were better, and the Kansas MMA scene was not exactly brimming with talent against which Harrison could test himself. In April 2009, Harrison made his MMA debut against a seasoned fighter named Gabe Charboneau at a No Mercy Extreme Fighting event.
“There was all of this talk about how I was going to get killed,” Harrison said. “I’m not the type of person who pays a lot of attention to forums, but when JT told me about what they were saying, I let everyone on that forum know what I could do and let them all know that they would find out shortly.”
Harrison won in 110 seconds. A front kick sent Charboneau across the cage and Harrison finished him, opening a cut over his eye and splashing blood everywhere.
“People questioned my background, that there was no way, they thought, I could do what I did without a muay Thai background,” Harrison said. “Honestly, I didn’t even know if I was throwing punches properly or not. I knew how to wrestle; that was it. People laugh at this when I tell them: When I first started fighting, I would practice standup by going online and watching guys whose standup I liked, guys who were my favorite fighters or guys who had similar body types to me that I thought I could emulate.”
Harrison would write down the combinations that they threw in fights, and when he got to the gym, he would hang up a heavy bag on a pull-up bar in the wrestling room and practice the moves he wrote down. That was how he practiced his standup.
“When you’re a kid, you’re real ignorant, and that was my attitude when I started fighting,” Harrison said. “I thought I had wrestling down, and I practiced a few submissions and a few submission defenses.”
That changed in 2011, when Harrison came home to New York to move his mother from Freeport to Brooklyn. He needed a place to get in some added work and the Bellmore camp had a good reputation.
“I thought I only needed to know how to strike, until I met Keith Trimble at Bellmore Kickboxing,” Harrison said. “When I trained at Team Wildman with Thomas Denny, they never put on boxing gloves. When I went back home and went to Trimble, we sat down in the ring and he told me I was definitely not a 155er. If I was going to be a successful pro, it would have to be at 145 [pounds]. For me, he said I was lucky because they had a few guys there who were pros like Chris Algieri, who was 10-0, and Larry Batista and Terrence Hill.
“Keith is one of the most honest blunt people you will ever come across in your life,” he added. “He’s my trainer and pretty much my everything. If you ever watch one of my fights, you’ll hear Keith. When I spoke to Keith, I realized how ignorant I was. I remember Keith pointed out Chris Algieri to me, and I’ll never forget what he said: ‘Chris may look like a European male model, but the kid could fight.’ I found out everyone in there could fight.”
Trimble did not know much about Harrison. He had heard about his resume and back-checked everything before approaching him.
“Basically, I said to Andre that I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall, and no one I knew recommended him to me,” Trimble said. “I spelled out the deal: I asked him to respect members and the people in the gym. Otherwise, how easy it was to walk through that door, it will be that much easier when I throw you out that door. It was as simple as that. He told me he didn’t have any money for the gym so I told him that I would help him out and train him, and in return, his payment would be to mop the floor and clean up afterwards. Andre got along with everyone right away those two weeks he worked with us. He was training with Thomas Denny in Denver, and his fight fell through. I got the sense that Andre really didn’t like being there. When he decided to come home, I paid for his flight to come earlier and Andre came home, and he’s been with me ever since.
“What sold me on Andre was he was a real respectful kid who had a great work ethic,” he added. “He wasn’t a wise ass and by no means was disrespectful to anyone. Members, fighters, they actually all took to Andre pretty fast. Andre is a down-to-earth kid and you could see Andre truly appreciated everything people did for him. The bottom line is that Andre is a really good young man, but there was a problem there. He was tired all of the time. I asked him what was going on. He said he couldn’t sleep. He was thinking about his brother and weird things were happening, but I don’t remember exactly what they were. I do know his brother’s murder is always in the back of his mind. Andre has dealt with a lot of stuff, but Andre wouldn’t be where he is without believing in himself and being as strong as he is.”
A few weeks after Garvey was found dead, Andre received a strange call in the wee hours of the night.
“For whatever reason, I was staying in Garvey’s room and one night his phone was going off,” Andre said. “The person on the other line was a friend of Garvey’s, and he kept saying that Garvey was calling him around that time, which was impossible because I was the only one in that room and the only one who had access to that phone. I kept telling the guy that it was impossible. No one could have called him using Garvey’s phone. Garvey’s friend said the person never identified himself. All he heard was breathing. Garvey’s friend called back around three to three-thirty in the morning. Years later, for whatever reason, I would always wake up around that time.
“The call never came from Garvey’s phone,” he added. “It couldn’t have. It just happened once, but it went on for me for several years, waking up at three, three-thirty in the morning. I’m doing a lot better sleeping now, but my sleep cycle used to be terrible. Sometimes I couldn’t go back to sleep. I tried to figure out what that meant for the longest time. The guy who called me soon after died, too. I have no idea what it meant, what it should have meant. I am better, though. I have fighting. I have my health, my little girl and a great team around me.”
Trimble likes the growth he sees in Harrison and expects him to improve further.
“Andre came to me as a wrestler, and each fight you would see a little more and a little more that comes out,” he said. “I’m not one of those coaches that will blow sunshine up your ass. I’m hard on him, and he knows I’ll tell him the truth when he’s getting his ass handed to him. I’ll tell him how it is, and that’s just the way it is. It wouldn’t be fair to tell Andre -- or anyone -- that they’re doing something right when they’re not. I would even catch my youth football league coaches doing that. I would purposely do something wrong, and the coach would still tell me, ‘Good job.’
“I started to see more in Andre’s training, and I know what he’s capable of doing in fights,” Trimble added. “I want to see more of that. In his last fight against Lance Palmer, the third and fourth rounds Andre just laid back and he gave away those rounds. After getting in his ass, he beat the living s--- out of Palmer. I know what he’s capable of doing, and the day Andre puts everything together, everyone is going to be [thinking] ‘Holy s---!’ Andre is so talented. He’s strong and he’s fast, but he can be too cautious, and he knows it. He has to learn to trust himself more.”
Harrison’s latest opponent poses some challenges. Rodriguez has compiled a 10-2 record, with six of his wins coming by submission. He has won nine fights in a row.
“Rodriguez tries to fight like Frankie Edgar, though not at that level,” Trimble said. “He’ll run in and hit you and move away. I don’t see crazy power and crazy kicks from him. I’m real confident with Andre. I don’t see him losing, I’ll tell you that much.”
Harrison will carry a permanent reminder of his later brother into the cage with him. Engraved on his left rib cage is a tattoo that reads “Ace,” Garvey’s nickname, with his birthday and the day he died. The pressure of being undefeated is not too steep to handle. Harrison has lost many times, in the gym, on simple movements, on the demands he makes of himself.
“I suffer so many losses during training camp that by the time I get to the fight I’m so hungry to get a win that I would do any and everything to win,” Harrison said. “That’s how it comes off with me. I train at Bellmore Kickboxing against the animals that fight. I have Costas Philippou, who has some of the sickest standup I ever saw. Even though he’s much bigger, I still went against Costas. You go up against guys like that [and] you realize that you’re not a finished product. You learn from guys like that. You learn that you’re not a finished product. When there are things that I know that I could and should be doing and I’m not doing it, to me, that’s a loss. If I’m sparring and I’m not doing the things I know I could do or that Keith thinks I should and could be doing, to me, that’s a loss. When I leave myself open to getting swept with my body weight in the wrong position, to me, that’s a loss.
“I’ve suffered so many losses that people haven’t seen,” he added. “I also remember something, too, from high school that I’ll never forget. I was a senior killing everyone. Good or bad, it didn’t matter. I beat everybody, to the point where I didn’t think I had to work hard. I went to the Nassau County Cup and I lost to this kid by a point. The moment I lost, there was this big write-up on the kid who beat me, and it was on the local news. When I was undefeated, I didn’t get any attention. The first time I lost, and I was a nobody. No one cared when I was winning. They cared when I lost. It’s why I say to myself all of the time: ‘People only care about you when you’re winning.’”
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.