Boxing: Audley loses 'L' plates but is overtaken

Rise of Nigerian prospect threatens to steal Harrison's thunder and bluster. Alan Hubbard reports
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Albeit unbeaten, Harrison has trod as much water as he has canvas and, much as he may dispute it, is lumbered with the label of boxing's going-nowhere man.

He headlines what is billed as the "Best Damned Night of Olympians" featuring five medallists, including Harrison and a rare American gold medallist, Andre Ward, who won the light-heavyweight division in Athens. Yet most are unknown even to the fan in the street, an indication that an Olympic medal is no longer a near-automatic ticket to superstardom than it was in the days when Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, the Spinks brothers and before them Floyd Patterson stood on the winners' rostrum.

For boxers, Olympia is not the Utopia it was. For one thing the quality of boxing, both amateur and professional, has hit the declining years. Where are the big-name successors to those Olympic legends? The Americans aren't producing them and the Cubans, who have cornered the Olympic ring market, have not allowed stars like Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon and Mario Kindelan to turn pro.

In post-war years Britain has had 19 Olympic medallists, and only three, Alan Minter, Robin Reid and Richie Woodhall (all bronze), went on to win versions of world titles. Of the four British gold medallists, Terry Spinks, Dick McTaggart, Chris Finnegan and now Harrison, none has become a world champion (although McTaggart never turned pro). Lennox Lewis? Yes, but he won his Olympic gold for Canada.

Harrison's own gold has now become something of a boxing bauble, with Amir Khan's less-valued silver now a far more saleable commodity. And so it will remain while Harrison continues to faff around against ho-hummers while being overtaken by those heavyweights he once overshadowed as an amateur.

Calvin Brock, an American eliminated in the early stages of the Sydney Games, subsequently has made far greater inroads into the pro rankings than Harrison. So has a young man named Samuel Peter, a Nigerian whom Harrison beat as an amateur. Next month Peter boxes the former WBO champion Wladimir Klitschko in an eliminator for Chris Byrd's IBF title. The Las Vegas-based Peterlooks the business. He is almost 10 years younger than Harrison, and five inches shorter, but he hits harder, is already the North American champion and has set the pulses racing in the United States like no other heavyweight since Tyson.

Only three opponents have lasted the distance, one being a four-rounder. The other 21 he has dismantled brutally in quick time. Harrison talks of both Peter and Brock as future opponents, but when? These are the sort of men he should be facing here and now.

Instead it is Wiggins, 36, an up-market journeyman, who at least seems capable of absorbing a punch. He has been stopped only once in 25 fights (four defeats), on an eye injury against the previously unbeaten Derek Bryant, a decision he later reversed. He has been the limit with two half-decent heavyweights, Monte Barrett and DaVarryl Williamson but is said to be uneasy against southpaws.

The soon-to-be-wed Harrison insists: "I'm still a work in progress but I am now ready to step up and challenge the best. I am the future of the heavyweight division. Wiggins is tough and the fight is important to my career. It I intend to display my full arsenal of talents. You can expect fireworks."

The words damp and squib spring to mind in assessing the impact he has made on the world scene so far. The trade paper Boxing News seemed far less impressed by his last appearance, a seventh-round KO over Robert Davis in Temulca, California, than he was, suggesting that "like Joe Bugner, Harrison doesn't have the zest for combat... he boxes more like an athletically-inclined banker who thinks he can back into heavyweight riches without doing any bleeding".

It is a harsh judgement, but Harrison must know he has to upgrade his opposition pretty smartly if he is to dissuade more from sharing the belief of the leading promoter Frank Warren that "he's an irrelevance now".

Yet the scene has never been riper for Harrison to make his mark, with Matt Skelton, who he foolishly spurned, now seeking an opponent for his next British title defence following the no-show by Danny Williams. A Force or A Farce? Harrison, who never seems to listen to anyone but himself, would do well to heed the wisdom of Barry McGuigan: "If you were to look up the definition of the word procrastination in a dictionary you'd find a picture of Audley Harrison. But why? He's a talented guy and the heavyweight division is the worst I've known.

"If Audley got his act together he'd have a legitimate chance. But his progress has been so slow he must be planning to fight for the world title when he's 50."

Sentiments echoed by the ring sage Teddy Atlas, once Tyson's trainer, who says: "He knows how to fight. Technically, he's pretty good but he's never been tested. He has to step it up now."

Harrison promises he will, but he is already a pace or two off the heavyweight game and needs to accelerate from the slow lane. Yet these are topsy-turvy times in sport. If London, Harrison's home town, can win the fight for the Olympics then maybe he can win the world heavyweight title. The question is, does he know the way from San Jose?