Audley Harrison: Suddenly a future for the golden boy who was nearly history

The former Olympic champion is on a journey of rediscovery. Alan Hubbard speaks to a fighter determined to deal with his demons
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Is this the Year of the Comeback? First Serena Williams, then Jonny Wilkinson and now Audley Harrison, whose rebirth as a potential world heavyweight title challenger continues next Saturday when he attempts to win the European Union Championship from the Reading removals man Michael Sprott.

It is a remarkable renaissance. Scornfully written off as pretender rather than contender, the former Olympic gold medallist is coming home to Wembley, where he was raised and rampaged as a teenager and where he made his one-round professional debut six years ago against a portly, pathetic part-time private detective named Mike Middleton.

The rest, as they say, is history. And so, virtually, was Harrison. Twenty-two less than memorable fights later, after being booed from the ring following his defeat by Danny Williams, the A Force was no longer A list. He returned, unlamented, to his new home in Las Vegas a busted flush, shorn of his bombast and bravado, knowing he had to rediscover his self-belief.

Another defeat, to one-time fellow title hope Dominick Guin, was followed by an inconsequential victory over one Andrew Greeley, typical of the nonentities who had been passing clouds over his initially BBC-bankrolled career.

Unexpectedly he was thrown a lifeline by the promoter Frank Warren, with whom boxing's go-it-aloner hitherto had per-sistently declined to do business until the first Williams fight. Their new deal was a marriage made by necessity rather than in heaven, but Harrison had convinced himself that God was in his corner, as well as Warren. And bingo! The loss was spectacularly avenged over an admittedly underprepared Williams exactly a year later, at London's ExCel Centre.

Now Harrison says he used the agonising months after the Williams defeat "to rediscover my enthusiasm and my motivation", adding: "When I left England I was emotionally broken. I had to flush out that anger." He also repaired his relationship with his estranged mother and six brothers. "I did a lot of healing. I changed my perspective on life."There was a lot of pride to be swallowed, a lot of soul-searching and looking into myself. I was living in the States and knew boxingwise I had to get back into the UK market. After I lost again [to Guin] I decided to go and train at Vero Beach in Florida on my own and reconnected with myself. I cooked my own food, wrapped my own hands and went back to basics. I didn't even have sparring partners for my next fight.

"I was doing a thing called chi gong in the mornings - it's a bit like tai chi," he says. "I joined a class on the beach, mainly old people, who had no idea who I was, but they helped me find myself again, to banish the demons lurking in my mind. There were people there with worse problems than me. Some who had just lost their wife or husband through cancer, things like that. Put beside that, what had been going on in my head was nothing. Nothing at all.

"Then I went back to my gym in Vegas, where I work out with young amateur kids and help them out a bit. I love having people around me. I am a people person. Now I do yoga and Pilates, which helps keep me grounded. I am more at peace with myself than I have ever been." This, he says, is due partly to a renewed faith in God. "I know He's very busy, but somebody up there gave me the blessing to rectify my first performance against Williams. To return and beat him at the same venue exactly a year later was almost written.

"I couldn't have dreamt it any better. Deep down, my soul would have been destroyed if, by the time I was 50, I hadn't had the chance to do that. Take away the Man Above and you could probably say it was fortuitous luck, and I am happy with that. But there is a little wink in my eye that tells me there was somebody on my shoulder looking out for me.

"I have always been religious, although I don't go to church. I have a Bible at home and I read it every now and again. It started at Sunday School, where I used to go just to get the tea and cakes. I pray a lot and my prayers have been answered. I have always prayed, even when I was in prison [he served eight months in Feltham Young Offenders Institution as a teenage tearaway] and when I was expelled from school. I believe I am God-blessed. Now I live by good principles."

Following the defeat by Williams, Harrison got married - his American wife, Raychel, is Jewish - and they have a seven-month-old girl, Ariella. "Only Raychel understood how I felt. She knew what was unravelling in my mind. Now I am more settled because I have stability in my personal life. After I won the Olympics I was being Audley Harrison 24/7, it was, 'Audley, Audley, sign this, do that', so to some degree I was burnt out, which is one of the reasons I went to the States, where no one really knows me. I am at peace.

"Whatever happens from now on, I am going to give it my all, and people will never be able to say those hurtful things they said before. People will see me show what they don't think I've got.

"I had to swallow my pride and all those things they said about me - if only they knew what I am really about. I've dug deep into that well and people will see my true character.

"There's a story to be told, and I will tell it one day, about all the problems that I have had, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. It was life-orientated. I will leave it at that. I love boxing, but I wasn't in love with boxing and it affected me in the ring. But I am never going to go back to that bad place again."

It was Warren who first labelled him "Fraudley". Now the reason they are on each other's Christmas card list is because they need each other. " I am not trying to fight the system any more. I have done and have no regrets. Now I am going down the best route with the least stress possible. That is the most cohesive way. With Frank I have a heavy hitter on my side. "

Barry McGuigan was among those who questioned Harrison's heart and desire after the Williams débâcle. It hurt more than anything Williams threw at him. "As an ex-fighter Barry should know better. I got knocked down by Williams in the 10th round but I still got up and I went for him. Does that show a lack of bottle?

"I might have thick skin but I am a human being like everyone else and I want the fans to be behind me, like they were in the Olympics. I'm not the greatest heavyweight who ever lived but I just want to be able to go out there, do my job and for people to appreciate that I'm an entertainer. People say I am arrogant, but I like to say self-assured. I am told I have become more humble, but I think I've realised what it's about and I don't take things so personally.

"I am fortunate that I have done quite well financially out of boxing so I'm not fighting just for the pay cheque. Having said that, I am 35, and although I've invested my money well, the notion that I could retire is ludicrous. But money is not my main consideration, glory is. There is an air of desperation about me now. The bottom line is that my goal is to become a world champion and then unify the title. In my heart of hearts I'd like to be up there with Lennox Lewis, our best heavyweight by far."

First he has to get past Sprott, one of those have-gumshield-will-travel, honest journeymen (10 losses in 39 fights) who punches hard enough to have once cracked Harrison's ribs in a sparring session. At 32, he keeps himself in shape and did well to win the EU title from Rene Dettweiler last November on the German's home patch. He held the British title briefly after outpointing Williams but lost it to Matt Skelton in a last-round KO.

The ITV-televised bill also features Amir Khan in his 11th pro fight, against the French super-featherweight champion Moh-ammed Medjadji, 30 (17 wins, three defeats). Lightweight Amir should be too big in every sense.

So, indeed, should his fellow ex-Olympian on his homecoming bout with the in-and-out Sprott. "It's nice to be back on my manor," says Harrison. No longer on what the swimmer Sharron Davies memorably described as the "hello darling, kissy-kissy, Bollinger and bullshit" circuit, he will go into Wembley Arena by the tradesman's entrance, conscious of the criticism that in five previous visits to his alma mater he has been cushioned by what is known in the business as "graveyard matchmaking", beating up "dead bodies". Now the bodies, like the demons, have been buried and he has to get on with the job of resurrecting his career.

Life & Times: Olympic rings to Las Vegas ring

Name Audley Harrison.

Born 26 October 1971, Park Royal, London. Lives in Las Vegas.

Vital Stats 6ft 5in, 18st.

Nickname The A Force.

Status Self-managed southpaw super-heavyweight.

Education BSc (Hons) in Sports Science, Brunel University.

Boxing Career ABA champion 1997-98. Commonwealth Games gold '98. Olympic gold 2000. Turned pro in 2001 with £1m BBC contract.

Record 23 fights, 21 wins (16 KOs), two defeats.

And Another Thing Took up boxing after breaking ankle as a schoolboy footballer - he is an Arsenal fan. Formed amateur boxers' union and wrote thesis on "Sociological perspective and justification of amateur boxing". Awarded MBE in 2000.