Boxing: Lewis the model as Harrison fights for American hearts

British heavyweight expects no gain without pain in debut in front of a sceptical US audience

Being an Olympic heavyweight champion and unbeaten in seven fights as a professional is about as impressive as a $2 palm reading in this seaside resort, where it has always been more important to be a slugger than a boxer and clairvoyants are a dime a dozen.

Audley Harrison's American debut tonight here at the Boardwalk Hall against Shawn Robinson will not be shown live and delayed screening details have not yet been clarified in the States. Harrison has not had much of an impact on the few curious Americans who have stopped to watch him saunter past during three murky days.

It took Lennox Lewis nearly 10 years to win over the hearts and minds of the American boxing public and he did so after a succession of hard and impressive fights and by smiling and making himself available. Lewis is not the most phlegmatic of boxing's spokesmen but the respect he has now earned came gradually through toil in the ring and courtesy outside the ropes.

Harrison has two other ideal role models here on the boardwalk and Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti, the fighters in the main event, could help him find an identity that hopefully boxing fans here will want to be associated with. Since the 2000 Sydney Olympics Harrison has jettisoned the weary soundbites and poetry and replaced them with a misplaced malevolence at odds with his character.

During the last few days and against a shrill backdrop of slot machines he has made an attempt to soften the influence of cash on his career by insisting he fights because he loves the sport and that his motivation is success, not fame. "It is not just about the pound notes. I know that there will be no money and no fame without pain," Harrison said.

Ward and Gatti have known that for a very long time and each time they drag themselves up from the safety of their corners for three more minutes of agony they are moving ever closer to the ends of their careers. Their harsh and painful sacrifices in the ring belong to a dwindling past that the modern sport seldom duplicates.

"I'm paying the price for the way I fight and my heart," admitted Ward. "That's why I'm saying that I've done so much damage to myself that it's just two more fights for me and then I'm done."

Gatti sat in silence, nodded and agreed with Ward's choked words. He said: "I will never get back what I lost in some of my fights but that is just the way that I am. That is the way a warrior fights."

It is no surprise that the pair are meeting without the glitz and clutter of a meaningless world title belt because on this occasion the people here in south Jersey voted with their pockets and snapped up 12,000 tickets.

This will be Ward's 49th fight and the first time that he has cleared $1m and been the main attraction on a big show. It is impossible to compare Ward's ring history with the pampered exploits of Harrison and perhaps that has been a factor in the British boxer's near anonymous existence during the last few days. Nobody will admit it, but without either television exposure or press coverage Harrison's American debut is clearly not going to plan.

"This is a long journey and I'm not stupid: I know that I have to work hard in a hard business to get where I want to go," Harrison admitted. "I hear a lot of people accusing me of being in this for the money but that is not right. I'm in boxing because I love it."

Tonight, Harrison's eighth professional fight will most likely end like four of his previous encounters, with a one-sided stoppage. It will be a combination of confusion and innocence that finally takes its toll on Robinson, whose readiness to pose next to a statue of Rocky Balboa did, albeit momentarily, raise the profile of the heavyweight fight. "He's a great hero of mine," claimed Robinson. He was not joking.

The three other Americans who Harrison flattened shared something with Robinson, because they all had very little or no amateur experience and lacked the necessary survival skills. The reason that boxing novices such as Robinson, who never fought as an amateur, find their way into the ring with Harrison is because their crude styles do not pose a threat. That is not a criticism, it is a plain fact of boxing.

Harrison and the people surrounding him have avoided any potentially dangerous contact with seasoned and aging professionals and that is why it is not necessary to enter the curtained booth of a palm reader and part with two bucks to predict another easy win. However, two dollars is a small price to pay for knowing the name of the winner in the Gatti and Ward fight.