Earl “The Pearl” Hargrove went from Western State to Graterford to Camp Hill and then all the way to NBC-TV. Hargrove was born in South Philadelphia on October 21, 1956, and he was raised on some of its meanest corners. “Street fights were a way of life,” Hargrove told The Ring in 1980. “We fought to protect ourselves, fought whenever we got into arguments, fought the law, fought everybody. Hell, we just fought to fight! I was chucking hooks when I was five years old.” And by the time he was 15, Hargrove was gripping the bars of the first of many cells. Finally released in the late 1970s, Hargrove—with only a handful of prison fights to his name—dove headfirst into the grim Philly gym wars and sparred with the fading but still dangerous likes of “Boogaloo” Watts, Benny Briscoe, and Cyclone Hart. He made his pro debut in 1979.
A two-fisted banger with a vicious temperament, Hargrove knocked out his first 24 opponents, raising one hell of a ruckus along the Eastern Seaboard. Because few of his KO victims were considered ironmen, Hargrove began drawing whispers as well. Indeed, his first dozen foes managed to win only one fight between them. Under the tutelage of defensive guru Georgie Benton, Hargrove tried to hone his ferocity, but his raw power carried him away like a high wind carries off your hat in Chicago. In 1983, Hargrove knuckled up against his first live body, tough Hoosier clubfighter Donald King, on the undercard of a Jeff Chandler bout. King taunted Hargrove before the fight, and when the opening bell rang, it was bombs away. After nine rounds of give-and-take action, Hargrove, bleeding freely from two cuts, finally stopped King via brute TKO. Although Benton was appalled at how wild his protégé looked, network executives were ecstatic. “Ferdie Pacheco…came up to me after the fight and said I can fight for them anytime,” Hargrove told the Philadelphia Daily News. “They loved it. I wasn’t even trying to prove anything to them or to my fans. I was just trying to prove something to King.”
Ten months later, Hargrove was ready to prove something to Jersey City jolter Mark Medal. On March 11th, 1984, Hargrove and Medal clashed over the dubious right to be called the inaugural IBF light middleweight champion of the world. A sold-out crowd at The Sands Casino Hotel in Atlantic City and an audience of millions on NBC watched as Hargrove and Medal tore at each other in one of the lost classics of the 1980s. In a harrowing shootout, Medal wore down a bloody Hargrove with thumping bodyshots before coming over the top with lashing rights and lefts to force a fifth-round stoppage. Less than a year after losing his only title shot, Hargrove was mauled in 93 seconds by John “The Beast” Mugabi on SportsWorld. Down twice in that wipeout, Hargrove never recovered. He hung on for over a decade—until 1995, in fact—but he never came close to contending again and lost to nearly as many no-hopers as he beat. His final career record was 32-6, with 28 knockouts. In the end, his win over Donald King, the fight that gave him his first national exposure, remained his biggest accomplishment. Still, it was a long, long way from Graterford.