Audley Harrisons professional progress

12.11.03 - By Andrew Mullinder: After his Super-Heavyweight victory at the Sydney Olympics, Audley Harrison was a national hero, yet his fall from this peak of popularity in Britain has been more acute than any sportsman should experience. From day one, Harrison has been on a put on a pedestal to be knocked down; from day one, a combination of circumstances and his own relentless self promotion have made him a millionaire while exposing him to huge amounts of public scrutiny, setting impossible (both real and imagined) targets and created a public relations disaster. So, how has Harrison progressed? Is he the white elephant many in the UK would believe? Or is he a genuine – and genuinely under appreciated – future World Champion?

The timing of Harrison’s decision to turn professional could not have been more profitable or ultimately so unfortunate. After the BBC had decided to re-introduce boxing to standard, free-to-view TV for the first time since the mid-nineties glory days of Eubank and Benn, it came as no surprise that the first British Olympic boxing Champion for thirty two years was chosen to headline the coverage. However, what did come as a surprise was the senseless amount of public money the BBC parted with in order to sign Harrison. Even when sport’s current predilection towards financial insanity is considered, it was risible that the BBC should be caught up in the zealous patriotic optimism which surrounded Audley’s Olympic victory to the extent where they paid what was – at the very least – an over inflated price of one million pounds, to sign a boxer without a single professional fight.

After such a deal one thing would have been clearly understood by each party: they needed to justify the massive signing fee through subsequent ratings; Audley to the BBC and the BBC to the general public. To build ratings to levels which would validate a million pound contract, the post Olympic afterglow was ruthlessly played on – building expectations beyond all recourse. Harrison presented himself as a fighter who had already achieved greatness and would be able to fight accordingly, rather than the novice he was: “I’ll be Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World”, “I’ll be British Champion within five fights”, “I am A-Force to be reckoned with on the Heavyweight scene” were just some of the arrogant assumptions which flowed with unwise haste out of Harrison’s mouth in the early days. Fanning the flames was the BBC who after paying such a ludicrous sum had to give Audley the air time with which to indulge in as much empty self-promotion as he wished.

Unfortunately, and inevitably, the reality did not match up to the hype. Harrison’s early fights were all against dreadfully poor opposition but were not even always the entertaining knockouts which often occur when a high quality prospect is fed a poor opponent. On the contrary, Harrison often laboured past his part time door men and incompetents, struggling to find his style or indeed any rudimentary technique in the professional ranks. After seeing these early fights, the BBC must have been desperately disappointed, and the public definitely were – they voted with their remote controls, turning off Harrison’s fights in unprecedented numbers.

As all politicians know: fail to deliver on your own promises at your own peril!! And herein lies the problem; Harrison had been forced and had put himself into a position where he was starting at the top, not the bottom; he was expected to be a champion when still an apprentice. A ‘normal’ prospect would be allowed time to iron out the stylistic changes needed to compete in the professional ranks and get rid of any technical deficiencies. A ‘normal’ fighter would fight the standard tomato cans in his first few fights without any pressure to move up in class. In fact, a ‘normal’ prospect probably wouldn’t even have to answer any of these questions because he would be hidden away on the under card. Not Audley though, and frankly, despite of all this, I have little sympathy for him.

It is not unreasonable for a fighter who promotes himself as the ‘next big thing’ and who speaks of himself with such self importance to be judged by those standards. It is not unreasonable for a future Undisputed Champion to be expected to utterly decimate opponents of the quality of Derek McCafferty. And it is very reasonable indeed to expect that a fighter who is destined for great things to look special from the start – I have only to look at videos of Oscar De La Hoya or Mike Tyson to see that; and realistically, after watching Harrison’s dreary performances, even the most optimistic would have been pushed to imagine him as an Undisputed World Champion.

Compared to others who have achieved the boxing greatness Harrison would have us believe is his to come (and even some ‘ordinary prospects’ today) Harrison looked poor. He did not have the dominating jab one would expect from a man of his height; his punches came from the arm, showing little progression from his amateur style; he was available to be hit by modest boxers; he lacked in aggression; he was robotic and had little fluidity; and his foot movement seemed cumbersome and slow.

Amid criticisms of the quality of both his opponents and his performances, Harrison and his supporters regurgitated the mantra: ‘the quality of Audley Harrison’s opponents is as good if not better than that of any other prospect at this stage of their career. We are still on course for our targets and will not be rushed’ and it is true that this is statistically the case. For instance, the cumulative records of Harrison’s first thirteen opponents have been: 201-54-7 as opposed to Dominik Guinn’s: 47-85-8, or Joe Mesi’s: 62-85-0. Furthermore, Harrison had fought nine opponents out of eleven who had won more fights than they had lost, that’s nine more than Joe Mesi after eleven fights and eight more than Dominik Guinn. Yet after reading statistics like these I could only wonder how excruciatingly bad the poor saps who had given these men winning records were.

Harrison has picked his opponents well: they were self-evidently a cynical, ‘no-risk’ combination of part-timers, incompetents and blown up Cruiserweights, but with the benefit that they, for the most part, had winning records. Mark Krence for example had a perfect, 11-0 record before fighting Harrison – surely a tough match for your fourth fight. Not when you consider Krence had only once fought a man with anything like a winning record. Perhaps Rob Calloway, with his record of 44-4-1 is the sort of fighter we were looking for, or maybe not when you consider he was fighting at 175lbs as recently as four years ago and failed in an attempt to wrestle the pathetic IBA Cruiserweight trinket of the unknown Kenny Keene in 1999.

In this atmosphere of chronic disappointment it became clear Harrison was in for a bumpy ride but ‘bumpy ride’ hardly gets close to the acerbic backlash which went beyond criticism or derision and sunk to the depths of schoolyard name calling. He was called ‘Fraudley’ and ‘Audrey’; ‘Gay-Force’ and ‘A-Farce’.

Realistically, Harrison’s early matches were the sort of fare we expect from prospects: easy fights so the continual improvements which are always needed can be made without danger of defeat. In this context it is clear that the abuse Harrison received was far too harsh. When, exactly, was a potentially lucrative boxer given constantly tricky opponents early in his career? It is the performance, rather than the quality of the opposition which counts in formative fights, and while his efforts in the early bouts were far from acceptable, it is in this area that Harrison, who has recently shown signs of strong and sustained improvement, could argue he has a future in the fight game. While his defence was still a touch leaky, Audley showed in-fighting skills which could have been those of a green Riddick Bowe when stopping Matthew Ellis, his adept cutting off of the ring against Quinn Navarre was bested in quality only by the perfect left cross which separated the American journeyman from his senses in the third round, and it was gratifying to see him sitting down on some nice, short, crisp punches in his knock out of Lisandro Diaz.

Harrison’s problem is one which many sportsman today experience: he has been held up as if he were a great sportsman before he had even started, while in fact he could never hope live up to the public’s overblown expectation. While Harrison fuelled this expectation with a continuous flow of hyperbolic flotsam and jetsam, the BBC is far from blame in this sorry public relations disaster; their initial contract forced a novice to perform as an established champion. Hopefully, at least this unfortunate saga will show that Harrison can not assume greatness and the associated financial rewards, and show the BBC how to promote prospects properly.

While I believe this situation is almost totally of Harrison’s and the BBC’s own making and therefore do not have any sympathy for either party, I hope Harrison is allowed to progress toward his targets without such histrionic adulation or the outrageous abuse which followed. I don’t believe Harrison has quite shown the skills that would point towards an Undisputed World Champion: his defence will cause him trouble against better opponents, he hasn’t demonstrated he has the power to really damage at heavyweight, he stands a bit upright – dulling his ability to move smoothly, and at 32 years old he is perhaps a bit old to improve dramatically beyond his current state.

I do believe however, that if you scrape away the sludge and detritus surrounding Harrison, he has shown enough, in this day of World Championship fragmentation and Heavyweight depravity, to get his shot and maybe even take a major version of the title.

Article posted on 12.11.2003

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