By Terence Dooley
Audley Harrison returned to the ring after an absence of 16-months with a fourth-round KO of Ali Adams at Essex's Brentwood Centre on Saturday May 26. Pre-fight predictions were mixed, with some claiming that Harrison would lose to the relative novice and finally call time on a professional career that started in a blaze of publicity in May 2001, eight-months months after his 2000 super heavyweight gold medal win at the Sydney Olympics, only to peter out bit-by-bit until it reached the point where he was vying for the vacant International Masters title against a thrice beaten relative novice on an off-TV show.
However, a few waves of Harrison’s big left hand later and the 40-year-old has emerged as a possible candidate for a domestic showdown with either British and Commonwealth titlist David Price or Tyson Fury as the two undefeated rivals are separated by TV networks – Sky and Channel 5 respectively – and are unlikely to meet any time soon. Frank Maloney, who promotes Price, has indicated that Harrison could be in line for a shot at the 2008 Olympian after the summer break.
Harrison, it seems, burst back to prominence at just the right time; he believes that his third – or it is it the fourth? – coming will be boosted by a win over Price or Fury and topped by a tilt at one of the Klitschkos.
“It felt great to be back in the ring, and for the first time in quite a long time I went into a fight totally calm and relaxed,” said Harrison when speaking to BoxingScene over the phone. “All the antics of Adams – saying he was from Iraq and was going to take me apart – didn’t faze me one bit. Nothing psyched me out and I knew I needed to put on a performance.
“Obviously I’d been out of the ring for a long time, but that finish was top-drawer. The counter punching and final punches would have put any heavyweight in trouble, so I know that I turned on the finish against a decent fighter. I picked up a shoulder injury, unfortunately, which is going to take up to five-weeks to heal, but really enjoyed the win and want to move on to bigger and better things. I’d have liked another fight before the summer, but with the Olympics and everything that isn’t going to happen because the country will be on shut down. By September, October or November, I’ll be ready to mix it with either David Price or Tyson Fury.”
He added: “I’ll fight whoever necessary. No doubt about it. I put myself back into the rankings. People cheered my name and cheered my performance, so I feel I’ve gone some way towards rebuilding myself.”
Harrison turned over on the BBC; his early career saw him take on the type of cannon fodder that is the norm for a heavyweight prospect. Harrison, though, topped and promoted his own bills during those early days and viewing figures fluctuated during his time with the Beeb – they finally pulled the plug after Harrison's stirring come-from-behind win over Tomasz Bonin in 2004.
Indeed, many fans still blame Harrison, 28-5 (21), for the BBC’s decision to give professional boxing a wide berth. The fighter, though, believes that his ill-fated time with the network helped him become a crossover star and that, good or bad, he is still one of the most recognizable names on the domestic circuit, so is therefore a strong choice for a meeting with Price or Fury.
He said: “These would be really good, crucial fights for all of us. People have called for these fights on Twitter because they think they [Price and Fury] are on the way up and I’m on the way down – it is a good test for them. The public recognize my name and they are really good fights for Sky or Channel 5.
“[Fury's promoter] Mick Hennessy tried to hide from me. Mick said that no one wants to see me in the ring. There were thousands of people there [in Brentwood] the other day, they were all chanting for me and cheering the finish, so what does that mean? It means that there’s still love out there for me. I went out to a nightclub afterwards, although I didn’t drink, and people were coming up to me and it was all love.
“My appearance [on hit U.K. TV show] Strictly Come Dancing went some way to repairing my public image. This performance went towards repairing my boxing ranking. I proved to others and myself that I still want to be a prizefighter. There’s a long way to go, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Harrison is aware that he made a lot of costly errors earlier in his career. Fights against domestic rivals such as Danny Williams, who briefly joined Harrison at the BBC and defended his British title on the network in 2002, and Matt Skelton came either too late or not at all.
When Harrison finally met Williams for the Commonwealth belt in 2005 he fought on a Frank Warren promotion, which he always swore he would never do, and in front of the ITV cameras. The fight itself was turgid in the early going before coming to life in the final few sessions after Harrison was floored in the tenth. Predictably, Harrison received the lion’s share of blame for a bout in which both men failed to grasp the bull by the horns. A split decision reverse meant that Harrison now had a loss on his record to boot.
The Williams setback was followed by another defeat, this time over in the U.S.A., against Dominic Guinn, a crossroad meeting between two men who had failed to live up to their early career promise. Once again, Harrison was inert early. Although he let his hands go in the last rounds, it was too little too late. Loss number two came via a ten-round unanimous decision.
Harrison, though, bounced back in December 2006 with a revenge win over Williams who came in with a week's notice as a late sub for the injured Matt Skelton. Harrison vowed to hit world level in the post-fight interview only to hit the deck heavily against Michael Sprott two-months later. Sprott upset the odds, and Harrison's plans, with a stunning third-round knockout.
A few more wins later – although they were sandwiched around a loss to Martin Rogan, a 10-fight novice at the time – and Harrison again went into a revenge match, this time versus Sprott for the vacant European title in April 2010, which he had earned by winning the previous year's Prizefighter: The Heavyweights competition. Despite a torrid start, Harrison somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the final round when detonating a huge left while behind on the cards and with time ticking away.
This late, late show led to a WBA title shot against London rival David Haye. The build-up was fierce and bitter, the contest itself lacklustre and bitty – Haye stepped it up in the third to register a stoppage win. Harrison finished the fight on his feet, but with snot hanging from his nose and his career hanging by a thread after another frustrating non-performance in a make-or-break fight. Despite all this, the California-based Londoner still has supporters and is still in with a shout of netting a meeting with Price or Fury.
“It is crazy,” said Harrison. “Twelve years of support, and it hasn’t always gone my way. There’s been good, bad and ugly. People forget that it hasn’t always been all bad, or all ugly, but it hasn’t always been all good, either. I’m happy with all that. I’ve got no complaints. The journey is all about getting up when I get knocked down. People say I can’t do it, but I’m on my own journey and I’ll know when it’s over. Like I said, had I lost to Adams then it was over for me.
“I’d had a terrible camp. I’d been out for 18-months and every injury that I had ever had came back and haunted me. I had demons in my head. The thing is, I carried on going and told myself that I had to come through all this if I was going to come back. Obviously one of the injuries caused the postponement of the fight [an elbow injury that forced a six-week postponement from the original date of April 16], but my elbow got better. I came through all these knocks and it helped build my confidence.
“I’m 40-years-old, I expect to get knocks and injuries. I push my body hard in training and need to make little adjustments. I try to remember that I’m not 21 and not do anything crazy, but at the same time I’ve got myself back into sparring with good, unbeaten fighters. These are guys who weren’t just there to prepare me for Adams, they were there to test if I’m still good enough despite all the injuries I had in the camp. This isn’t me making excuses – I’m just being honest with people.
“I’m not going to change at this age. It was about me discovering myself as a fighter. Check out that finish on Youtube. It was a clinical counter punch and finish after I’d hurt Adams. I’ve still got that ability. You’ll see that if I fight Price or Fury, who I’m not calling because they haven’t put a foot wrong yet, but they need to fight me to take that next step.”
Harrison’s Herculean trials and tribulations have defeated almost everyone bar the boxer and his die hard collection of fans. Defeats, poor performances and long, injury-induced hiatuses have tested the patience of even his most ardent supporters, this writer included, but the way in which Harrison has ignored calls to retire and set his mind on the positives, such as his oft-stated claim that he can win a world title, has won a few more people over.
No matter how much stick Harrison takes he continues to voice his belief in his destiny loudly and clearly. Indeed, his technique of positive visualization, which he credits with honing his mind ahead of his Olympic win, continues to hold him in good stead. Although it hasn’t always been easy to maintain. “I used that all the way through to the Haye fight,” said Harrison as talk turned to his use of this psychological technique.
“That night wasn’t mine, but people have got to realize that I’ve had it hard in my early life and have had to develop a tough mentality. Sometimes, when you take your talent for granted, then God, the universe, whatever, takes everything away and leaves you to fend for yourself, and that is what happened to me. I’ve been in the wilderness, trying to get back to the place I am today and, yeah, I do get emotional about my career.
“I was always the guy who wanted to do it his way. I used to say, ‘Don’t tell me what you think’ - that was me. I got emotional over things and you have to ask yourself, ‘Why wasn’t I able to perform for a long time?’ It is very hard when you try to operate on emotion. I felt I’d been hurt, I’d been shafted by the system and couldn’t perform, for myself or for Frank Warren, and I lost fights that I shouldn’t have lost. You know what – they were hurdles that I set for myself and I got up from all of them. Last weekend, the old Audley was back. I walked out there totally confident, I knew that I could get the job done whatever it takes and that is something I’ve come back to now.”
He added: “Price or Fury are tough guys, but I’d come out knowing I had to get the job done and as you know, a win over either of those guys moves me up the ladder. It puts me back in the mix for a world title fight. I’m more than motivated. I was back in the gym last Sunday despite knowing I had to go to the doctor’s on Monday because of my shoulder injury. I’m focused.
“Even though in the past I’ve let myself and other people down, I always had love from people telling me to keep on. I think it has a lot to do with what I can do in the ring when I turn up with all my talent and ability. The guy who fought Danny Williams second time around would have destroyed anyone. The guy who beat Richel Hersisia [in 2004's brutally artful destruction of “The Dutch Sonny Liston”] would have dealt with anyone. Adams may be a raw novice, but he was the type of guy who could really test your resolve if you didn’t have enough to hold him off. I was supposed to destroy Adams, and that is what I did.”
Despite one online wag (step forward Matt W of Boxrec) claiming that, ‘Harrison must have the biggest drawing board in the universe’, when Harrison vowed to come back strong after his loss to Sprott, the former star amateur believes that he has become a rounded individual who can use the last glowing embers of his public appeal to force himself into the reckoning. “Write Audley Harrison off at your own peril,” he stated.
“People thought they’d seen the last of me after the Haye fight. They say you can’t keep a good guy down, and I’m a good guy, so I’ll find a way. What I do know is, against Price or Fury, the public can be assured that win, lose or draw, I’m going to leave it all in the ring. There’ll be no comebacks, no more returns this time, once I’m gone I’ll be gone. After Haye, people said I was a million miles away from the Klitschkos, beat one of these guys and I’m one fight away because the Klitschkos have already mentioned the names of Price and Fury.
“Don’t think they’ll fight each other, they won’t, and they can’t fight anyone else. Fury’s beaten Rogan. Price has beaten [Sam] Sexton. Are they going to bring out Sprott? Let’s make them happen. It is a risk for them because I can land a big shot and turn it around, but that’s the beauty of it. Give me a chance to show what I can do.
“I have had the biggest learning curve in boxing. I had to destroy myself and break myself down to build myself up again. After the Haye fight, I went back to the place where I saw it as pure sport and have got things right in my head.”
Indeed, Harrison has even managed to draw a line under the BBC débâcle. The loss of his TV contract is now firmly behind him and he feels that his many setbacks only serve to make him a compelling character. “I lost the plot in 2004,” he admitted.
“Then I had to climb my way back – and that’s what I did. Now people think I’m coming to the end, but people will also think, ‘Fury or Price are fighting Audley Harrison, the man who won Olympic gold, who won the European title with one arm and destroyed Danny Williams’, and come out for it.
“I’ve always had the attitude of never giving up. I’m the man who people said had no heart, but who kept coming back. Look at how I grew up – I grew up in the ghetto. I slept on the floor and ate bread and water, or bread with some sugar on top, because I had nothing to eat. I may have had some wealth and fame later in my life, but I know what is like to have nothing.
“Before I lost to Haye, I thought my career was all over. My injuries had been bad. It was the first time I took a fight not for the glory but because it was so good a chance it was hard to turn down. This is my payback. I’m ready for any opportunities that come my way.”
As for Haye, the two men talked a good fight, fought a lousy one and shook on it during the aftermath. However, Harrison’s phone cut out just as he started to discuss their rivalry and reconciliation. That was it, my first and probably only opportunity to talk boxing with a man I had followed fervently for well over a decade – and beyond if he carries on for much longer – was done and dusted. Then the phone rang.
“Yeah, we got cut off. Where was we? Me and David, we put it all to bed,” said Harrison, who had called back to add a natural conclusion to the conversation. “We were friends when we first set out, we fought and now I wish David nothing but the best. It is behind us now. We started our journeys as two young boys, so it is nice that we put the animosity to one side and moved on in life.”
As for his own career, Harrison had one final message for the scattered members of his nomadic tribe of followers. He said: “I’ll show a few people yet. Tell them [Writer's note: The “Big Aud'”tribe, I presume] that I’m back.”
So that was Audley Harrison. Still “The Man” in the eyes of a dedicated few, still positively visualizing after all these years and, despite it all, still a force in the domestic heavyweight division. Can he do it? Yes, on his given night, but that isn't a given even on his night – therein lies the rub, and the fascination.
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