Boxing: Harrison's launch pad resembles a freak show

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The Independent Online

After many years of shipping meat to British boxing rings, the late Al Braverman was a model of discretion. Braverman specialised in providing what were known as 'learning devices', fighters who were a little bit of this and a little bit of that but not too much of anything. Could they punch, could they box? Well, just a little bit. When even this encouraging estimate appeared to be weighing heavily on the mind of a prominent London matchmaker, Braverman growled: "Jesus, what do you want, fighters without arms?"

Shameless as he was, even Braverman would have been embarrassed by association with the four opponents found for Audley Harrison since he turned professional following his success at super-heavyweight in the Sydney Olympics 18 months ago.

Julius Long, the 7ft 2in, 20 stone American who lumbered into view at the Wembley Conference Centre on Saturday night, proved to be no exception. A full complement of limbs but a freak with no semblance of boxing ability whose assaults were confined to ungainly rushes that threatened to put both men in the ringside seats. Clipped on the chin by a short left after two minutes of the second round, Long went down with a crash and failed to beat the count.

Of all the possible pitfalls for a new pro, none is more difficult to negotiate that choosing opponents during the transition from the more gentle business of the amateur trade. The problem in making fights for Harrison, especially at the late age of nearly 31, was one that A J Liebling addressed in his classic collection of boxing essays, The Sweet Science. 'The fighter must be confirmed in the belief that he can lick anybody in the world,' Liebling wrote, 'and at the same time be restrained from testing this belief on a subject too advanced for his attainments. The trick lies in keeping the fellow entertained while enriching his curriculum.'

Since Harrison is completely in charge of his own affairs, both in and out of the ring, it has to be assumed that the choice of opponents is not entirely in the hands of his associates, who in turn are lumbered with the BBC's value-for-money insistence on promoting their man as a main event fighter.

People who argue that a similar course of progression was taken by Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno when they were launched on professional careers that brought world titles have a case. The difference is that both Lewis and Bruno did not immediately box in the full glare of public attention.

Going back to the early phase of Bruno's career, it was decided that enough progress had been made to justify a fanfare and a spotlight when he had appeared in a supporting six-round bout at Wembley Arena. Thinking this ridiculous, I found myself at odds with Bruno's matchmaker Mickey Duff, who took exception to remarks that appeared in the Sunday Mirror.

Plenty of 'opponents' were brought in to pump up Bruno's record but on reflection the policy employed now seems acceptable when set against the development of Harrison's professional career, linked as it is to the BBC's absurd seven-figure investment in a novice.

So far, Harrison has fought a private eye from Florida, a plastics moulder from Kettering, a Polish night-club bouncer and a man who would look more comfortable on a basketball court. Four victories but little, if anything, to justify Harrison's apparently unshakeable belief that he remains on course to become a world champion.

Even Harrison's army of freeloaders (the number of VIP badges worn at Wembley seemed to account for 50 per cent of the audience) no longer seem convinced that their man is the genuine article. However, observing them at the fight, the impression you get is that the majority would not know a left hook from a meat hook.

On Saturday night Harrison again got the job done and, to be fair, looked sharper than in previous contests. "People had better jump on my train now because it will soon be moving too fast for them," he said afterwards, sitting contentedly on the ring apron. The future, however, remains something else. We will know more about his prospects when the guy coming out of the opposite corner can fight just a little bit.