Everyone in attendance at the Sheffield Arena on April 27, 2013, knew that Audley Harrison’s fight against Deontay Wilder was as good as over when the visitor landed a wild right hand that floored the former Olympic Super-heavyweight champion and clearly separated him from his senses.
Despite Harrison (31-7, 23 KOs) beating the count, Terry O’Connor waved off the fight, and we waved goodbye to Audley’s career, at 1:10 of the opening session.
A journey that had started with that glittering gold medal win in Sydney at the 2000 Games had ended without the world title win that he had craved throughout it. Gold had turned to bronze, literally as Wilder’s moniker is ‘The Bronze Bomber’, a tribute to his 2008 medal win at the Beijing Games.
It was a crushing blow for Harrison, his family, his team and the fans who had still hoped that he could turn things around despite having hit the age of 41. Still, after an injury-ravaged career the boxer didn’t hit his forties, they hit him, and hard. The dream was no more. When Boxing-Social caught up with ‘A-Force’ he was typically analytical and philosophical about the end of his career.
“Boxing was like nothing else in my life — I couldn’t think about anything else,” he said when asked if it had been hard to walk away. “I didn’t have the time. I was 29 coming up when I won the gold. Look at how many injuries I had. Then in 2007 with the car crash [with his coach Kelvin Travis in Florida when preparing to appear on a Clinton Woods undercard] and nearly being wiped out. I’d been fighting the system, too, so Father Time caught up with me.
“Every injury I had took something from me. I had the injury to my hand in 1998, then it broke down again in the Olympics so I was fighting with that. Then I had the second operation and a third one in 2004. The car crash ripped my right pec off, I’d ripped the left one off in 2002.
“The injuries take something from you,” he added. “You try to convince yourself that it doesn’t, but it does. Looking back, you need that perfect run injury-wise to make it work at my age. Fighting the system also took something from me. You couldn’t just plot your way to a championship quickly. I had a team, the likes of [his trainer] Thel Torrance, and a plan, but I almost needed a perfect storm in terms of fighting the system and beating injuries. It becomes a question of how much can you put on your back no matter how strong you are as a person? In the end, it took its toll.”
Harrison’s professional career was unique at the time as he decided to do everything himself. A-Force Promotions ruffled feathers when they secured a deal with the BBC that was worth £1 million for 10 fights. It wasn’t just the other promoters who came after him, either, as there was an air of crushing negativity within the trade due to a perception that he was brash, arrogant, and his head had been turned by the fame and acclaim that came with his attainments at the Games.
The public reaction swung from hugely positive to sour and, sadly, he was seen as a figure of fun in certain sections of the media when the dream faded and the knockout losses came. Criticism. Controversy. A staccato schedule. The injuries, always the injuries. A perfect storm did hit Harrison, just not the one he had needed.
The signs were there on the opening night in 2001 when his opponent, Mike Middleton, threatened to withdraw if he wasn’t given more money than the initial £5,000 fight fee. Andy Ayling, who works for Frank Warren and operated as a sports agent at the time, ended up managing Middleton. Frank Maloney née Kellie Maloney also got involved. Middleton got more money and the fight went ahead.
The static had already started. The early throes of his attempt to create a movement was beginning to get stuck in the murky mud of the business of boxing. “Look at my first pro fight, I had the drama with Mike Middleton, God bless his soul, of people saying, ‘Oh, he isn’t paying him enough money,’ and all that diverted my attention because I was fighting inside and outside the ring,” he recalled.
“I could never focus on just one thing. I’d go to camp for six to eight weeks in Cornwall or Big Bear and I thank God for that because it kind of allowed me to get away. Had I not done that I’d have been in the office. I had the business running, lots of staff, big operations due to the deal with the BBC, so I had the operations going as well as Audley the athlete. The only thing that I didn’t anticipate in my plan was the way the system would go after me.
“Just because I didn’t go with a promoter they made me out to be the antichrist. Kellie explained it to me on Celebrity Big Brother and that helped people understand — [she] admitted that they all put as many obstacles as they could in my path. I felt vindicated because people who saw that realised the shit I had to go through behind the scenes. You can be strong, but that shit will get to you.
“I wanted to be who I wanted to be without people knocking me. It was more important to me to keep control than to win the world title in the end. Once I wasn’t independent [after signing a deal with Warren in 2005 after the loss of the BBC deal in 2004 followed by subsequent deals with Warren after losing to Danny Williams and then Michael Sprott], I couldn’t fight with that same fire. Now, people are going to say that is an excuse, but if I’d stayed independent it would have been a different thing.”
It was exasperating, maddening and troubling to witness just hard how it was for Harrison’s career to really take flight. His loss to Williams for the vacant Commonwealth title in December 2005 (L12) was followed by a decision defeat to Dominic Guinn over 10 in America four-months later. Ironically, both Guinn and Harrison had featured on the cover of an issue of The Ring magazine that marked out those two and Joe Mesi out as the best prospects in the division.
There was a glimmer of hope when he gained revenge over Williams (WTKO3 in December 2006). Euphoric and excited, Harrison told the Klitschkos that he was coming for them and all the marbles at heavyweight. Two months later he was flat on his back after being badly knocked out by Michael Sprott in three. Some members of the crowd booed him while he was laid out on the canvas.
A loss to Martin Rogan over 10 in December 2008 should have been a huge shock to his fans, but by that point we were all stumbling around in a fog of bemusement and wondering what the hell was going on. It was his last fight under the Frank Warren promotional banner.
When it comes to Harrison hope springs eternal. He gained his vengeance over Sprott with an astonishing final round KO to win the EBU title in 2010. He challenged David Haye for the WBA belt later that year. I told anyone here in Manchester who would listen that this was the time. Faith would be rewarded. Those who had mocked us would have to eat their words.
Then I saw Harrison at the weigh-in and reversed my prediction. I felt like I had committed a sin. A single early jab from Harrison, his only scoring output in the fight, was followed by a third-round knockdown and stoppage. Cue more derision. It seemed that there would not be a world title at the end of the rainbow. Yet we still believed. He just needed the right opponent, the right night. Hope springs eternal once you have hitched your wagon to a fighter’s star.
A fourth-round win over Ali Adams for the vacant British Masters title in 2012 was followed by that devastating first-round KO against David Price, also a bronze medallist at the 2008 Games. Harrison being Harrison, he had teased the members of the tribe between those contests by securing his second Prizefighter tournament win, beating Martin Rogan en route. Our rematch king could still ascend to the throne. A few waves of that magical left hand had put another spell on us all.
People forget that there was a lot of good. He looked excellent when stopping Julius Long in his fourth fight and showed flashes of brilliance in other contests before really sustaining his form when beating Richel Hersisia (WKO4 in 2004) to win the WBF belt. His first Prizefighter tournament win was another high point, which in turn led to the second Sprott fight and a measure of redemption.
However, and as Harrison told me in 2012, there were some ugly moments. His fight against Dominic Negus was a messy disappointment. He followed up the Hersisia win with a clear but laboured decision victory over Julius Francis.
Then came the Tomasz Bonin fight. Bonin was giving Harrison fits before he came to life in the third and sixth before ending it in the ninth with some brilliant shots — although Bonin bitterly protested referee John Keane’s decision. The good, the bad and the ugly were all on display in that one. You can say what you like about Harrison, and plenty do, yet you cannot deny that his storied career gave his fans, his critics and anyone you care to think of value for money.
“It was the good, the bad and the ugly, for sure,” he concurred. “I turned up against Hersisia. I didn’t know what he was like, but did a number on him. With smaller guys like Bonin, I’d try to get them under control using the jab and my footwork then apply pressure, and I was a great finisher, once I got you hurt I could smell it and would take you out.
“I was a heavyweight with quick hands so could throw the combos, but my style was to set things up with the jab, not to just throw punches willy-nilly. Bonin was unbeaten, it was all about getting him to where I needed him to be to take him out. In the second fight against Sprott, I was injured [shoulder], written off and produced that big punch when it was needed the most.
“Against Haye, I’d had the shoulder surgery. I’d given up the European title. Then I got the phone call for the fight. It was six months away and I was being told by doctors it could take me a year to get there. I’m being told that this could be my only shot so I took the fight in that vacuum. I went to camp believing I could get there. My pec was breaking down and I was building it back up again. Mentally, I had told myself that I could get there, but I wasn’t there and it showed in the ring.
“One of the problems I had was that as I got older my left knee went. I’d been a great mover, at one point you couldn’t put a hand on me, but as I got older in my career, around 2007, 2008 and 2009, and bear in mind I used to be a football player, all that roadwork and plyometric work became something I could do less and less. I couldn’t move as well. I had to change my style a bit and it left me a sitting duck for Price and Wilder. I couldn’t skip around. I was wearing a knee brace. I wasn’t young anymore and had to try to change my style. I’m now putting my hands up, not moving as much and my knee is playing up.
“I also took some of the wrong fights at the wrong time,” he added, running through all aspects of his career. “After the second time with Williams I was offered Sprott and said, ‘I’m not taking it. I’ve just beat Williams, I’m back with world titles ahead so why am I fighting him?’ I had a great win, I wanted to enjoy it and now had a wife and kid so at first I was like, ‘Hell no’. Sod’s Law, I took the fight and look what happened.
“I knocked him down beautifully in the first round. Then I got caught. When I was flying back to England I just knew that it was all wrong. Everything was telling me to pull out. I didn’t want to be with this promoter anyway, but had had to sign to try to get to a world title. I wasn’t strong enough to pull out and then I got banged out. It is about listening to what you are telling yourself. If the universe is telling you something and you ignore it then something like that happens. I knew it wasn’t going to be my night. When you know, you know.”
An article in 2013 suggested that he had mulled over a final comeback only to decide against it for the sake of his son. The 48-year-old told me the real motivation behind his decision to stay away. “The decision to retire from boxing wasn’t down to my son,” he said.
“I lost to Wilder and I went back to the gym here in California. I was doing something called neuroplasticity, something that rewires the brain, and I took more punishment in the gym than I had during my entire career. I ended up with double vision. We talk about traumatic brain injury and, as we both know, any concussion causes brain injury. I got tagged, didn’t go down and I’ve now got permanent double vision.”
There were also claims that the damage he had accrued led to mood swings. Harrison stated he had suffered at least three traumatic brain injuries then had failed to reverse the damage despite taking a battery of tests and trying neuroplasticity. “The thing about mood swings is that anyone who worked for me at A-Force or was with me at university would say that I had mood swings way before that,” he explained.
“I am a no-nonsense guy when it comes to business and doing things the way I want them to be done. I’ve always been a serious guy. Obviously, getting hit in the head is not good for you long-term, so you have to minimise it by using the sweet science and to hit and not get hit, which is what I did. But I’d had so many injuries, so much to overcome. I thank God that I saved myself from myself.”
For Harrison, the legacy wasn’t the world title that never was — although he would have loved that — it is all about the fact that he ensured that the next few generations of British Olympians would have a fighting chance of winning medals. Amateur or pro, you can never accuse Harrison of quitting.
“‘Never give up’ became my thing: I tried, tried and tried — I look back fondly on my career,” he said. “I didn’t get what I wanted to get. I can still look back from where I came to where I ended up and think, ‘Job well done’. My legacy is there, man — there is no doubt about it. It is there in all the boxers who came through after me, where boxing is now, with the heavyweights now a beacon of light. We are in a good place. It has been a great journey.”
One of the many sticks critics used to beat Harrison with was that he lacked humility, aggression and, worse, didn’t have a fighting heart. To say he lacked heart is nonsense. We talk about the bravery required to step into the boxing ring. By the time he met Haye, Price and Wilder, Harrison’s body had broken down yet he still stepped in there with three of the division’s biggest punchers.
When preparing for Price he sparred Wilder and took a punch that he said almost detached his retina, the nightmare scenario for a boxer. It can lead to blurred vision and the end of your career. Ironically, Harrison had a clear vision for his career and where he wanted it to go. He never got all the way there yet the stick people beat him with about not having a fighting gene cannot be further from the truth as he was almost insanely brave by going in with Price and Wilder while surely suspecting what the outcome could be. It was the epitome of bravery in the ring. He should be commended, not criticised, for this.
Main image: Dave Thompson/Press Association.