Audley Harrison: 'I am the future of the heavyweight business'

Audley Harrison looked a contender when winning Olympic gold. Will he, asks Steve Bunce, finally punch his weight in this weekend's title bout?
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Less than 60 hours before Audley Harrison was due to make his debut as a professional, he had a big problem on his hands. His opponent, a part-time fighter and full-time undercover detective from Florida, had simply vanished from his hotel room in Wembley.

For several hours, Harrison and the men and women he had surrounded himself with since winning Olympic gold a few months earlier had absolutely no idea where Mike Middleton had gone and, more importantly, they had no idea what to do. Also, the BBC, which was due to screen the fight live that Saturday night, was kept in the dark.

Finally Middleton surfaced in Hertfordshire at the office of Frank Warren, the promoter who had failed to sign Harrison and had then spent the best part of six months criticising him, and that was when the fun really started. Since that cold morning, Harrison has, in my opinion, been the best story in British boxing, even if a lot of the tales have not always been flattering.

"Frank and his merry men got involved, but we sorted it out and Middleton came to give it a go and he certainly did,'' remembered Harrison.

That evening at Wembley in May 2001 was watched live by an audience of 8,000 and close to six million tuned in on the BBC to witness the inevitable one-round destruction that launched Harrison's career. Now, Harrison is 34, unbeaten in 19 fights, and this Saturday finally comes face to face with a real fighter in what will undoubtedly be a very hard fight indeed.

Even before Harrison had turned professional with a deal sponsored heavily and somewhat short-sightedly by the BBC, he was talking boldly of beating Danny Williams. He is on record claiming that he could win the British heavyweight title inside five fights but he also made claims that he could do it in his first fight.

The fight on Saturday night, which ITV will screen shortly after nine, has become one of the biggest boxing events in recent years and it is fitting that , and his fine fist and mouth, are part of what will surely be a memorable event. There are some in the boxing business who believe that it will be a dull affair for the vacant Commonwealth heavyweight title, but there is genuine entertainment even in the most boring of fights when there is so much at stake.

There appear always to have been two Harrisons. There is the athlete who travelled as a tremendous underdog to Sydney and pulled off four great wins to become Britain's first gold medallist in 32 years and there is the other one, the big mouth, the guy who seems to be trying to become the British sportsman that the sporting public hate. Harrison rolls his eyes in shock when he is accused of deliberately trying to antagonise the public.

"I make no apologies. I have always done and I will always do things my way, both in the ring and out of the ring,'' he said. "A lot of people have been shafted in boxing. Sometimes you have to think that you don't get what you are worth, you only receive what you negotiate.

"You won't see or read horror stories in five years about me being broke and penniless. My finances are well catered for and I get up in peace every day,'' claimed Harrison, just a few days before his second professional fight back in September 2001.

The second fight against Derek McCafferty in Newcastle was a flop. It is no good Harrison and the people around him trying to reinvent history because the night was a total and utter sham. The fans stayed away, which is amazing because in Newcastle the boxing fans love an event, and more disturbingly, the TV viewing figures plummeted. In many ways, it was the start of the end of the love affair between big Aud and the British public.

After Newcastle a series of men came and went and fell over and Harrison had, by the end of 2002, become a bit of a joke , which was possibly unfair. However, the men he beat had questionable pedigree and often it was Harrison's own words which shaped the thoughts of people after the fights.

At the same time, Warren in his column at the News of the World was having a field day cataloguing the falling TV figures and the general feeling of chaos that surrounded Harrison and everybody that he hit.

However, if anybody looked slightly closer and took any time to talk with Harrison they would have noticed some considerable and impressive changes by the start of 2003. Harrison had changed his body shape and had clearly adapted a far tougher mindset and while some of his critics continued to laugh and knock, there were others who noticed the change and started to alter their opinions.

"I will follow in the footsteps of Olympic gold medal winners Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Lewis. I want to prove that I'm the future of the heavyweight boxing business,'' said Harrison, after taking care of Matthew Ellis in under two rounds in May 2003.

It was in the summer of 2003 that Harrison moved to America for six months and started training full-time in Las Vegas under the watchful eyes of his co-trainers Kenny Croom and Thell Torrence. It was during this time, when he scored three easy wins against three recognisable opponents that the men that matter in Las Vegas started to talk about the "other British heavyweight''. The "other" heavyweight being Lennox Lewis and it was at this time that opinion, certainly the opinion of people who know their way around the boxing ring, started to change. At about this time, even Warren started to distance himself from some of his earlier rants, claiming that he never criticised what Harrison did in the ring.

In many ways 2004 and 2005 have been disappointing for Harrison because of annoying injuries and his inevitable and acrimonious split with the BBC. Last year, Harrison won the truly meaningless World Boxing Federation heavyweight title and, after two defences on British soil, he moved full-time to Las Vegas in June 2004 and it looked like we had all seen the end of him.

There followed 12 months of inactivity before two easy wins against two veterans earlier this summer and then the chance phone call, or so everybody claims, that finally led to Harrison walking back on to centre stage in Britain and a date on Saturday night with millions of fans and a man in the other corner who has dismissed him.

Harrison claimed back in the middle of October that he is treating this fight as a simple stepping stone to something much bigger next year, but it is no secret that his two fights this summer have taken place in virtual obscurity and, while he has a growing reputation in boxing circles, he remains an anonymous player on the American television circuit. Thankfully, that is not the case here and Harrison's name being added to Saturday's bill has changed it drastically and generated as much excitement as men like Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and Naseem Hamed managed a decade ago.

"I never turned pro to make money, I turned pro to be world champion,'' said Harrison recently. The heavyweight scene at the moment is so totally devoid of a leading fighter that Harrison, even if he loses on Saturday, will clearly win one of the more respectable championship belts on offer and no doubt pick up a nice few quid along the way.

"Since the start of the journey I have been able to see myself through the hype and through the haze. I can safely say that I'm happy with what I've seen so far,'' said Harrison. On Sunday morning, Harrison will get the chance to sit down, put on a VHS and watch the previous evening's work and judge then whether his life is progressing exactly how he planned it or if he has to go back to some earlier stage and start all over again.