Audley Harrison: a cautionary tale
How did the man who won Olympic gold in 2000 fail so spectacularly to become a professional champion?
Boxing is the writer’s sport. The clash of two personalities, the sense of danger, the theatre of the ring. Perfect.
Boxing stories are the boy’s equivalent of those cheap magazines that housewives read, full of articles with headlines like ‘How I overcame a hysterectomy, a mastectomy and an appendectomy to find love’. In the trade, these are called TOTs: triumphs over tragedy. Boxing stories come in two varieties: triumphs against the odds, and tragedies over triumph.
The best boxing stories usually involve Muhammad Ali. He had two great triumphs against the odds. First, as a wee slip of lad, he demolished the beast that was Sonny Liston to win the world title in 1964. Ten years later, he beat another great puncher, George Foreman, in the heat of Zaire, to regain the title taken from him for refusing to fight in Vietnam, as memorably recounted in the documentary When We Were Kings.
Ali also provides the signature tragedy after triumph. After some brutal fights, particularly against Joe Frazier, and two misguided comebacks that both ended in defeat, Ali was struck down by Parkinson’s disease. The sport that made his name helped to cripple him, or so the story goes. I’ve always been a bit sceptical that Ali’s case is so simple. After all, Michael J Fox is in the same boat and I don’t recall him going 14 savage rounds with Frazier in the heat and humidity of Manila.
That’s boxing for you. Glory and pathos. And they don’t get much more pathetic than the tale of Audley Harrison.
Harrison won the gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Brits don’t win boxing gold medals very often – Harrison was the first British fighter to do it for 32 years – and hopes were high that he would climb to the very top of boxing’s tree.
I actually attended Harrison’s first professional fight, at London’s Wembley Arena in May 2001, dragged along by two crazy friends who were into Thai boxing. It was a big event, especially for a debut fight. Wembley Arena is normally reserved for world-title fights, not first-time pros. Lennox Lewis, who was world heavyweight champion at the time, was in the front row, and Harrison had just signed a lucrative 10-fight deal with the BBC so it was going out on TV, nationwide. It was, of course, no contest. Harrison was up against a security guard from Miami called Mike Middleton who looked about half his size, and the fight ended in the first round.
Harrison then fought a series of low-quality opponents, sometimes struggling against them, but all with the much-envied publicity of network TV coverage on the BBC, and all with the question being when, not if, Harrison was going to fight for the world title. But it quickly became apparent that Harrison’s estimation of himself ran way ahead of his actual ability.
Despite having a top trainer and plenty of cash, Harrison seemed to be going nowhere. He was a late developer – he won the Olympic title at the relatively late age of 29 – and he didn’t have time to mess around if he was going to be world champion. Yet, he seemed to be treading water. Harrison always seemed to give the impression that while he was big and strong enough to defeat weak opponents, he didn’t really fancy it when it came to better fighters. Maybe the fame and fortune of that Olympic victory meant he had too strong a sense of self-preservation for a top boxer.
In fairness, Harrison suffered a hand injury in 2004 that kept him out for a year. But when he returned to the ring, he fought another Londoner, Danny Williams, who himself had recently beaten an ageing Mike Tyson and lost a world-title fight to Vitali Klitschko. This was the step up in class that Harrison had been waiting for. Unfortunately, Harrison lost a close fight, then went on to lose to Dominic Guinn, an American who had himself failed to deliver on some much-touted early promise.
Eventually, Harrison got a rematch with Williams in 2006. This time, he demolished Williams in three rounds. Was Audley about to turn it all around?
No. In his next fight, a European Union title fight against Michael Sprott, he was flattened in the third round of a grudge match. While he has won against a couple of journeymen since, Harrison lost his most recent fight in November 2008 to a Belfast taxi driver called Martin Rogan.
And so to the pathos, as Harrison has one last stab at glory tonight. Before fighting Harrison, Rogan was the first winner of Prizefighter, a one-night ‘knockout’ (in both senses) tournament with boxers fighting three-round bouts in quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals to determine the winner. Now, Harrison is fighting at London’s ExCel arena in the latest edition of Prizefighter. For a top prize of £32,000 – nothing like the million-pound contract he signed nine years ago with the BBC – Harrison will take on seven other fighters, including Danny Williams.
He is still talking about world titles, long after his moment has passed. If he fails to win tonight, it really is all over for him. He’s apparently quick to blame anyone but himself for the fact that he never made it to the top, but most fight fans think he just didn’t really have the talent or the courage to be a really good fighter.
Maybe there’s another great boxing story about to unfold, the tale of how an Olympic champion almost blew it, but went on to rule the world. That’s what Audley seems to think is going to happen. But somehow, I doubt it.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Duleep Allirajah is away.
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