THE summer of 2002 was a beautiful time for me. I was finishing a degree in my favourite subject, Continental Philosophy, and Lennox Lewis had just vindicated years of my support by annihilating Mike Tyson. The only downside was the fact that I knew Lewis was coming to the end of his reign.
Luckily for us boxing addicts, fandom is untouchable, uncrushable and unrelenting, so there was hope in abundance as a new King was on the rise. Audley Harrison, 31-7 (23), had netted gold in the super-heavyweight division at the 2000 Olympic Games and he had brought boxing back to the BBC — and let’s not get this twisted, Auntie despises our sport. We had a new guy, a new hope and it was all gravy.
I even bought the t-shirt when purchasing an official A-Force shirt ahead of his fourth-round KO win over Richel Hersisia for the not so renowned WBF title in March 2004. In the end, though, it wasn’t to be as Deontay Wilder ended Harrison’s career in May 2013 after starching him in a single stanza. David Price had also finished him in one in October of the previous year. Harrison had won Prizefighter: The International Heavyweights in-between those two fights to once again ignite the flame of certainty amongst his tribe.
True fandom never leaves you. It is in the blood. I still have that t-shirt. Every so often, I wear it to fights and Tweet a photo to Harrison. I tag in John Evans, Martin Supple, Mark Butcher and boxing Twitter stalwart David Lee. To his eternal credit, Audley always throws us a retweet or a comment.
For a brief moment the feeling of cynicism that boxing instils in you — or that is already in you and drew you towards the business — rolls away and we are back in the early-noughties. A bunch of boxing fans paying homage to their idol in the hope that our support still means something to him.
“That is why I’m doing this interview, my man,” Harrison told Boxing News when granting me a lockdown audience. “It is great to see that people see the impact I had. I had people willing me on: the movement, ‘Yes we can’, and the ‘A-Force’. S**t, man, I’ve had the good, the bad and the ugly — I’ve had more ups and downs than a yoyo. The trials and tribulations, and people lived that with me. They wanted me to succeed. ”
Harrison’s legacy was cemented outside of the ring when he won gold in 2000. The southpaw’s bolshie attitude laid the foundations and funding for subsequent Olympic squads. He architected the creation of the GB Boxing World Class Programme (WCP) by getting 2,000 signatures calling for funding for amateur boxing from the National Lottery after a failed application by the ABA. Then he marched to Parliament to hand it to the late Minister of Sport Tony Banks, a boxing fan who helped secure £491,000 of Lottery funding. You could argue that, all things considered, Harrison is among the best amateurs we have ever produced as he set the scene for the medals that followed. If you are a fan of any boxer who won a medal after 2000, you should doff your cap to Audley Harrison.
“I was right there in the trenches inside and outside the ring,” he said. “It took me three times to qualify for the Olympics, and if I had not qualified this would not have all started. I had to win the gold, not just for me, but for the future of British boxing. That is why I was screaming from the rooftops that I was going to do it. Then the World Class Performance Plan was locked in.”
Harrison created A-Force Promotions with the aim of having complete autonomy over his pro career. He eschewed offers from the established promoters at the time to strike out on his own. Feathers were ruffled. Years later, in the confines of the Celebrity Big Brother house, Harrison found out just how much of a marked man he was back then.
“I was like Superman coming up, in my mind — that’s how I prepared,” he recalled. “The confidence, the aura I had built. I felt like I couldn’t be stopped so kept on pushing, but I hit a wall and, ultimately, didn’t achieve all the things I wanted to achieve as a professional. Some of the stuff got lost in the hustle and shuffle. “Kellie [Maloney] and I were in the Celebrity Big Brother house. She told me: ‘Look, Audley you went against the system. We’d have meetings every week asking how we could mess you up’. I was a threat to the system so it had to make me part of it. Boxing is hard enough, so if you have struggles outside of it then it is even harder.
“It is public knowledge that my phone was hacked. I did the public settlement with The Mirror in 2010 and it turned out in 2004 little Audley Harrison was being hacked when we were reviewing my BBC deal. When I turned pro, my thing was that I was going to be heavyweight champion of the world under my own terms.
“My parents are Jamaican. We came from slavery to independence and I didn’t want to be owned by nobody — that was my biggest thing. You can call me stubborn, but I never wanted to work for promoters. Then I had to do it and it almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy as I said I would only win a world title under A-Force Promotions.”
The fans had turned on him, too. When he was knocked out in three against Michael Sprott in February 2007 some people in the crowd booed him while he was still on the canvas receiving treatment. It was disgusting. The man they vilified had gone from serving time for robbery and assault to achieving great things yet the perception of him was overwhelmingly negative. It is the biggest outbreak of schadenfreude I have ever seen in British boxing. Harrison, however, is philosophical about how things have panned out for him. “In my pro career, I didn’t get what I wanted,” he admitted. “But if you had said to anyone that I’d have come out of a cell when I was 19 years of age without qualifications and then a decade later I’d be Olympic champion followed by European champion, world title challenger and two-time Prizefighter winner, and also household name and entrepreneur…”
He thought for a moment and said: “People would be like: ‘This guy is crazy!’ I take the rough with the smooth. I can appreciate where I come from, how high I climbed. Yeah, I didn’t get what I deserved to get, but that is life and you don’t always get what you set your heart on. I went way, way from where I was at. It is almost mind-boggling. In life, you put your mind to something, try to be what you want to be and you can avoid becoming a product of your environment.”
Harrison’s time in Feltham, and a stint in the Mount in Hemel Hempstead, was well-spent. In his 2001 autobiography, Living The Dream, he wrote that: ‘[I] used the experience to my advantage in a different way — to improve my body and mind.’ “No matter how tough it gets, you can come out of prison and integrate yourself with society if you set yourself goals,” he opined. “Prison was fun, but you think: ‘I’m not doing that again’. You lose your liberty, so you decide not to go back there. I’d had an epiphany when I was young of becoming a successful, famous sportsman and I’d been chasing it subconsciously because I was playing every sport under the sun. I was a decent footballer, a decent cricketer, a decent rugby player, but as soon as I found boxing I knew this was the sport for me. I just knew I was going to change my life and did everything to jump on that train. I got almost everything I had envisioned.”
There were revenge wins over Danny Williams [rsf 3 in 2006], who he dropped a decision to in December 2005 and Sprott [ko 12 in April 2010 for the EBU belt] then, later, a failed WBA title tilt against David Haye. His fans, this writer included, kept the home fires burning. Even towards the end, we would hear he was fighting, say, David Price and send out a text: ‘All it takes is one wave of that magical left hand!’ The Haye fight was particularly hard to stomach as Harrison only threw a single punch. The Board withheld his purse in the aftermath. However, he told BN that it wasn’t a case of being afraid to pull the trigger, by that point he simply couldn’t do it anymore. It was extremely frustrating for both him and the last remaining members of the Harrison tribe.
“Down the line, I took more punishment, especially in the last two years, but I’m trying to live my best life. I am not Superman anymore, my memory isn’t as sharp as it was. I’ve got a photographic memory so it is still better than most yet it is not as good as it was, and that is down to boxing. I’m still functioning at a high level, still more optimised than the average person, and I still go about getting my goals achieved. Part of living is that we take our knocks and still move forward. We’ve all got one life to live with no rehearsals so I am living my best life to my best ability. I still get s**t done, still have aspirations, goals, and am still achieving.”
“My game plan was to move, move and walk him [Haye] onto shots, but it went horrible for me and I’ll never get a chance to rectify it,” he added, turning his attention to the Haye fight in particular. “The press made it more than what it was: ‘Oh my god, he only threw one punch. Why did he only throw one punch?’ The reality is that I never got a second chance.
“I was the comeback king when it came to rematches. I was the guy who could always correct my mistakes. Even with Haye, Price and Wilder — the three Ds — I felt I could correct those losses, but I never got a chance to, partly due to Father Time. In my prime things might have been different. But those three unavenged losses have now been settled in my head and in my soul — I can move on.”
When the time came to walk away, the former European champion was training for a comeback. A punch to the head in sparring coupled with wear and tear persuaded him that going to the well again was a fool’s errand. He has not looked back since. “I walked away because I noticed that my eyes were off,” he revealed. “A study came out about the issue of concussion in [American] football. My degree thesis was a justification of boxing in England. I did my research on the latest stats on boxing and puglistica dementia. I couldn’t deny it. I thought: ‘S**t, this thing is real’. I looked in the mirror, and at this time I was pestering Eddie [Hearn] to come back to fight [Anthony] Joshua, and I said: ‘Audley, you’ve got to get out of it your own way, if you don’t you’ll be talking about coming back to boxing in eight or 10 years’.
“By this point, I had nothing left to give. My legs, my knees, they were gone. I’d had at least eight operations on my body: my knuckles, shoulders, a hernia — I thought: ‘Audley, you are done’. This is a young man’s sport. Kids are boxing at 11, 12 then going to the Olympics at the age of 19. I went there at 29 so Father Time was not on my side. I realised that this was it, I wasn’t going to be a world champion so I let it go and walked away from the sport.”
Most fighters limp away from the sport yet Harrison and his wife, Raychel, run a successful salon in Los Angeles, they have their own range of hair and beauty products, he plays poker at a high level, and has fingers in a few other pies. His haters will hate hearing this, but two decades after netting gold Harrison is winning the game of life.
“Life is all about the good as well as the bad,” he said. “Part of me flushing boxing, flushing being a promoter, was leaving the country to go to LA. [I’ve] a lot of living and business left to do. I’ve learned from boxing how to do and how not to do things. I’ve got experience in boxing, business and life that I can pass on. I’m a young, wise old man who has done a lot with his life and is trying to give something back.”
The Austrian poet Thomas Bernhard wrote that: “Time destroys everything we do, whatever it is.” My beloved t-shirt is now worn, torn and frayed. It is falling apart due to age — a metaphor, perhaps, for the injuries the man himself suffered or the fact that the decades are flying by for all of us — yet the image on the front of it remains as vivid as those halcyon days when we followed a new hero. Harrison is still an inspirational figure for the members of his tribe. After the interview, and flushed with excitement, I sent a text out to the others. The replies summed up our fanaticism: ‘He can still do it… One wave of that magical left hand… Yes he can.’