By Terence Dooley
Since the late-1990s I have lived under a delusion, the belief that Audley "A-Force" Harrison would become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
At one point, around the time of his 2000 Olympic super heavyweight gold medal win, this belief seemed reasonable and attainable. By March 2004 it seemed a nailed on inevitability, Harrison had just produced a fourth-round KO win over Richel Hersisia AKA "The Dutch Sonny Liston", would appear on the front of The Ring — as one of their heavyweight hopes alongside Dominic Guinn, who's own career never took quite off but who still managed to out-point Harrison in their May 2006 "unrealised potential" crossroads fight — and had the patronage of Lennox Lewis.
What could possibility go wrong?
In short, almost everything.
Earlier today, Harrison retired aged 41 with a 31-7 (23) record after suffering a first-round stoppage against Deontay Wilder at Sheffield Motorpoint Arena on Saturday night. It was his second single round loss in the space of six-months — David Price knocked him out in one during a British and Commonwealth heavyweight title defence in October.
Only a few years after the Hersisia win, Harrison's big money BBC deal was dead in the water, as was the network's long-term involvement in boxing, which Audley was blamed for despite viewing figures that were relatively healthy at the start — he brought in a 5.4 million peak in his pro debut, although the figure dipped to 1.5 million by the time the network aired his win over Wade Lewis in October 2002 — and Harrison had lost back-to-back fights against Danny Williams and Guinn, on ITV and U.S. TV respectively. His career was in tatters and the bright spots, such as his revenge third-round TKO win over Williams in December 2006 were quickly followed by disaster, Harrison was knocked out by Michael Sprott in the third-round of his next fight.
Even the good news, such as the 8 million viewers for the first Williams fight, ITV's biggest sporting audience of 2005 outside Liverpool's Champions League final win over AC Milan, was mixed with bad, Harrison-Williams 1 was a poor fight until the final three rounds and was a poor, high-profile advert for the sport.
Still, Audley dusted himself down after every loss, went back to what must be the biggest drawing board in the world and always came back, even if it was only to help himself to a few Prizefighter crowns — he won the tournament in 2009 as well as winning it earlier this year. Throw in an EBU title win, gaining revenge over Sprott with an amazing, and improbable final round KO in April 2010, the WBF belt, he picked that one up when he hammered Hersisia, and a world title challenge, a third-round TKO loss to then-WBA titlist David Haye in November 2010, and you have a storied, at times chaotic and always compelling career, if not the one he visualised when belatedly making his pro bow with that single stanza icing of Mike Middleton in May 2001.
Harrison has now joined the ranks of former fighters. His career has been a mixed bag, but he brought a lot of attention to boxing, in particular amateur boxing, and successive amateur squads have benefited from his Olympic Games victory by virtue of greater funding and attention. His pro career may never have hit the same heights, but he found boxing late in life, turned his back on juvenile delinquency and, despite it all, thrilled his devoted followers, this writer included, by throwing us the odd glory night. He didn't deserve the blame for the BBC's decision to turn their back on boxing, nor did he deserve to be booed when on the canvas against Michael Sprott in their first meeting, what he does deserve is a nod of acknowledgement and our best wishes as he heads into retirement. The Big Aud' bandwagon has come to a shuddering halt, and it was probably the right time for it to do so. We wish him well.