Audley Harrison: The Lost Dream

24.07.05 - By Peter Cameron: I can still vividly remember dragging myself into my living room at some ungodly hour to tune into the 2000 Sydney Olympics for the super-heavyweight final. I had to be at work in under six hours but I didn't care. After 32 years of near-misses, Britain was finally about to win its first boxing gold since Chris Finnegan's heroics in 1968..

Audley Harrison looked magnificent, a giant of a man with a perfect physique, good technical ability and an infectious smile. He had charisma in buckets and an intelligence which is rare amongst the average heavyweight. He comfortably won that final and my thoughts immediately turned to how far he could go in the professional ranks. Could he be Lennox Lewis' successor, the baton passing from one colossal Brit to another? Would the most prestigious title in world sport remain in the hands of the British in the form of Audley Harrison? My mind raced with uncontrollable excitement. Forget trying to sleep; I was witnessing the beginning of the next great chapter of heavyweight history.

Five years later, 18 fights into the journey, and that dream has all but died. Only the most optimistic British boxing fan still clings onto the belief that Harrison can go all the way. A 28 year old Olympic champion, steeped in potential and oozing charisma, has been cruelly replaced with a 33 year old inactive, plodding heavyweight who struggles to defeat journeymen.

After each infrequent fight, Harrison spells out his masterplan, usually finishing by claiming "this will be my year" before disappearing off the radar for months, only to re-emerge to fight another journeyman. "2005 will be my year" proclaimed Audley in June, after his victory over Robert Davis. It's now almost August and that solitary victory is still Harrison's only outing so far this year. If this is his idea of progress, I dread to hear him ever say "I'm going to take it easy for a bit". We might never see him again!

Harrison seems to have everything. He is huge, standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and fighting at over 18 stone. He has talent; surely you don't win an Olympic gold without excellent technical ability. He is also extremely marketable, a good-looking, bubbly character, articulate for a boxer, charming in front of the camera. Yet some vital ingredients are missing. He seems to lack dedication, something essential in this most gruelling of sports. Perhaps this statement is unfair, given the hard
training he undoubtedly had to do to win Olympic gold. However, the celebrity status he instantly received in the UK by winning in Sydney distracted him from boxing. For the six months after winning gold, Harrison reportedly attended more celebrity functions than he threw punches! When he did finally turn up in a ring, making his pro debut against the not-so-scary Mike Middleton, his abdomen had lost much of the toning visible in Sydney. In short, he looked fat.

Against a succession of smaller, inept opponents, Harrison has only looked good in short spurts, and has struggled to close out fights in any style. As he has advanced to six and eight round fights, his stamina has also come under scrutiny. He sometimes goes minutes without throwing a single punch, and his footwork is usually static and ponderous. The flurry of punches with which he stopped Robert Davis in his last fight was impressive, but for the rest of the fight Harrison's workrate was poor. When he throws combinations he is an intimidating sight, with good hand-speed and concussing power. The trouble is he seems scared to push himself too hard, perhaps aware that his fitness is lacking. Harrison fights are very frustrating to watch, with him too big to ever be threatened by his limited opponent, but rarely opening up and showing us his array of skills.

After Sydney, Harrison was the main attraction for British boxing. He headlined bills on prime-time UK television, appeared in newspapers, magazines and on chat-shows. Yet five years is a long time. Harrison is no longer the reigning Olympic champion (Russia's Alexander Povetkin holds that title and won his pro debut on 11th June against an opponent by the name of Muhammed Ali!) and British attention has turned to the truly exceptional Amir Khan. Add in Ricky Hatton's tremendous win over
Kosta Tszyu, combined with Harrison's inactivity, and poor old Audley has dropped considerably down the pecking order. He is becoming more famous for the nicknames associated to him (take your pick from "Fraudley", "Ordinary" and "Audrey") than for his boxing ability. That infectious, charismatic smile has been replaced with an over-used, empty growl of "this will be my year". Audley is no longer box office.

I still remember the thrill I felt that night in 2000 as Audley won gold and his name was added to a list which includes the likes of Ali, Frazier, Foremen, Lewis and Cuban greats Stevenson and Savon. Now, in 2005, I realise that Audley's victory did mark the next chapter of heavyweight history, though not in the way I first envisaged. Never before has the division been so weak. I had always thought that only an exceptionally talented boxer could win Olympic heavyweight gold. Harrison's failings prove this theory wrong. If he does go all the way to a world title, my feeling will be that it is a reflection of the dearth of talent in the division rather than any great ability on his part. Yet I would still cheer if he did bring a belt home to Britain. Whilst I hate his inactivity and lack of progress, I would still drag myself up in the middle of the night to watch him fight for the championship. My fear though is that the highlight of his career has already come and gone, that glinting gold fading like a setting sun.

Article posted on 24.07.2005

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