Boxing: The Big Issue

Audley HarrisonBy Andrew Wake: Last week promoter Barry Hearn announced details for his Prizefighter Series, a one evening elimination tournament to be held at Bethnal Green’s historic York Hall that will see eight of Britain’s brightest heavyweight prospects battle for the chance to win £25,000 (around $50,000 US).

All the fights will be over three rounds with the winners of the initial four bouts progressing to the semi-final stage and then the final, kind of like an FA Cup for British big men.

Because of the short scheduled distance, the fights are certain to be thrilling as combatants will have to give their all for them to have a chance of moving to the next round but will the tournament announce the presence of a British heavyweight who can go on to win world honours?

Probably not.

Ever since Lennox Lewis announced his retirement from the sport in early 2004, things have looked bleak for British heavyweight boxing and the reduced water level in the talent pool appears a long way from being topped back up.

Britain’s greatest hope for further glory at the top of what was once boxing’s glamour division once laid with Audley Harrison. The southpaw from Wembley seemed to have all the ingredients needed for a very successful career. He stood at nearly six and half feet tall, had an abundance of power and came with a stellar amateur pedigree that culminated in him, like Lennox had in 1988, winning the Olympic Super-heavyweight gold medal.

The BBC clearly thought a lot of Audley’s prospects because in 2001 they paid him £1 million for the rights to broadcast his first ten contests, an unbelievable amount of money for someone who had never fought without the vest and headguard on. On his pro debut against Floridian club fighter Mike Middleton, he certainly looked the part as he blasted the American away in the opening round. The reality though is that any half decent fighter would have destroyed Middleton in similar fashion.

Harrison continued racking up wins against low calibre opponents while proclaiming himself to be an undisputed world champion in the making but the British public soon grew tired of his boasts and called for him to face some sterner opposition. Quality domestic clashes with Matt Skelton, Danny Williams and Michael Sprott were discussed but Audley didn’t seem interested and instead went down the road that led to fight for the lowly regarded WBF trinket against a man who called himself “The Dutch Sonny Liston” Richel Hersisia.

Audley was cautious early in the fight as he pawed with his jab but in the fourth he eventually threw caution to the wind and did the business, knocking out the stocky Dutchman with a combination that was as good as you’ll see from any big man.

After the win, Audley told the media “I’m a force to be reckoned with, a heavyweight with a future and I believe I’m the future of British boxing on the world scene”

While the way he closed the show against Hersisia was impressive, the victory (and more of his boasts) did little to win over the critics, who by now had dubbed the big Londoner “Fraudley”.

Before the summer of 2004 was out, Harrison scored wins over Julius Francis and an unbeaten but unknown Pole called Tomasz Bonin (a man now more famous for being blasted away in one round by David Haye last year) before being forced to take a year away from the sport with a serious hand injury. At the age of 34 and with little depth to his record it seemed that that Londoner was about as close to winning a legitimate world title as Paris Hilton was to becoming a nun.

As all this was going on, one of Harrison’s mooted opponents Danny Williams was looking for bigger things as he recovered from losing his British title to Reading’s Michael Sprott. First up, in April 2004, was one Ratko Draskovic – an aging Serbian who had a year earlier taken Harrison the distance in an eight rounder. Williams blew the Serb away in 136 seconds.

Williams at this point held a ledger of 29 wins against only three losses but seemed a long way from a shot at a legitimate world crown. With this in mind, he aimed for the fringe WBU title (a belt popular with fighters promoted by Frank Warren) and took on a once beaten African named Augustin N’Gou for that organisation’s International crown. After a serious beating, N’Gou quit on his stool before the start of the fourth, claiming to have torn his bicep.

The trajectory of Danny’s career changed, however, when Kevin McBride of Ireland pulled out of a proposed meeting with Mike Tyson. Danny was only happy to step into the fray and take on a fighter who had once been the most feared man in the whole of boxing.

In a result that shocked the world, Danny aced the Tyson test by surviving an early onslaught and stopping the man said to be the world’s baddest in the fourth round with series of clubbing rights. While this win put Williams’ name on the world scene, it gave people a false view of his ability as the fact of the matter was that Tyson was 38 years old, had not been in action for 17 months and was past his best by over a decade.

Proof that a W next to Tyson’s name on your record is like winning the lottery, came when it was confirmed that Williams would face the newly crowned WBC kingpin Vitali Klitschko in Las Vegas. Williams would be destroyed by the giant Ukrainian in eight of the most one- sided rounds ever seen in a heavyweight championship fight.

The dream of another British world heavyweight champion slipped away again.

In early 2005 British and Commonwealth champion Matt Skelton, who had won his crowns by knocking out Williams’ conquer Michael Sprott, was awaiting his chance to showcase his ability. He won the WBU title by beating Argentina’s Fabio Moli but was not satisfied with this bauble and wanted to prove himself the best heavyweight in Britain before stepping onto the world stage.

An eagerly anticipated fight with Audley Harrison had fallen by the wayside the previous year and so, with Harrison taking time away with the aforementioned hand injury, the Bedford brawler aimed for a meeting with Williams.

Contracts were signed for a meeting in Bolton on a bill that would also feature the pro debut of 2004 Athens Olympian Amir Khan but, on the day of the fight, Williams pulled out, claiming he was suffering from flu. Promoter Frank Warren told the media that he would not be promoting anymore of Williams’ fights and called for the “Brixton Bomber” to hang up his gloves. Skelton knocked out late substitute Mark Krence instead.

After a proposed December date with Ireland’s Kevin McBride, another man who had gotten the better of Tyson, fell through Skelton found himself out in the British heavyweight cold again as messers Harrison and Williams squared off at the ExCel Arena in London.

The Harrison versus Williams bout was hyped up as the greatest all British heavyweight meeting since Lennox Lewis took on Frank Bruno at Cardiff Arms Park over 12 years earlier. 14,000 people packed into the Arena expecting fireworks but instead they endured a contest so drab that it makes last weekend’s Klitschko vs Ibragimov fight look like a toe to toe war. The crowd duly showed their disappointment by booing and chanting “What a load of rubbish, what a load of rubbish.”

Williams seldom came forward, but when he did, fear would engulf Harrison’s face and the Olympic gold medallist spent the most part of the early and middle rounds on the back foot, flicking out soft jabs that screamed “Please don’t hit me.”

There was some action to talk about in the tenth round as Williams threw a looping right hand that detonated on Harrison’s head and dropped the big southpaw into the ropes. Harrison got up at the count of eight and survived the round by repeatedly holding and smothering Williams’ work.

Audley had some success himself in the eleventh when he rocked Williams with a straight left. He could not sustain his attack though and after twelve rounds were completed, Williams left the cavernous arena with a split decision victory. The truth was; neither man really deserved to win.

British heavyweight boxing had probably just descended to its lowest ever point.

Williams would return to the ExCel just two months later and take on Bedford’s undefeated Matt Skelton. There would be no sickness this time as the “Brixton Bomber”, turned up in fighting shape for a change and out hustled Skelton in a foul-filled contest to win by another split decision.

At the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff in July 2006, the pair would get it on again but this time it was an altogether different ending as Skelton boxed cleverly and eeked out a unanimous but extremely close decision in another fight that was poor by top level standards and a bad advertisement for the state of the heavyweight scene in the UK.

Since then we’ve seen a British heavyweight merry-go-round. In December 2006 Audley Harrison returned, stating that his previous poor showings (one of which had seen him outpointed by American nearlyman Dominic Guinn in another borefest) was due to his celebrity lifestyle and a lack of focus. He said this time he meant business and was bringing his “A game” to his return fight with Danny Williams. In a clash that had more action in the opening round than their entire meeting a year earlier, Harrison destroyed Williams, stopping him in the third round with some powerful uppercuts.

“2007, I’ll win a world title.” Harrison said, in his post fight interview “2008, I’m going to be undisputed.”

Audley was then pitched against perennial British and European contender Michael Sprott, with the winner due to face Matt Skelton in what promoter Frank Warren said would be effectively a world title eliminator.

Harrison started confidently and, in the opening round, he landed a clubbing left hand that sent Sprott to the canvas. It seemed as though the big Olympian was going to have an easy night and coast to a match up with Skelton.

Audley was still in control throughout the second stanza but then, in the third, things changed dramatically. Harrison pushed Sprott back and threw a hopeful uppercut, leaving his jaw high in the air. Sprott, instinctively, unleashed a looping left hook that exploded on Harrison’s chin and detached him from his senses. There was a lot of luck about how the ending came but two things appeared certain; One, Sprott had just scored a knockout of the year contender and Two, any hopes Harrison held of being a world champion were effectively over.

And so came, Sprott v Skelton and the chance of a world title tilt. I’ve got to admit, when Frank Warren said the winner would be likely to get a crack at a legitimate world crown, I was dubious. Warren is well known for promising big match ups and not delivering and the twelve rounds that followed seemed to give the cockney promoter an excuse to wriggle out of it.

In a fight that would be best described as a stinker, the two combatants mauled their way through twelve rounds and Bedford’s Matt Skelton walked away with the victory but not, it seemed, the chance of a world title match up.

Speaking to the BBC the following day, Frank Warren said “After what happened last night I'm going to have a job getting either of those guys a chance.”

He added “There's no consistency in the British heavyweight division and that makes it difficult to get people interested in them. One minute they're in a good fight and the next they're in a terrible one. They're difficult to sell.”

Then, in early December, there was a dramatic turn around as it was announced that the “Bedford Bear”, who didn’t turn pro until he was 35, would indeed challenge for a world title against Hamberg based Uzbekistani Ruslan Chageav. The latter’s WBA bauble being on the line. Warren had, surprisingly, delivered the goods.

As all you knowledgeable Eastside readers will know, Skelton boxed well during the opening few rounds of his title challenge but, as the fight progressed, the champion took control and won with a deserved unanimous decision. The dream of British world champion disintegrated again.

So what for the future? Well, it’s said that Danny Williams could square off against James Toney in what would be a WBC eliminator that neither man really deserves to be in.

Even if (and it’s a big if) Williams is to get past Toney and then beat the winner of upcoming Maskeav vs. Peter fight, which seems highly unlikely, I don’t foresee the Brixton man having much of reign as a belt holder. Yes he’s an exciting fighter with a big heart but I don’t think he’s got the skills to fend of the division’s elite for long, if at all.

What about the prospects?

Well there are unbeaten British big men such as Derek Chisora, Sam Sexton and David Dolan slowly making names for themselves but, from what I’ve seen, they don’t look like the type of pugs that will progress to upper echelons of what is, to be honest, a pretty weak division. They could progress to contender level at domestic or European level but that’s all.

I want to sign off by saying the following. Whilst I don’t necessarily believe he will win his cruiserweight unification against Enzo Maccarinelli this coming weekend I will say this; if there is any hope for British heavyweight boxing at world title standard, then it rests with the Hayemaker.

Article posted on 06.03.2008

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