Skelton ready to end Harrison’s hopes of redemption

28.11.06 - Interview by Cris Neill: “My dream would be to fight for a major world title,” Matt Skelton admits to Eastside Boxing. He checks his vision of future glory before continuing; “But to be realistic it all lies in the hands of the promoters; it’s down to whether Frank Warren can get that big fight.”

Skelton, 39, has few illusions about the nature of his profession. But it’s the wisdom of maturity – as a man, as a fighter – which Skelton radiates, rather than weariness. He adds: “I look at Ricky Hatton and he was talking about world title fights when I first started, and then eventually he got his fight.

“Now Joe Calzaghe, he’s in the same sort of situation. He wants a big player in the game, a major fight; he’s been talking about it for a couple of years as well.

“But you’ve got to be realistic, otherwise you become disheartened and think ‘I can’t be bothered, the sport’s all a bit of a farce.’ Or you can just say ‘No, it’s a job, it’s your chosen career, ultimately you’re enjoying it, you’ve just got to get on with it and take each fight as it comes.’.

If Skelton’s time as a professional boxer has taught him that a fighter’s career often progresses with glacial slowness, it hasn’t diminished his appetite for the game: “I just like the training. Sometimes you go into a session and you know what’s in store for you, and you have to grit your teeth to get through it but afterwards you always think ‘I’m glad I did that.’”

“I’ve always been involved in sport at some level and I don’t mind the roadwork, or being in the gym. I find it harder to stay out of the gym. Obviously there’s always the danger that you’re going to do too much. When Kevin [Sanders] comes in to train me for the fights, he helps to monitor it, to make sure I’m not overdoing it.”

The Commonwealth heavyweight champion is currently immersed in training ahead of his fight with Audley Harrison at London’s ExCel Arena on December 9. It’s being dubbed as ‘Last Chance Saloon’ and there is a sense that in Harrison’s case, at least, the hype is accurate. After dropping decisions to Danny Williams and Dominick Guinn, the man once touted as the saviour of heavyweight boxing is fast running out of options. Undoubtedly, this is a ‘must-win’ fight for Harrison, 34, but there’s also an argument that in facing an opponent as dangerous and relentless as Skelton, he’s effectively committing professional suicide.

How things have changed. A few years ago, this fight would have been perceived very differently, as a mere stepping stone in Harrison’s progression towards becoming a world champion. On the face of it, we would have a classic set-up: boxer versus mauler, the relentless aggression of Skelton versus the technical excellence of Harrison.

Six years on from the Sydney Olympics, public respect for Harrison’s gold medal and his fighting heart has dimmed. A risible showing against Danny Williams in December last year confirmed suspicions that while the big man possessed undoubted skills, these masked an essential lack of heart and determination.

It’s easy to attack Harrison, not least because he so readily provides critics with ammunition. It boils down to his belief that it’s possible to succeed in professional boxing without being able to take a punch or exposing yourself to physical pain.

As Harrison himself once said: “Boxing requires more elements than toughness to be successful.” Which is fine, if you want to stick to the points-scoring way of the amateur. But in the professional ranks, there inevitably comes a point when you actually have to step into the ring, show some aggression and maybe take a chance against an opponent. You can’t calculate your way to becoming a world champion. There is no ‘safe’ way to win titles – at least if you want to win a title worth holding, and it's pretty easy to keep hold of an unbeaten record if you choose not to fight, or if you have to, make sure you're pitted against opponents who could kindly be described as lacklustre.

Harrison’s fight with Danny Williams was a watershed. During his first truly competitive fight, Harrison displayed the same reaction to aggression that Superman does when confronted with Kryptonite. He stuttered and stalled, he ran and smothered. It wasn’t the Sweet Science, more a desperate examinee trying to fudge questions he had no answer to. This first defeat was followed by an equally dismal performance against Dominick Guinn in April, in which the A Force proved himself again to be a Spent Force.

The fight against Skelton is a lifeline for Harrison, but places him under enormous pressure. Nothing less than an extremely convincing win will persuade the public that he’s the real deal.

It’s a curious inversion of the normal logic of a boxing match. The champion, reason dictates, is the one who should be feeling the weight of expectation, while the challenger, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, is free from such distractions.

But then again, Matt Skelton is no ordinary boxer. First, there is his unusual career path. Skelton laid the foundations for his career as a kickboxer, fighting in front of huge crowds in Japan and Thailand. In person, he’s realistic and well-balanced, refreshingly lacking in bombast. And unlike his opponent on December 9, he doesn’t once refer to himself in the third person.

“Audley has good boxing technique,” Skelton admits, “but at the same time I don’t think he’s that superior. I don’t see anything there which makes me go ‘Wow’. He’s no Roy Jones Jnr of the heavyweight division, and he’s nothing to overawe me.

Both Harrison and Skelton experienced a career-defining moment during their fights with Danny Williams. In Harrison’s case, it led to ignominy. Skelton too, lost his first fight with the Brixton bomber.

That first encounter saw head-butts, elbows, shoving, and even the occasional punch. It may not have been pretty, but it was in vivid contrast to the turgid out-pointing of Harrison by Williams.

Williams won the decision, and the fight reinforced the public perception of Matt Skelton as a game, but relatively unsophisticated brawler who met his comeuppance at the hands of an arguably superior boxer.

Rematches are often disappointing affairs – the rawness of the first encounter disappears as both fighters approach each other with cautious respect.

But it appeared that Williams had miscalculated. Anticipating another 12 rounds of rough-house treatment, he had weighed in at a ponderous 20 stone.

Skelton surprised everyone – possibly even himself – by out-boxing Williams for much of the fight. He kept the Brixton fighter at arm’s length with his jab, moved with surprising nimbleness; in short, everything that he wasn’t expected to do, and boxed – rather than pummelled and battered – his way to victory.

“The second time around we picked up a hand injury,” he says, “and I also got cut in training. Obviously, we tried to keep this to ourselves, not to let it get out, because it could give your opponent a psychological edge .

“I definitely didn’t want to call the fight off. I thought that if I stopped sparring my eye would heal up. Danny came very heavy into the fight, and I could tell he was looking to have a war again, like the first match.

“I didn’t care what anyone told me – at 20 stone, you cannot be mobile over 12 rounds,” he points out drily. “He’s 6’1” or 6’ 2” guy. You look at Valuev – even he’s lost three stone to come down to just under 20 stone.

“I knew that to jab and move, to throw combinations, would be the ideal fight. Having said that, if my hand hadn’t gone in the second round, I believe I could have mixed it a bit more with Danny. Whether that would have been to my detriment, I don’t know."

If Skelton can demonstrate effective boxing skills, does this mean that Harrison, too, may surprise us with a change in strategy and come out throwing punches with bad intentions? Judging from his performance in the Williams fight, this is unlikely. Whatever Williams’ merits as a boxer, it cannot be denied that he can pack a punch; as Mike Tyson will testify. Harrison cannot boast of such an arsenal – or has never deigned to use it.

It’s also worth remembering that Harrison collapsed when he was caught with a half-decent punch by Williams – a cuffing shot which sent him stumbling back into the ropes. It seems likely that relentless pressure of the kind of that Skelton applies so effectively will find him wanting again, and he will probably attempt to keep the storm at bay with his jab.

“I think there’ll be more to him than that,” says Skelton generously. “I don’t know Audley very well but I think he’s definitely one of those fighters who wants to be liked by the public, and he’s come back here and I think he wants to prove a point.

“Whether he’ll think ‘let me go toe to toe with Matt to prove to everyone that I’ve got heart,’ well I don’t know. Ultimately you could say that he’s going to stick and move, stick and move, but you just don’t know. If he sticks and moves and I allow him to do that then he’s picking up points, and I’ve got to close that down.

“Fortunately for me, I feel I can adapt to whatever happens. If I go into the ring and in the first three minutes of that fight I will know I will approach things. You can only plan so much, but at the same time he’s planning to fight me as well – ‘Is Matt going to come and roughhouse it, or is he going to try to box and move like he did against Danny?’ He’s got two aspects of me to think about – with him, people know him as the stick-and-move man.”

It may be that Harrison has learned nothing from his two defeats. Certainly, the signs do not look promising ahead of the fight that he has undergone a renaissance of style.

“Boxing's not a street fight, it's about skill and technique,” Harrison sniffs. “I'm a boxer, an Olympic gold medallist, and that's who's turning up on the night.”

“No matter how you dress it up, fighting’s fighting,” Skelton concludes quietly.

It’s an observation his opponent would do well to remember on December 9.

Article posted on 28.11.2006

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