Boxing: Harrison's ring education to end with Wembley test

The first part of Audley Harrison's professional career started with the comic disappearance of a former Walt Disney undercover detective and will end tomorrow with the inevitable bloody battering of a Balkan heavyweight champion, Ratko Draskovic, at the Wembley Conference Centre. It is the 10th and final fight of Harrison's present contract with the BBC.

It all started so long ago, back in May 2001 when over 7,000 people and seven million BBC viewers watched as Mike Middleton, a nice guy from Florida, fell over in round one at Wembley Arena. Two days earlier Middleton had packed pillows under the sheets and given his minders the slip and vanished from a cheap Wembley motel only to emerge the following day at the Hertfordshire offices of the promoter Frank Warren.

Middleton claimed he was owed some money and he eventually increased his agreed purse of $5,000 (£2,950) to over $35,000 because of an unfortunate oversight by Harrison's guardians in the original fight contract. Thankfully, Harrison laughed off the episode. "It got personal against Middleton and Frank Warren and his merry men got involved, but I just took care of business in the ring.''

Harrison's next fight was delayed because of a broken rib and, when he eventually fought, both the crowd and, more alarmingly, the television audience were very disappointing. However, in the Newcastle ring, he easily outpointed Kettering's trial horse Derek McCafferty over six decently competitive rounds. A month later a sickening body shot dropped an overweight Polish bouncer, Piotr Jurczyk, for the full count in round two in Glasgow and once again the attendance, which was less than 300, and the TV figures for the Olympic champion's third fight were unimpressive.

After Jurczyk, Harrison injured his shoulder taking part in a charity event and he was out until April last year when he knocked out the American Julius Long, who like Middleton was clueless under fire. Long entered the ring with a run of six wins all by knock-out, but he was truly hopeless and had difficulty standing up. Harrison obliged and he was soon on his back. Once again a small crowd watched the win and for his next fight Harrison was switched from Saturday night to a midweek slot.

In May 2002, Harrison out-pointed the Chesterfield butcher Mark Krence in London's Docklands and, in July, he was back at Wembley for six difficult rounds against the East End hard man Dominic Negus. The Krence and Negus fights were ideal for Harrison's ring education but the poor attendance and negative publicity that followed each contest cast doubt over his ring progress. Most disturbing of all was that Harrison and his camp continued to claim that all was going to plan when it was obvious that his popularity was in free-fall.

In October last year, an American called Wade Lewis, a club fighter with a few reasonable names on his record, was outboxed and dumped on the canvas in round two in front of 1,000 fans in Liverpool. The cheeky crowd enjoyed the one-sided spectacle but again the TV figures were poor. It was rumoured that crisis meetings were scheduled between Harrison's supporters and disgruntled executives at the BBC.

In November last year, Harrison fought in Atlantic City and connected with a beautiful short punch to knock out Shawn Robinson in one round. Once again Harrison's size was important as he took control before sending the part-time carpenter to dreamland. It was a good win but most of the British press ignored Harrison's first professional fight in America and it was shown the following day on BBC Grandstand. However, Harrison correctly defended the impressive win by comparing the way he beat Robinson with the way that the current British heavyweight champion, Danny Williams, did the same thing.

In February, Harrison went back to a live slot on the BBC on a Saturday night and boxed sensibly to halt America's Rob Galloway after four rounds. It was without doubt his best performance, but it lacked the ferocity that most boxing fans now require of heavyweights.

Tomorrow's opponent, Draskovic, has never been stopped and, even at the age of 37, should still prove a test until the accurate and powerful punching that few of Harrison's critics are prepared to admit exists takes its toll.

Harrison's next fight will be with the BBC. A new deal looks guaranteed, but the battle will be over how much. Last time Harrison received £1m, this time he will want more.

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