In a bad week for two of Britain’s best amateur boxers, Audley Harrison has declared himself unfit to continue fighting, and a freak diagnosis has given Errol Christie a chance in what will be a brutal struggle with cancer.
Harrison told the world last week that he had suffered a brain injury from too many concussions in pursuit of glory, and then added a few days later a welcome footnote to the terrible news: “I have some balance problems, some eye problems but I talked about a brain injury to make sure that the Board [British Boxing Board of Control] refuse me a licence in the future.” I believe him and applaud his ingenious little plan to protect himself from himself.
There was a time when Big Aud, or Fraudley, was a sporting columnists’ dream, an easy target ripe for abuse, and as he lumbered from mishap to mishap he refused for years to make apologies for his shortfalls. He handpicked his victims, he had a lucrative but dumb deal from the BBC and pretty soon after his triumphant return from Sydney with a gold medal he had alienated the entire British boxing media.
Somewhere between picking for his first fight a man who made his living dressed as Mickey Mouse while working as an undercover security guard at Disney World, and dancing for the nation on Strictly, we fell back in love with Big Aud.
Harrison’s gold in Sydney was the first for a British boxer in 32 years and his exploits in the Olympic ring led directly to the funding that kept Amir Khan, James DeGale and Anthony Joshua in the amateur sport long enough for them to have glorious nights of their own inside Olympic rings in Athens, Beijing and London. It is a debt that too many of his abusers forgot too easily.
The one thing that Harrison never lacked was heart, and on the occasions when he needed to be scraped up from the bloody canvas he remained dignified and vowed to return a better fighter. He has been mocked for his shocking no-punch performance against David Haye in a diabolical world heavyweight title fight in Manchester in 2010, but the truth is that Haye, the champion, was equally pathetic in a fight where two old, old friends remembered – once the bell sounded – that they still loved each other.
He will be missed, and especially by me, because I think it was in early 1996 that I first wrote about Harrison when he had a crazy plan to represent Jamaica at the Atlanta Olympics. He returned from some sort of qualification process in somewhere like Venezuela with unlikely sounding tales of Jamaican gunmen guarding the team. In 1999, at the World Amateur Championships in Houston, I met the man, who was attached to the government back in Kingston, that Harrison was talking about, and sure enough he was carrying a gun. We will all miss the Big Lad, trust me.
Christie, now 52, has a special place in the Guinness Book of Records because he is the only British amateur to have won all 10 championships that were once available to boxers. He also went to the European Under-19 Championships in 1982 in East Germany and came back with a gold, which was rare for any western boxer at that time.
He turned professional in 1982, with his fights being screened live on ITV, and he was a confirmed star, winning his first 13 bouts and knocking out 12 of his victims. However, there were rumours that his balance was off, his legs were stiffening up and that at just 21 he was, in the savage parlance of the fight game, a bit gone. In fight 14, one night at a leisure centre in Shoreditch in 1984, he was stopped by an unknown Belgian called Jose Seys after just 46 seconds of the first round and that, in many ways, was the end for Errol as a serious contender. He fought 27 more times before finally stopping after a sad and painful loss in 1993 to a part-time boxer and crude strongman called Trevor Ambrose.
Two weeks ago Christie was diagnosed with lung cancer and he has started chemotherapy. He has never smoked and blames the diagnosis on the hundreds of nights as a child star when he fought in clubs, small halls and hotels where the smoke was thick and obscured the view from the back of the venue.
It is never easy for Christie and he only found out about the cancer after a routine visit to a chemist – he had a prescription for eye drops – turned into chaos when he was jumped by some nervous policemen. “They thought I was a terrorist and jumped on me,” claimed Christie. “I knew what to do, I never struggled and I let them put the cuffs on me.” Christie, you see, had a hard upbringing fighting the National Front on the streets of Coventry, which he vividly recounts in his raw autobiography, No Place to Hide. He was not charged but his ribs hurt from the restraining methods and he went off for an X-ray. The stark image revealed the cancer and the fight started. “It looks like the police could have saved my life,” Christie told me last Friday. I hope so.