16.06.04 – By Elliot Worsell: Legendary American fight tutor Thell Torrence is the man thrust to the forefront of WBF heavyweight champion Audley’s Harrison’s self titled ‘A-Force’ express train. An accomplished trainer, who has dealt with numerous world champions in the past, including former undisputed heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe and long running WBA light heavyweight kingpin Virgil Hill, Torrence is looking to replicate those past successes with the new wave of world heavyweights. Namely, the aforementioned 2000 Sydney Olympian, Harrison.
The 32 year old southpaw has progressed through 16 bouts comfortably thus far as a professional, since ditching the vest and headgear in May 2001, and has been quickly thrust into the heavyweight title picture in the form of his lightly regarded WBF bauble. That very trinket is put on the line this coming Saturday night at the Alexandra Palace, London, when the articulate Londoner locks horns with the unbeaten and unheralded Tomasz Bonin of Poland.
Torrence, born and raised in Arkansas and a former world rated Jr. middleweight contender in his own right throughout the late 50’s and 60’s, has worked alongside Harrison throughout the duration of his professional career, and is therefore in a principal position to discuss his charge’s forthcoming contest on Saturday night.
“We’re greatly looking forward to Saturday’s fight” Torrence enthused. “Audley’s been kept real active of late, and is looking to further his development by successfully defending his title against an ambitious young fighter who is yet to experience defeat.”
That much is true. Audley’s opponent on Saturday will be one Tomasz Bonin, standing five inches smaller than the behemoth Harrison at 6’1, and comprising an impressive looking 26-0 (16 KO’s) slate. Brush aside the cobwebs though and shift the magnifier over his glossy looking resume, and you’ll pick up on the fact that he’s yet to really face a stern test as a professional as is prone to fighting in the safe restraints of his homeland. This Torrence insists, is a minor issue.
“A guy that is 26-0 demands respect. I don’t care whether he’s been fighting guys that couldn’t beat his little sister – to rack up 26 straight victories shows the guy can fight. The guy’s yet to lose, and I’m sure won’t be keen on seeing his ‘O’ go on Saturday night. I don’t know anything about him. I haven’t seen any footage of the guy, but when you have an unbeaten fighter who many people are writing off, you at least know he’ll be hungry and willing.”
With so much emphasis on gaining recognition and praise from within boxing circles, it is strange therefore that an unknown quantity such as Bonin has been given the nod ahead of more accomplished and identifiable fighters from which Harrison could have selected. The British public crave a fighter to identify with, and in Tomasz Bonin they are being presented with a fighter, who you’ll be hard pressed to find a still shot of, let alone moving images of him in fight action. Torrence explains the decision in electing Bonin to face his most hyped young prospect.
“Well, firstly, we feel that it’s time for Audley to start taking on these ambitious young guys who come to fight and most importantly, come to win. This Polish fighter is unbeaten, is well ranked in the European ratings, and will be looking towards a European title shot of his own. We realise that he’s not a household name, and that he doesn’t mean a lot in global terms, but with the sparring and preparation work Audley has been getting recently, combined with the improvements he’s showing all the time, we feel he’s a welcome step up, and gives Audley the chance to show the British public just how much he has developed recently.”
Bonin is indeed a step up, on paper, from the cumbersome albeit incredibly tough and brave Julius Francis, who Harrison dominated in May of this year over twelve rounds in Bristol. It was the first time Harrison had executed the full route in his short, fledgling pro career, and Torrence insists it was a vital breakthrough fight for the brash, fast-talking gold medallist.
“I told Audley beforehand that I wanted to see him go the 12 rounds, and to see how he handled it.” Torrence admitted. “All in all I think Audley handled everything really well. He slipped away from my programme a little in the middle rounds, but that was to be expected as this was his first twelve rounder and he was understandably apprehensive. Nevertheless, when you’re in against a guy like Julius Francis, you know you’re going to get a great workout. He’s super durable, has a lot of experience and isn’t easy to hit with the jab. Before the fight Audley was a little concerned about going the full twelve round distance and was wary of how his stamina would hold up in the latter rounds. Now though, he has no such worries. Everything we ask for, from here on in, he should be able to give to us.”
The turn out Torrence demands from Harrison must begin this Saturday in a potential banana skin defence of his recently acquired fringe title. Thell, who called a halt to his own pro career in 1968, entering the real estate market upon his decision to hang up the gloves, is adamant that, although Harrison has vehemently expressed his wishes to remain independent in the promotional side of things, he has his own programme that is being put into force on the gifted prospect.
“What I’m doing with this kid is going through a development programme. We’ve just completed the first phase of this programme and are now entering the second phase. We’ve searched out a good quality opponent from Europe, to hopefully bring Audley along and let him work on some of the weaknesses that came about in his last fight. We’ll just continue developing Audley how he needs to be developed. Firstly we conquer the international scene, and Audley will fight some ambitious, top rated Europeans, then we’ll go to the US and seek some top opponents out there.”
Harrison of course, is not averse to going out to the United States to seek out quality sparring and the odours of pastures new, having spent numerous months out there showcasing his very own brand of southpaw heavyweight skills on US TV network ESPN2. Notable stoppage wins over Quinn Navarre, Lisandro Diaz and Brian Nix saw Harrison produce some of his most eye-catching work thus far as a professional fighter, and had British fight fans savouring his return to these isles. Torrence insists, that not only was his ring form top notch on fight night, but his gym form out in the US has been second to none.
“Going to the states is all part of the programme. It’s all about branching Audley out to a whole host of fans. I’ve been in boxing for a long time, and know that, if you want to make it really big, you have to conquer the American market. There have been some good European fighters that did things there own way and never stepped foot in America, but for how long will they be remembered? If you want to carve your name in stone and really make a name for yourself, America is a place that you have to conquer. Going out to the USA has helped Audley a lot. Every time we go out there there’s a marked improvement in his work and attitude.”
“I’ve been with the kid since he first started and I’m telling you, his improvements are beyond expectation. Where he originally was when he turned pro and where he is now are two separate planets. At this stage of his career he’s far more rounded than at any other time that he’s been fighting, and importantly, he has the confidence of an established professional. He knows what it’s like to be involved in a long fight now, and how his stamina holds up. The fear that he may have had when turning pro is no longer there.”
So what does the future hold for Britain’s most prodigious heavyweight campaigner? Arguably the country’s most recognisable pugilist, Harrison has the chance to carve a name for himself in a sport crying out for stars and dominant champions. At 32 though, and with a stuttering professional career riddled by unfortunate injuries and delays, just starting to burn fuel, will he have the time on his side to arrive, linger and dictate at the pinnacle of his sport?
“Age wasn’t a problem when we started, and it’s not a problem right now.” Torrence insists. “I haven’t seen any indication that Audley’s age will hold him back in any shape or form. I’ve been around a long time and have seen my fair share of fighters and fights. I look at guys like George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins who still fought at the top of their games way into their forties. It’s all down to how well you look after yourself, what your state of living is, and how efficiently you prepare for your fights. Get that spot on, and you’ll get longevity. I don’t even think about age being a factor. Audley’s a very young 32.”
With the current world heavyweight champions ranging from Chris Byrd’s 33 years of age to Vitali Klitschko’s 32 years of age, you’d be hard pressed to disagree with Torrence. Audley is a technician who makes the best use of his finely honed 6’6 frame. Never wasting an inch and never engaging when there’s a way out, he’s a man who is forever thinking whilst in the ring. Longevity being the main pondering point. After all, in a division that is more open and unreliable as it has ever been, who’s to say that Harrison can’t sneak in through the backdoor despite his advanced years?
“It’s a great time to be a heavyweight.” Torrence purred. “There’s no dominant champions out there. It’s the right time and the right place for a fresh guy like Audley to come on the scene and start to make some noise and show some domination.”
But upon which platform will Audley be able to unveil his proposed domination? In light of the BBC cutting back and mutually slicing ties with Harrison, they’ve effectively left an artist without his pallet, a teacher without his blackboard. Torrence insists this factor will not affect the mentality of Harrison one bit.
“This will be his last contest on the BBC but it’s not too much of a problem for us though, because whatever happens, there will be a demand for Audley Harrison, and his fights will get shown. From a trainer’s point of view, this background stuff doesn’t bother me too much. It’s just about getting Audley to win the fights that is my incentive. His fights will always be in demand because he’s a popular guy. Whether he’s fighting on BBC or SKY, or for an American network, the main thing is pleasing the fans. Those are the guys that have got him to where he is, and have supported him while the critics were out. So long as those guys can watch him go to work, I don’t care what network he fights for.”
Neither will the British fight fans so long as the mouth watering fights they crave come to fruition. Starting with the proposed British title showdown with rugged champion Matt Skelton. The articulate stylist against the ‘spit and sawdust’ brawler. Beauty against the beast. The only drawback is that there’s no ‘Lumiere’ to bring the unlikely pairing together. Despite hope floundering, Torrence still remains optimistic.
“I haven’t given up in that fight. It’s a big fight that the British people want to see, and for that reason alone, it should be a fight that happens. All the other stuff that is stopping it is just politics. The bottom line is, if the people want it and the two fighters want it, then the fight can be made. Skelton’s a good fighter, and I’d love to see him and Audley in there together. When the time comes we’ll be more than ready for it.”
First thing’s first though, and similarly to how Skelton disposed of the dangerous Australian Bob Mirovic ten days ago at the York Hall, Audley Harrison must banish an unknown commodity from overseas in order to stay on track for the big domestic duals we are led to believe, he desires. A potential match up between Harrison and Skelton has never been more appeasing than it is now. Torrence is adamant when he states that the prized Lonsdale title is just the start of Harrison’s title winning ventures.
“I think he can go all the way if he keeps his feet on the ground and we keep him focussed. I don’t think people really realise how much ability this kid has. He’s got a hell of a lot of ability and is a very big kid. He’s also got that intelligence and charisma that all great champions are blessed with. If we can keep moving along the programme we’ve got in place for him, with the way the heavyweight division is at the moment, I’m certain he can go all the way.”
Thanks to Thell Torrence and Frank Joseph for making this interview happen.