Boxing: Harrison and Skelton: British but a world apart

Two thirtysomething heavyweight prospects go separate ways, for now
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The Independent Online

When Reading removals man Michael Sprott shifted his biggest load - the near-19-stone bulk of Danny Williams - last Saturday night, it left boxing wondering where the British heavyweight championship eventually will be relocated. It certainly won't be in the direction of Audley Harrison, who has forsaken his stated intention of winning the domestic title and instead plans to ladle himself to a helping from the game's overcrowded alphabet-soup kitchen.

Harrison's decision to challenge Richel Hersisia (who he?) for the WBF title (what's that?) means that the British Boxing Board of Control must either order a fourth encounter between Sprott and Williams, which is unlikely, or hope that the winner of next Saturday's battle at York Hall between the new English champion, Matt Skelton, a gung-ho ex-Thai kickboxer, and ring-crafty veteran Julius Francis provides a worthy challenger.

The 32-year-old Olympic champion, back from his three-fight US odyssey, cites "political reasons" for the about-turn on his British title ambitions, which seems appropriate as his initial pledge now seems about as credible as a New Labour manifesto. He vowed he would win the championship within five fights but, three times as many later, it is now no longer an objective because, he says, "I am not prepared to fight for Frank Warren. Danny getting beat closed the door".

Effectively this is true, because Sprott, the new champion, is managed by Dean Powell, who is Warren's matchmaker. "We've spoken to the board and the situation is that if they don't order a rematch, Sprott, who was my sparring partner in my first year as a pro, has six months before a mandatory defence," Harrison says. "I'm not prepared to wait in line with them old guys. Anyway, Warren's got the heavyweight scene tied up. He's a thorn in my side. Basically the invitation is 'Audley come and join me', which A-Force [Harrison's promotional organisation] are not prepared to do."

So there we are. And where Harrison is on 20 March is back at Wembley Arena, where he meets the 29-year-old Hersisia, known in his homeland as "the Dutch Sonny Liston", with an all-win record of 21 bouts which includes 16 KOs. Harrison claims that after he won at the Olympics one paper termed him "Muhammad Audley", which got his American publicist terribly excited. "Hey, maybe this will be Ali-Liston over again," she trilled. Hype, hype hooray!

On paper at least, Harrison's 15th opponent, born in the Dutch Antilles, is the best he has faced, even though Hersisia's own opposition is packed with instantly forgettable, unpronounceable, names. He holds the WBF title, acquired last May against one Sandro Abdel Vasquez. These days such labels are as casually affixed as those on package deals to Palma, the WBF standing for World Boxing Foundation, a self-appointed Australian-based body who once hailed Joe Bugner, then 48, as their heavyweight champion.

At least Harrison recognises the absurdity of calling himself a world champion should he win this bauble. "Of course it isn't a real world title, but what it allows me to do is get into the European rankings. What I'm learning is how to become a legitimate champion like Lennox Lewis, so when I get to the top, I stay there."

Trust me, says Harrison, "because there ain't no other British out there with the potential to be world champion. So if you don't like me or you don't want me, tough. Robocop don't exist. I'm the best chance you've got."

Skelton might demur, especially as Harrison sniffily dismisses him as an eventual opponent. "The guy's 38 years old and he's only been in boxing a little while. Anyone who knows boxing will know he's not going to give me any trouble."

Some are not so sure, and it is interesting to note that a common opponent, the Croatian Ratko Draskovic, who took Harrison the full eight rounds a year ago, was stopped in three by Skelton last October. Skelton - who insists he was actually only 35 a few days ago - is already a match for Harrison when it comes to articulating about his craft. The Bedford man says: "I've never met the gentlemanon a personal basis. You can't knock his Olympic achievement, but I think he shot himself in the foot by saying he would be British champion within a few fights. He's always fought opponents who on paper aren't going to be there at the end of the fight. It's better to fight someone above your station. You're much more hungry."

"This is a fight Matt may win, or he may lose," says Warren. "At least he's willing to take that chance. I think he's a breath of fresh air." So far, Skelton's 11 fights have averaged fewer than three rounds. The 39-year-old Francis is the grandaddy of British heavyweight boxing, a man who knows the ropes and how to use them. Says Skelton: "I know Francis has fought a better calibre of opponent, but if anything that makes me more hungry, more determined. Watching last week's fight I just wondered how much either of them wanted it. I didn't see that much hunger."

Neither did the referee, Dave Parris, and while the verdict may have been questionable, like the fight itself it was hardly worth arguing about, though it has reopened the debate as to whether Britain should fall in line with the rest of the world and employ ringside judges for all title fights.