Boxing: 'Fraudley' was on the ropes but he's been thrown a lifeline
Harrison has paid more visits to Last Chance Saloon than John Wayne but may get a shot at world title
It is 10 years since Audley Harrison won Britain's first Olympic boxing gold medal for 32 years, collected his £1 million from the BBC but failed to pass Go. In that time he has been written off more frequently than a bad debt.
Yet astonishingly the man derided as "Fraudley" is now, at 38, just one fight away from challenging for the sport's ultimate prize, the heavyweight championship of the world. Should he beat an old adversary, Michael Sprott, and win the European Championship at London's Alexandra Palace next Friday, he could be, by boxing's Byzantine logic, next facing either of the Klitschko brothers, Vitali, the WBC champion, or Wladimir, the IBF, WBO and IBO holder – even leapfrogging David Haye who, should he successfully have defended his WBA title against John Ruiz last night, was contracted to a return with Nicolay Valuev.
These days the Klitschkos seem to be looking for easy pay-days and, while the Haye situation was being sorted, would be quick to jump at the prospect of meeting Harrison, whose credentials as European champion would be as valid as those of Albert Sosnowski. Harrison should have been fighting Sosnowski on Friday but the Pole gave up the European title when he was invited to oppose Vitali next month.
In Sosnowski's place comes Sprott, who knocked Harrison cold in three rounds when they fought in London three years ago. And here's another twist to this fascinating fight story: should Sprott win again, he will himself be in line to face one of the Klitschkos, for whom he has been acting as a sparring partner recently.
But Harrison, who has been in and out of the Last Chance Saloon more times than John Wayne, vows that on this occasion it will be different. Not for the first time he is threatening to quit if he doesn't win. "I'm calling this revenge or retirement," he says. "If I can't beat Sprott then there is nowhere else to go. But if I do win, I'll be targeting those Klitschko brothers."
Yet just 14 months ago, Harrison returned ignominiously to his home in southern California licking his wounds again after being beaten by the novice Irishman Martin Rogan.
We thought we had finally heard the last of the A-Force, by then looking a spent force after a title-less 30-fight career which saw frustratingly tedious wins against journeymen and defeats by Rogan, Sprott, Danny Williams and American Dominic Guin. This despite all the Harrison hype.
Then fate dealt him a hand – literally. Harrison entered a poker tournament in Las Vegas and by chance sat opposite Eddie Hearn, son of Matchroom promoter Barry. He persuaded a disaffected Harrison that he wasn't a busted flush and got him to enter last October's Prizefighter tournament in London. Harrison shed his customary southpaw negativity and won by a knock-out over Scott Belshaw in the final. The rest, as they say, is history. Or could be if he beats Sprott.
Despite all the media criticism – not least from this quarter – Big Audley remains friendly, engaging and as talkative as ever. If chat won championships he would already be wearing the belt.
"Call me delusional or crazy, but I am still on a mission to win the world title," he says. "When I left England I was emotionally broken. I had to flush out that anger. I did a lot of healing. I changed my perspective on life. There was a lot of pride to be swallowed, a lot of soul-searching.
"I might have thick skin but I am a human being like everyone else and I want the fans to be behind me, like they were in the Olympics. I'm not the greatest heavyweight who ever lived but I just want to be able to go out there, do my job and for people to appreciate me.
"The bottom line is that my goal is to become a world champion and then unify the title. In my heart of hearts I'd still like to be up there with Lennox Lewis, our best heavyweight by far."
First Harrison has to work out a way to beat the big-punching, 35-year-old Sprott, who is something of a nemesis. Not only did he flatten Harrison when they fought but he also cracked his ribs in a sparring session.
Winner of 32 of his 46 fights, but with a vulnerable chin himself, the one-time Reading removals man is one of those have-gumshield-will-travel gladiators who trades punches around the world. But he is good enough to have held British, Commonwealth and European titles and had a one-round victory in Germany only two weeks ago.
Harrison has the equipment and ability to outbox him and realise the most unlikely of dreams. But the question, as ever, is whether ultimately he has the stomach for real fight.
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