“It’s my time right here,” Barnett said after his morning training session. “I’ve been on the underground for too long.”
Raised in Southeast Washington, Barnett has spent most of his life overshadowed and underestimated. He was a promising amateur who won several tournaments, but his boxing career was derailed by jail and the streets. After coming back to the sport and turning pro in 2005, Barnett fought on undercards in seedy casinos for small purses for years.
Now it’s finally Barnett’s turn. On Friday, he’ll fight in Las Vegas for the first time on national television, against undefeated Filipino lightweight Mercito Gesta on ESPN. Barnett is the underdog, and few are picking him to win. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a test that many local fighters have failed in recent years. Win and the national exposure could vault Barnett to the same heights as childhood training partner Lamont Peterson, who earned a title shot on ESPN one year ago. Lose, and the young boxer will probably remain an unknown.
“He’s got a good chance, if he’s got any of that Ty Barnett stuff left,” said Barnett’s former trainer Barry Hunter. “Punchers always got a chance.”
Ticket to fame
There are many struggling boxers in the District, and like many of them, Barnett has always seen the ring as his ticket to stardom. The product of a fighting family — Barnett’s father was an amateur boxer in the 1970s — the lightweight always thought himself destined for something special.
But for years, the 29-year-old watched as friends he trained with as a young boxer appeared on television and challenged for world titles. Barnett trained with Peterson and his brother Anthony, who became fixtures fighting top competition on national television. The Petersons had a compelling story: Lamont rose to the top after being homeless and shocked the boxing world last year with a surprising win in a title bout at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Meanwhile, the undefeated Barnett didn’t get a mention in the local paper.
“I’m on that level,” Barnett said of his former sparring partner. “Out of the three, I’m the puncher, point blank.”
The Washington area has produced many former champions including Hall of Famers Sugar Ray Leonard and Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson. Barnett always wanted to fit into this local tradition, so he started training in eight grade at Hillcrest Gym in Temple Hills.
But over the years, despite Barnett’s drive, it was the Peterson brothers — and several other of Barnett’s friends, who quickly gained attention, much to the boxer’s frustration. Even winning the local Golden Gloves tournament three times didn’t help Barnett’s quest for the big time.
“A lot of people didn’t even know Ty as an amateur,” Williams said, referring to how well Barnett was fighting in the early 2000s.
But the championships didn’t turn into sustained success.
Frustrated by being overlooked, Barnett lost focus on the gym and was soon selling drugs. His repeated run-ins with the law eventually meant 20 months behind bars, starting at the D.C. jail and finishing at federal prisons in Philadelphia, Lewisburg and Morgantown, W.Va., where he served a 12-month sentence for gun possession and distribution of cocaine. “At that point in my life I needed that. I needed to be isolated from the outside world,” Barnett said.
While in prison, Barnett never doubted he would return to boxing. He credits his imprisonment for helping him realize his mistakes.
“I would have continued doing wrong, doing wrong. Before you knew it, time would have passed and I would have been 28, 29, with no pro fights. Never really pursuing my dream,” Barnett said. “Everything happens for a reason; I don’t take none of it back. It was rough going through it, but I survived. I’m a strong dude.”
Along the way
Today, Barnett, just short of 6 feet, with sculpted arms and bright brown eyes, acknowledges the journey back from incarceration has been a long one.
The first step was convincing his supporters that he was ready to turn his life around. Before Barnett went away, Hunter said the young boxer was often distracted by life outside the gym, which is why he was initially skeptical of Barnett’s dedication when the boxer returned.
“Half is not enough, especially in a sport like boxing,” Hunter said. “When Tyrone came back, I didn’t believe.”
Barnett used the criticism as motivation. He turned professional as a lightweight on April 23, 2005, in Tunica, Miss. His second fight took place in Washington at the MCI Center, on the same card as Mike Tyson’s last fight later that year.
It seemed like things were looking up. There was talk of Barnett fighting on television. By 2008 he had racked up 13 professional wins against no defeats and a tie. But he wasn’t making a real living.
Those closest to him knew he was stewing inside.
“Sometimes he was frustrated,” his mother, Aleta Peterson, said in an interview. “I felt that he could have been further than where he [was].”
Barnett sat out most of 2009, unhappy with his career. His first fight after the 10-month layoff came against Juan Santiago in 2010. Unfocused and distracted, Barnett lost for the first time since the amateurs; even worse, he was knocked out in the first round. “I cried like a baby,” Barnett said. “I got caught with a shot I didn’t see.”
It was that loss that led Barnett to question whether boxing was for him. Was the dream over?
Family members said that they knew it was a turning point. “He [wasn’t] depressed, but hurt that he lost,” Aleta Peterson said. She said she knew that the journey was “making him a better man.”
Then came the comeback. Still considering retirement, Barnett contacted Buchanan, a longtime acquaintance. The boxer got back into the gym immediately.
Barnett won his first comeback fight at the convention center in March, and followed it with a knockout win in front of a raucous crowd at the same venue in May. He was the headliner. Now he’s ready for the next main event, on Friday.
“I’ve got a voice now,” Barnett said. “It’s my time right here. I’ve been on the underground for too long.”