Boxing: Audley's path may be the best one

Despite the snipers, the lessons of history show gold medallist is on championship schedule
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Audrey, Fraudley, Ordinary. Since cashing in his Olympic gold medal for a million- pound deal, Audley Harrison's ears have been stung more by criticism of his progress, or lack of it, than by the punches of any opponent. On Tuesday sacrificial lamb number five, Mark Krence, has been offered to continue the development of Britain's "next big thing".

Despite mutterings from the Chesterfield camp which suggest that Krence, a former England amateur champion who is unbeaten in 11 paid fights, is confident of beating Harrison, such a development is unlikely. He has not started his paid career like a runaway train, but there has been enough improvement to suggest the wheels are beginning to turn.

Harrison, who not only brings an imposing 6ft 5in, 18st physique into the ring, but is also that heavyweight rarity (a southpaw who can box), can point to his mapped-out path to the championship being a well-worn one.

Tracing back the first tentative steps of previous Olympic gold medallists, the Briton compares favourably. So what if his first opponent, Mike Middleton, was a private eye who had more chance of going two rounds with a revolving door than with Harrison? So what if the tough Scot Derrick McCafferty made him sweat for six rounds? So what if nightclub bouncer Piotr Jurczyk had more of a chance of beating an egg than Harrison? And so what if elongated American Julius Long's balance was so poor he looked like he was wearing Ian Thorpe's outsize flippers?

The point is that Olympic gold medallists Muhammad Ali (1960 light-heavyweight), Joe Frazier (1964 heavyweight), George Foreman (1968 heavyweight), Lennox Lewis (1988 super-heavyweight) and Riddick Bowe, who Lewis controversially beat in Seoul, all started out against opponents designed to beef up their records. And look where it got them.

Where Harrison differs from such distinguished company is that he was fully 29 when he earned his first pound in the paid ranks, whereas Ali (who was then Cassius Clay) was 18, Frazier 20, Foreman 20, Lewis 23 and Bowe 21. However, in an era which sees Lewis and Mike Tyson squaring off next month for the undisputed heavyweight title both aged 36, time might even be on Harrison's side despite being 30.

The Briton, who has already spent six months out of action through injury at a crucial stage of his formative career, has stated he will be a world champion within three years. Given that he should be wanting to fight around five times a year, that could see him consign 20 or so opponents to the "W" column before getting into the title frame. Again, that compares favourably with our listed Olympians.

Ali won the world title by stopping Sonny Liston in his 21st fight, four months short of three years after turning professional. And remember, Ali was a huge underdog on the night. Lewis took 23 fights (in just under four years) to capture a version of the championship, while the heavy-fisted Foreman had to wait three and a half years for his moment. Admittedly, he did bludgeon 37 opponents into oblivion by that stage, including Chuck Wepner, stopped in Big George's fourth fight. A bloodied Wepner had his challenge halted in the 15th round seven years later when taking on Ali in a title fight.

Questions over desire and heart apart, much will depend on Harrison's commitment to following that trodden career path, and whether his matchmakers have the skills steadily to bring a better class of opposition into the ring than were the likes of Middleton, Jurczyk and Long.

Krence is armed with the credentials, if not the power, to ensure Harrison gets more exercise inside the ExCel Arena ring on Tuesday than the walk to it. He is a respected former amateur champion, and is a smooth boxer, but will be fully 30lb out at the weights, despite standing at 6ft 5in. Following his defeat of the hapless Long last month, Harrison sat on the ringside mat and told people "to get on the train now" or miss it.

Having earlier said that his much maligned camp had "pushed out the boat" to take on Middleton and Jurczyk, his fans can only hope he doesn't develop a severe dose of motion sickness as he begins the journey which, he predicts, will end with the world title.

How Harrison measures up to the greatest

MUHAMMAD ALI (1960 Olympic gold medallist). Born: 17 January 1942

29 Oct 1960: Tunney Hunsaker W6
27 Dec 1960: Herb Siler W KO4
17 Jan 1961: Tony Esperti W KO3
7 Feb 1961: Jim Robinson W KO1
21 Feb 1961: Donnie Fleeman W KO7
Won world title 21st fight, 18 June 1963

JOE FRAZIER (1964 Olympic gold medallist). Born: 1 December 1944
16 Aug 1965: Woody Goss W KO1
20 Sept 1965: Mike Bruce W KO3
28 Sept 1965: Ray Staples W KO2
11 Nov 1965: Abe Davis W KO1
17 Jan 1966: Mel Turnbow W KO1
Won world title 27th fight, 16 Feb 1970

GEORGE FOREMAN (1968 Olympic gold medallist). Born: 10 Jan 1949
23 June 1969: Don Waldheim W KO3
1 July 1969 Fred Askew W KO1
14 July 1969: Sylvester Dullaire W KO1
18 Aug 1969: Chuck Wepner W TKO3
18 Sept 1969: John Carroll W KO1
Won world title 38th fight, 22 Jan 1973

LENNOX LEWIS (1988 Olympic gold medallist). Born: 2 September 1965
27 June 1989: Al Malcolm W KO2
21 July 1989: Bruce Johnson W KO2
25 Sept 1989: Andrew Gerrard W KO4
11 Oct 1989: Steve Garber W KO1
5 Nov 1989: Melvin Epps W Disq2
Won world title 23rd fight, 8 May 1993

RIDDICK BOWE (1988 Olympic silver medallist). Born: 10 August 1967
6 March 1989: Lionel Butler W TKO2
14 April 1989: Tracy Thomas W TKO3
9 May 1989: Garing Lane W 4
2 July 1989: Antonio Whiteside W TKO1
5 July 1989: Lorenzo Canady W TKO3
Won world title 32nd fight, 13 Nov 1992

AUDLEY HARRISON (2000 Olympic gold medallist). Born: 26 October 1971
19 May 2001: Mike Middleton W KO1
22 Sept 2001: Derrick McCafferty W 6
20 October 2001: Piotr Jurczyk W KO2
20 April 2002: Julius Long W TKO2
21 May 2002: v Mark Krence