Audley Harrison Must Test Himself If He Is To Fulfil His Burgeoning Potential

12.05.04 - By Andrew Mullinder: For a man with such generous boxing ability and proven business acumen, Audley Harrison perhaps makes life unnecessarily difficult for himself. Watching Harrison cruise to yet another predictable and tedious points victory, this time against the hopelessly outclassed Julius Francis, it was impossible not to see the Olympic Super-Heavyweight Champion’s latest offering as little more than a pointed allegory of his career so far.

As an opponent, Francis was definitely a step in the right direction. While Harrison’s first 15 fights have been against a cynical, ‘no-risk’ combination of part-timers, incompetents and blown up Cruiserweights, who had somehow managed, for the most part, to compile winning records, Francis provided a welcome mirror image. Holding an uninspiring record of 23-16 (12), Francis, has been a stalwart of the British and European scene over the last seven or so years, and it is worth noting that his losses have, on the whole, come against British and European title holders, or ‘World level’ boxers such as Vilali Klitschko, Mike Tyson, and John Ruiz.

While Francis boasts credible performances in his last few fights, going the distance with Matt Skelton, and Luan Kranski – British and European Champion respectively – these performances were tarnished by a chronic negativity on Julius’ part, and it could be said that once he ventures into anything like a decent standard, his chances become extremely limited.

Many observers (including this one) may conclude that for a self proclaimed ‘future world champion’, an opponent such as Francis would have provided a more ideal test before his 16th fight, however, it was a rare opportunity for Harrison to dilute some of the British public’s mocking cynicism with a shining performance against a known reference point. As one reporter put it, "unlike anyone else Audley has faced so far, you didn’t have to be intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the amateur fight scene in Croatia, or in possession of an illustrated ‘Who’s Who’ of Bulgarian pub landlords, to be able to put a name to the face".

Instead of grasping the opportunity to put some populist expectation back into his career, Harrison displayed the contemptible, safety first attitude, which has been the trade mark of his career so far. While Harrison understandably began by jabbing and moving and taking a look at his vastly more experienced foe, Francis, even against Audley’s early, pitter-patter attacks, displayed little ambition beyond putting his gloves to his face and tucking his elbows into his sides while punctuating this perpetual defence with the occasional aimless swing. Even in the first few rounds, where Francis offered roughly the same amount of movement expected at the old people’s home during chair aerobics, it was painfully obvious that an early victory was there for Harrison’s taking. If Audley was concerned about facing protracted stubbornness from Francis and running out of steam over 12 rounds (a distance he has never travelled), he should have gathered confidence from the fact he was tattooing his almost static target’s head with his southpaw jab, and his usually smooth, tight combinations were finding the mark whenever they were thrown in anger.

Many will argue that is fatuous to criticise a man who negotiated a £1 million ($1.7 million), ten fight contract and made himself the most talked about boxer in the UK before his first professional fight, and has since built a professional record of 16-0 (11). However, his performance against Francis was clearly that of a man boxing well within himself, using the fight simply as a chance to go the full twelve rounds for the first time. Whether it is in the selection of opponents, the time scale of progression, or his performances during fights, this sort of attitude has pervaded Harrison’s career. It is easy to see the method behind the madness, but if he does not give himself a genuine challenge in the ring soon, or start really pushing himself during fights, madness it will still be.

Make no mistake, Harrison has improved markedly since his lacklustre early showings, and he definitely has the potential to become world champion – especially in an era of chronic heavyweight depravity. He now has an impressively conditioned 245lb physique to match his intimidating 6’6’’ frame, his jab is fast becoming the effective tool behind which all his work is built, his footwork is improving (particularly when cutting off the ring), and he has started to really sit down on his punches, which have been shortened and are now to be delivered in sharp clusters. Yet real improvement in boxing comes fastest when a prospect is given tough challenges with each fight, challenges which offer vigorous examination of skills. This has happened not once in Harrison’s career. As yet, he has not faced a single opponent with anything more than a ‘lucky punch’ chance of victory.

It is understandable that Harrison and his team want to make his progression toward a World Title shot as smooth and calamity-free as possible – especially in an era where unbeaten records have so much influence over fans, but unless Harrison is faced with an opponent who can at least put up a spirited argument, he may find the jump insurmountable when a World Title holder does; at the very least he will find he becomes susceptible to bad habits and his improvements slow to a snails pace. If Miguel Cotto, the stellar Pueto-Rican Light Welterweight prospect, had lost when he made an early visit to world class by facing in-form Lovemore N’Dou last Saturday, he would have learned more in that defeat than he would have by fighting ten journeymen. Joe Louis benefited from his early career loss to Max Schmeling. People criticised his managers, Jack Blackburn and John Roxborough, for pushing Louis too hard too fast, but they knew Louis was a diamond in the rough who would only be polished by such encounters. Louis learned from this defeat, became a better fighter and went on to become one of the most dominant heavyweight champions of all time.

Apparently, Harrison has entered talks with Frank Warren with a view to a match against current British Heavyweight Champion, Matt Skelton. Skelton is clumsy and a mere novice himself, but his swarming style, bulk, and clubbing, heavy blows would at least pose Harrison some tough questions. If Audley doesn’t take this sort of fight soon, and follow it with similar and progressively tougher challenges, his record may well continue to improve at a rate of knots, but his full potential will remain unfulfilled, and he will find himself ominously under prepared for life at the sharp end.

Article posted on 12.05.2004

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