Boxing: Harrison slims down to fill up York Hall

At the start he talked too much, weighed too much and fought too little, but that, thankfully, was in the bad old days.

Tonight Audley Harrison will enter a truly sold-out York Hall for what is essentially a belated homecoming for the boxer who took gold in Sydney, but then was helpless to halt the freefall of his popularity.

Harrison, now 31, is unbeaten in 10 fights, but his initial deal with the BBC has not been renewed and when he walks in front of precisely 1,168 fans to enter the dirty ring and fight Blackpool's Matt Ellis it could very well be the most important night's work of his life.

Ellis is a nice guy with a decent record, but a history of under-performing at crucial times and if that was not enough he will be more than two stones lighter and six inches shorter than Harrison.

However, Ellis compares favourably with the three duds that filled the role of victim No 11 in the careers of Frank Bruno, Gary Mason and Lennox Lewis. The trio easily took care of bad opposition and in that respect Harrison has selected a far more difficult opponent.

During the last six months and three fights, a slimmer and far more controlled Harrison has suddenly started to look like the man he has been speaking about since that glorious night at the Sydney Olympics.

His professional career had been a disaster in many ways because whenever he selected an opponent, picked a venue and then went through the motions he was severely criticised. But the assaults have at last begun to tail off. His last wins have silenced the knowledgeable and the idiots have taken their cue and also kept their mouths shut.

Ellis will not beat Harrison, but if he decides to risk it all instead of trying to survive eight rounds it will certainly be the most memorable encounter of Harrison's so far predictable career.

The days when a sloppy and flabby Harrison wound his way from the back of an arena to the ring and then proceeded to declare that he was in perfect shape have ended. Tonight he will be slimmer than ever and that is one more reason why Ellis will most certainly fall victim to a left-hand punch of some description by about round four.

However, even before the pair enter the ring the negotiations will have continued at ringside and in the changing room and the various corridors at the back of York Hall. The BBC is still insisting that they want more say in Harrison's future opponents and Harrison is doggedly holding out for more power and more money. It is a classic boxing stand-off and one that an impressive blow-out this evening could finally end.

Viewing figures for Harrison's last two fights finally started to climb after an indifferent year in 2002 and in many ways the figures have added to the degrees of grudging respect that the boxer is now picking up. It is easy to call him a chancer, a bum and a fraud if there is just a million people watching, but a lot harder when nearly three million are sitting down with their cocoa late on a Saturday night.

The journey may be far from over, but it is clear now that there will be some type of fistic expedition led by Harrison instead of the sleazy, money grabbing sideshows that typified his early fights.

A quick win against Ellis will not suddenly make Harrison the best heavyweight in the world, but it would show that he can make the gentle step up in class that he has promised for so long.

It should be remembered that just 14 months ago Frank Warren, the promoter and the president of the unofficial "Audley is a bum" club, offered Harrison £500,000 to fight Ellis. Shortly after Warren made his extraordinary offer Ellis was stopped by a slugger from Russia and then hastily released from his match contract with Warren.

Between 10.10 and 10.25 this evening Harrison will inevitably move a little bit closer to whatever title he fancies this week and Ellis, like the brave and often dangerous fighter than he can be, will play his part in the show.

When it is over there is a possibility of a serious verbal confrontation at ringside when former double world champion Herbie Hide and his anarchic sidekick Crocodile arrive to challenge Harrison to a fight.

Harrison will get his new BBC deal, his viewing figures will continue to increase and one day during the next six months he will finally beat somebody that nobody can criticise. Ellis is not that somebody, but neither is he a nobody and that is what will make the fight such good fun while it lasts. This is Harrison's true homecoming and in many ways this is the start of his real professional career.

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