Few fighters receive the kind of attention afforded to Audley Harrison, certainly the column inches he has garnered from his stuttering professional career remains wholly disproportionate to his accomplishments in the prize ring thus far. Coverage ranges from the objective, pointing out his defeats and the unsatisfactory manner in which they were collected, to the hysterically insulting, suggesting Harrison is a coward and a triumph of pontification over professional endeavour. In which ever camp you reside, there is no denying the giant Londoner isn’t afraid to put his big neck back on the chopping block.
Throughout his six year career, Harrison has benefited and suffered due to his Amateur success. Gold in Sydney made him a household name, and though everyone recognised the late blossom of his erratic career in the vest could hamper his belated switch to the professional code, few would have countenanced the problems and failure he’s encountered, or created if you prefer to listen to the cynics, since ditching the head guard.
His profile brought the type of intense scrutiny and examination no newly forged professional should be subjected to, but Harrison couldn’t avoid it given his premature status as the headline act from the outset. It was akin to comparing an X-Factor applicant to David Ruffin. The payback? A BBC cheque for £1,000,000 to cover his first 10 bouts. The size of the payment, paid by the British public via their licence fee, removed any veil of sympathy Harrison may have enjoyed as a debutant.
Success always breeds jealousy and mistrust, we Brits always did prefer our Coopers to our Hameds. Harrison’s gold did win him legions of British fans however. Eager to continue luxuriating in the rarity of a British fighter dominating the heavyweight landscape, occurring just once a century as it does, and superficially at least, Harrison appeared to be an identikit replacement. Tall, rangy with sound technical skills, an ability to articulate his thoughts and a Christian name individual enough to make him identifiable only by his first name, he appeared tailor made to fill the big shoes of the ageing champion.
Sadly, the comparison was flawed. Tall, rangy he may have been but he lacked Lewis’ thunderous power, his ability to finish an opponent and the youth in which Lennox learnt his craft as a premier heavyweight. The articulation made way for arrogance, a creaking relationship with the fans, originally turning out in their thousands, and the media that informed them, collapsed.
His matchmaking had an aesthetic quality, few aspiring heavyweights faced as many fighters with winning records as the 6-5 southpaw, but a shuddering shot from the light punching Derbyshire butcher, Mark Krence, in his 5th fight ensured no genuine punchers were booked to face him subsequently. Eventually, Harrison had to face a capable contender to try, belatedly, to legitimise the charade. Along came Danny Williams and the unbeaten run was snapped in the most soporific manner possible. Not only were the jeers that greeted Harrison’s demise uncomfortably loud, they sounded the death knell to any hopes the British public had for the Olympic champion. Subsequent defeat to Dominic Guinn curtailed any hope of rebuilding in the States, who were equally swift to denigrate his prowess. Hard for a fighter accustomed to judges as weathered as George Foreman and Richie Woodhall asserting he was a world champion in waiting.
In part, that was the problem. Harrison believed his coronation was a birth right as Olympic champion, that the path trodden by Ali, Frazier and Lewis would simply open up for him. Such was his hubris that he took unprecedented control of his career and rather than place the black art of matchmaking and promotion in the hands of experts in order to focus on improving as a fighter, Harrison wrapped his huge arms around the whole of the boxing business. Inevitably, opponents were too carefully selected, even spurned promoter Frank Warren later admitted he would have done exactly what Harrison had done, pick the easiest possible opponents, if offered the terms the BBC expensively bestowed to secure him.
He bristled at the derision of BBC commentators and sports columnists, fiercely defiant in the face of growing evidence that he lacked the stomach for a fight or the determination and focus to capitalise on his enormous physical gifts. Danny Williams, a fighter Harrison suggested he could oust as British champion in his 5th fight in the heady days following Sydney, tried to inform the sycophants from the outset, describing his would-be rival as a ‘celebrity fighter’, more concerned with the trappings of fame than the reality of life as a fighter.
Offered the chance to appear on an under card by Frank Warren, in the aftermath of his morose first defeat to Danny Williams, Harrison was clearly riled. Two more years on, a brief renaissance of support following a destructive victory over an unmotivated, fat Williams stunningly extinguished by a looping left hook from Michael Sprott, and he may finally have found the humility to mount a run to the British title. To look beyond that, given the evidence of the past six years, would be too ambitious.
This week news broke that Harrison had signed with Dennis Hobson, jilted by Ricky Hatton on the conclusion of their 3 fight agreement. For both, it is a major reassessment of horizons, but is a partnership born out of necessity and pragmatism.
For Hobson, Harrison fills, partially at least, the void left by the departed Hatton. It struck me as a desperate move but Harrison, as always, is only a victory or two away from prominence and for all his flaws and catalogue of failure he remains one of the UK’s most recognisable pugilists. Only Amir Khan could claim more renown in the public consciousness, and in that context signing Harrison may yet prove a more shrewd move than many have given Hobson credit for.
The move demonstrates resilience on Harrison’s behalf, he continues to eschew thoughts of retirement, a widely tipped result of his defeats and the ensuing criticism. For that, at the very least, Harrison deserves applause.
A long forgotten accompaniment to Harrison’s faltering career.