Boxing: Silver voice, golden gloves; THE INTERVIEW; AUDLEY HARRISON
Britain has a megastar for the millennium, an eloquent spokesman for his sport.
Sunday 08 August 1999
Never short of a few words, this self-styled Ali of the amateur ranks transports his impressive combination of muscle and mind across the Atlantic on Wednesday, leading an eight-strong English squad to the World Championships, which begin in Houston, Texas, six days later. Britain has never won a medal in these championships - indeed it is 32 years since we struck Olympic gold - but big Audley is not alone in believing that the drought is about to end.
Thanks to persistent drum banging by Harrison and lobbying by the new enlightened leadership of the Amateur Boxing Association, the best-prepared team for many years takes off for a training base in Tallahassee, Florida, with almost pounds 500,000 of Lottery funding and the real prospect of tangible rewards both in Houston and next year's Sydney Olympics.
Not least, of course, for the 27-year-old super heavyweight who, in every sense is the biggest thing to hit amateur boxing since Lennox Lewis acquired the Olympic title for Canada in Seoul. Harrison's decision to reject the bait of professional promoters and go for broke - or in his case, from broke - in the Olympics is well chronicled. It is a calculated gamble which, he believes, will catapult the hundreds of thousands he has been offered now into a good few million should he return from Sydney with that golden medallion dangling from his neck.
He already has the clout, the confidence and the charisma and awaits only the ring cred that an Olympic title would bring. "That Olympic Gold is in my head already," he said. "I want to come back from Sydney, walk down the street and get rushed by the kids. I want them tugging at my trousers, begging for autographs."
Self-belief clearly doesn't come second in the Harrison psyche. Not since the great Muhammad has a heavyweight talked such a good fight. But is he really the business? This southpaw son of a west London plasterer - one of a family of six - is a double ABA champion and won last year's Commonwealth Games final spectacularly in 63 seconds, after a total of just 15 minutes of boxing. "I am going to be the greatest heavyweight ever to come out of Britain," he declared at the time.
No one is more acutely aware than Harrison that he has a fortune in his fists if he can punch his way to a medal in Houston and then compound it in Sydney before turning professional. Such is the deepening malaise in the pro game that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that this huge, amiable man is its potential saviour. First, though, he has to prove he can cope successfully with the big boys of Belarus, Russia, Italy, Cuba, Canada and the US, and the more dramatically the better, in Houston and Sydney.
"I don't see anything out there that really worries me," he says. "After studying sports psychology as part of my degree I know I have the mental edge. I am moving well and hitting like a mule. Some may say I am lazy but I throw quality punches, just like the pros. It will take a future world champion to beat me and I don't see one out there except me. Not turning pro until after the Olympics doesn't bother me at all. I am a fresh young fighter, although my age says I am not. I am getting better and better. By the time I get up there Lewis and Holyfield will be retired and all the other guys are just pretenders."
"He's certainly ready for it," says the ABA national coach Ian Irwin. "He can box, he can hit and he can move his feet. If you've got all that in a 120-kilogram super heavyweight it's a formidable package."
Indeed it is. But what the world wants to know is whether he can take as a good a punch as he packs. He was put down early in his 40-bout career. "A mere slip," he sighs. And he has taken two standing counts in his six defeats. Harrison's chin is clearly as much a key to his future as his brain and his big right hand.
At the British squad's training headquarters at Crystal Palace, where learning the ropes comes as much from the blackboard as in the ring, the rest look up, quite literally to the giant who last November led them and others on a march to Downing Street to present a petition demanding an end to discrimination in Lottery funding against amateur boxing. Many boxers, himself included, were being pushed towards professionalism because they could not afford to stay amateur.
"I owed a lot of people a lot of money and was living on bread and water," the Wat Tyler of the ring declared. "I've always believed that if you want something you have to shout from the rooftops." Things, happily have changed for the better and much of Harrison's articulacy and gumption have rubbed off on team-mates who comprise one of the brightest bunches ever to have worn England's vests.
One, Middlesbrough's John Pearce, another Commonwealth gold medallist, is managing director of his own double-glazing company and another, Steven Bell from Cheshire, is an aspiring actor. But it is to their captain that they look for inspiration. And he is not shy in providing it: "I've always had glory as my goal," he says. "I know I am going to be a millionaire." He lists his main hobby as networking. "My aim is four years at the top, then I'll be out. I'll be running Audley Harrison plc. Who knows what I'll do. I don't live, sleep and eat boxing. It's only part of my life. You'll find me at all the right functions. I'm always looking for avenues." One of the world's top sports management agencies is helping him explore some of them. They see him as a megastar of the millennium.
Yet there must be question marks. He has not fought since March following a hernia operation, the result of an old football injury. Football was his first love. As a left-sided midfielder he had a trial with Watford. "I was into all team sports but I got fed up with sharing the glory with 10 others." Harrison says he did not lace on a glove until he was 19, joining the Repton Club after a night of watching Rocky movies. Since then he has bloodied a few noses while keeping his own clean. "I have always been the jovial sort, always the charmer, the ladies' man, you know."
But in 1993 there was an incident which might have changed his sunny outlook on life. With his then fiancee he went to Stoke Newington police station to make a complaint after witnessing police officers use what they believed was unnecessary force in detaining a mentally ill man.
It ended with both he and his girlfriend, an accounts manager, being charged with police obstruction. Harrison claimed that he almost passed out after being gripped in a neck hold and despite the evidence of nine police officers the charges were thrown out by the Highbury Magistrates and the couple received a total of pounds 62,500 in compensation. None of the police officers was prosecuted. "I don't feel justice was done," said Harrison. "I went to the police station as an honest citizen and ended up believing I was fighting for my life." It is hardly surprising then that Harrison has been supportive in the Stephen Lawrence campaign, claiming: "If the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Condon wants the black community to have any faith in the police then officers must be accountable."
There is no doubt that one way or another we should be hearing a great deal more about, and from, Audley Harrison. He has a winning way, being more mobile and less manufactured than Bruno and more acceptably British than Lewis. "When I fight for the world heavyweight title I want everyone in Britain to be setting their alarm clocks and asking `can he do it'? and I'll tell them now `yes I can'."
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