Everybody in every boxing gym in America – maybe even the world – knows “that guy.” He’s the one that seems unassuming, but if you catch him in conversation, he’ll let you that if you’re interested, he can get you a fight.
Harold Calderon certainly knows that guy, and when he finished up a solid amateur career and was looking to turn pro at the fairly late age of 26 without a promoter or even any regular fight cards in his adopted hometown of Miami, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“At that time in Miami, there wasn't really any promoters putting on fights, there was no boxing going on, and Miami boxing had completely fallen off,” Calderon recalled. “Just my luck, when I'm ready to turn pro, that happens. (Laughs) But I had a friend who was at my gym and he was a professional from Colombia, and he said he'd get me fights down there in the meantime. I was like, 'Sign me up, coach, I'm ready.'”
His friend delivered, and Calderon went on the road. He debuted in November 2013 with a win over Joel Cassiani in Colombia, where he fought two of his first six fights. Three were in the Dominican Republic, with only one – a 2014 bout at Grandma’s Sports Garden in Duluth, Minnesota – taking place in the U.S.
That’s the world of professional boxing most don’t see. It’s the one where a high-powered promoter isn’t involved, there’s no lucrative TV deals, and careers are often filled with long breaks of unwanted inactivity.
So when Calderon had to sit out most of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that put boxing on pause for a long stretch, he didn’t stress out about the wait. He was more upset that progress made in a 2019 campaign that saw him go 4-0 while he earned his first world ranking was also put on pause.
“It was frustrating because I was on a roll in 2019,” he said. “That same year I got ranked 14th by the WBA and then COVID happened and I had to wait, and it slowed my momentum. But we're here now and that's in the past. If you look at my career, I've had year hiatuses before and it's just part of the game, I guess.”
Being able to navigate the game the way he has is almost as impressive as his 23-0 (16 KOs) record, one he will look to improve on this Saturday when he faces Jonathan Jose Eniz in the main event of the Miami Title Night pay-per-view event. Headlining at home has become a regular thing for Calderon ever since he was able to start getting fights in the “Sunshine State,” and he’s become a popular attraction far from the cold weather in his native Chicago.
“They've seen the grind, they saw me as an amateur coming up, and I've always been the type of person to never burn bridges,” he said. “If I see someone, I say hello, and I try to build relationships with everybody that I can. So everybody you see at my shows are basically friends and family, or someone I ran into and who believed in what I believed in. I treat everybody the same way I would want to be treated.”
Having that support system, which includes his wife and three kids, has made navigating the shark-infested waters of the boxing game a little easier, even though he does wonder sometimes why he hasn’t gotten that phone call that would change everything, whether that’s a big fight, a major TV date, or a combination of the two.
“I have my days when I'm like, what's going on, why am I not where I believe I should be?” he said. “I have my downs and my ups in this, but I just stay focused, and I take a look at my family for the motivation that I need. I'm doing it for them, doing it for us to have a better life, and I feel like I'm so close. You ever see that picture where the guys are digging and looking for a diamond in the ground and one turns back and one keeps going, and the one that kept going got it? I feel like I'm right there; I just gotta keep whacking through, and I'm gonna make my way.”
Did I mention that the unbeaten welterweight is also 33 years old? That would usually be a red flag, but without a series of wars in his 23-fight career thus far, and a late start as a pro, he believes he has the potential to be a late bloomer in the sport.
“I feel like I'm right where I need to be,” Calderon said. “My guys that I look up to are guys like Bernard Hopkins. He was almost 50 and still doing his thing. Antonio Tarver, he did it. So there are a lot of guys who get a late start or their career starts jumping late, so I never try to look at age or timing; I just know that the time is now. I put in the work, I've been a student of the game, I've not taken any shortcuts and every dog gets his bone; I'm just waiting on mine.”
With his second fight in three months (he returned from the pandemic layoff last November, halting Gustavo David Vittori in four rounds), another Miami main event, and a managerial relationship with Gary Lewis that he’s happy and optimistic about, Calderon may be getting his shot soon enough. And if he does, he looks to another Miami product for inspiration – UFC star Jorge Masvidal.
A fighter born in the backyard fights that made Kimbo Slice famous, Masvidal had a solid career in pro MMA but never got over that hump to the elite level when it came to crossover success, even though hardcore fans knew just how good he was. But in March 2019, Masvidal traveled to England as the B-side against British star Darren Till and proceeded to halt Till in the second round. Less than four months later, Masvidal went viral with a five-second (no typo) knockout of Ben Askren and by the fall of that year, he was headlining Madison Square Garden against Nate Diaz.
“Gamebred” had arrived, and Calderon paid close attention to his journey to the top.
“Definitely,” he said. “I tell myself you only gotta be right one time, and I know I'm gonna be right. So I definitely look up to 'Gamebred.' That's my guy. His career literally turned around two years ago. When I met him, he had just won that first fight to start everything going. I remember I was at the FRM building and I was talking to him and he had just come off that win. That's motivation.”
And a reminder that there’s nothing like experience in combat sports.
“That's something that I have,” said Calderon. “I've been in the game seven years and I haven't fought the top champions or guys like that yet, but I've gotten experience every time I'm in the ring and I feel like I'm only getting better.”
So it’s safe to say that while there may have been some disappointments along the way, there are no regrets for Mr. Calderon.
“Regardless of if I get there or not, I did things my way, I did what I wanted to do, I chased my dreams, and that's what I want to teach my children - never give up on your dreams, just go for it,” he said. “I could have been doing something else that I would have been mad at or not happy with, but I love what I do. Win, lose or draw, this is a passion that I have, so when that day (winning a world title) comes, it's definitely gonna be a great feeling. I'm gonna feel accomplished and that's why I'm not gonna stop and I'm gonna keep grinding and keep doing what I do.”