Harrison should look at Bruno's route to the top

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The Independent Online

It would require a deal of convincing to shake the conviction here that Audley Harrison's professional boxing career would have been better served by agencies other than the BBC, whose £1m-plus, 10-fight deal with the Olympic super-heavyweight champion is being described in some quarters as a waste of public money.

Evidently nobody in sports authority at the BBC knew enough about boxing to realise that Harrison's success in Sydney was merely an opportunity to prove himself in the professional ring with no guarantee of spectacular progress, if any progress at all.

Even at 29 years old, the only way of providing Harrison with a proper apprenticeship was to observe a process of development best described by A J Liebling in his Sweet Science: "The [up and coming] fighter must be confirmed in the belief that he can lick anybody 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."

Normally, even with such notable Olympians as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, who were immediately identified as future heavyweight contenders, the first professional steps are taken in bouts that escape the attention of national television audiences.

The BBC's naive mistake was to assume that Harrison had already achieved enough to justify main event status at prime-time against opponents that fall into the category of learning devices. Having leaped at the loot and put personal projection high on his list of priorities, Harrison is not faultless in all this, but the BBC is most culpable.

No wonder a senior boxing administrator cringed when watching Harrison's effort against Piotr Jurczyk of Poland at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow last Saturday, when fewer than 700 showed up to witness proceedings. "At this early stage of Harrison's career, it makes sense to get him fairly easy fights, but it doesn't do boxing in this country any good at all when they are so widely shown on television.

"People who are not true fans are simply left with the impression that this is what boxing is all about."

Having earlier rejected a proposition from the promoter Frank Warren that would have seen Harrison feature beneath contests for World Boxing Organisation titles and expanded their coverage of the sport, the BBC cannot begin to think about finding a less exposed platform for its man because, apart from Robin Reid, it has no other fighters. "I admit that I wanted the best of both worlds," Warren said when we spoke yesterday. "I think it would have worked better for Audley, but the BBC came back and said that they had used up all the money available for boxing."

Comparisons can be drawn here with the career of Frank Bruno, who was cleverly brought forward in the heavyweight division by Terry Lawless and Mickey Duff when they held sway in British boxing. With measured steps, they beefed up Bruno's record, overcame a crisis or two, including a 10th-round knockout by James Smith, and got him into world title contests against Tim Witherspoon and Mike Tyson before he made it all the way with Warren.

One night at Wembley Arena, when Bruno was still boxing on undercards, he came to the ring picked out by a spotlight and to the blast of a fanfare. Thinking this ridiculous, I took his associates to task in a column for the Sunday Mirror. This didn't go down at all well with Duff, who argued that the time had come to raise Bruno's profile.

The way fighters go to their corners these days, an Equity card would sit easily alongside their boxing licence, but it's no reason to suppose that the BBC can get away with continuing to promote Harrison as a celebrity on the strength of a gold medal won in what turned out to be a moderate Olympic division. "At least people are talking about him, talking about boxing," someone said the other day, though not defensively.

The gulf between amateur and professional boxing – "one is a sport, the other a trade," Henry Cooper recently said – has been described as roughly that between preparing porridge in a microwave and tackling Steak Diane over a flame. Of all the possible pitfalls for a new pro, none is more difficult to negotiate than choosing opponents during the transition.

But it isn't the quality of Harrison's opponents that is presently holding the BBC up to ridicule. It's the quite absurd notion that a heavyweight with plenty to prove can be marketed as a headliner.