Audley Harrison: Before

Audley Harrison MBE (31-7, 23 KOs) was born and bred in London. He is still a proud Londoner and Englishman. You can still hear it in the 48-year-old’s voice when he talks about his city and country yet he relocated to Los Angeles in the mid-2000s when the British press and some parts of the public, who had held him aloft as an idol following his 2000 super-heavyweight Olympic gold medal win, turned on him as his professional career unfurled.

Harrison and his wife, Raychel, run a successful hair salon, Salon Nuuvo in Calabasas, as well as overseeing a chain of products, Nuuvo Haircare. Towards the end, boxing was not kind to the southpaw, but LA has been good to him and is the place he calls home. The salon is in the process of getting fully back up-and-running again. The couple kept their styling staff on throughout Lockdown 2020 and things are on the up. Boxing-Social caught up with Harrison and, as you would expect, the start of every Lockdown conversation begins with the same question, namely: “How are you handling this unprecedented situation?”

“It is interesting,” said Harrison. “My empire became my home. We have the salon side of it and the products side of it. I have my operations still going with A-Force, so we have that part of the business to navigate as well. You’ve got to cover up when you go out. Plus you have all the things that they are saying about hygiene, too, but I’ve always been anal about hygiene. I wash my hands every five minutes. None of that stuff is new to me. It is probably because I’ve been in the boxing ring and gyms, where you are forever showering and washing your hands.

“The situation we are in is like seeing the swan in the lake gliding majestically across the water while underneath the feet are going frantically. You can’t prepare for these times so just get through it the best you can. We’ve got about 15 employees in the salon so that is tough as they are not independent contractors, they are dependent on us to build them a career, which we’ve done.

“Then you’ve got all this information out there. Too much of it. It will pass, but this is something that, like the Spanish flu, we will talk about for generations to come. You’ve got a daughter yourself, when your little one is in school she will get taught about this. They will be teaching about it in hundreds of years because of the impact it has had on the world. People will say, ‘Where were you when the pandemic went down?’”

In the beginning, the news reports, forecasts and predictions became so overwhelming that I stopped watching them, opting instead to keep using the same few shops, following the hygiene rules and hoping for the best. The news was a constant cycle of negativity and naysaying as people working within that industry tried to provide content. Things have not settled down and every single news story has Covid-19 coursing through its veins. It is an incessant avalanche of information and disinformation. 

“I agree, there can be too much information and some information is disinformation due to fake news, social media and people posting stuff,” stated Harrison. “I was fortunate enough that I went to university and part of doing a degree is that you became good at research — you go out there to check the sources. I am good at seeking the truth. A lot of stuff is not correct. It gets jumped on and goes viral, so you have to dig deep and be careful what you’re putting out there.”

Harrison’s professional career never hit the heights that it was expected to hit. He was stopped four times, against Michael Sprott (LKO3 in February 2007), David Haye (LTKO3 in 2010), David Price (LTKO1 in 2012) and Deontay Wilder (LTKO1 in 2013). He retired after the defeat to Wilder.

Those of us who followed the journey from the start know that Harrison and Courtney Fry were the sole British representatives in the 2000 Australia Games. Four years later, Amir Khan represented Britain in Greece at the 2004 Games and won silver.

By 2008, Khalid Yafai, Joe Murray, Bradley Saunders, Billy Joe Saunders, James DeGale, Tony Jeffries and David Price were part of Team GB (World amateur champion Frankie Gavin was sent home from the pre-Olympic training camp in Macao for failing to make weight). DeGale won gold at middleweight, Jeffries earned bronze at light-heavyweight and Price was the bronze medallist at super-heavyweight in Beijing. Harrison had fought long and hard for further funding years before their journey began. He set the scene and it peaked in 2012 with beginning of the rise of Anthony Joshua at the London Games. British boxing fans didn’t like to talk about heavyweight boxing in the past, now some of them don’t talk about anything else.

As an amateur, Harrison took his fight to Parliament, where he presented Tony Banks, the Minister of Sport, with a petition containing 2,000 signatures and asked for more money for boxing. He got it and, by the summer of 2000, he had his hands raised aloft following a 30-16 win over Kazakhstan’s Mukhtarkhan Dildabekov.

Team GB’s Audley Harrison (right) en route to gold against
Kazakhstan’s Mukhtarkhan Dildabekov at the 2000 Olympics.
Photo: Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport/Press Association.

The Institute of Sport, Team GB and their dazzling Sheffield base all had their foundations laid by Harrison. People are either quick to forget that or didn’t know it in the first place. Even if you discounted his professional career, one that saw him win the European heavyweight belt with a last-gasp revenge KO over Michael Sprott in 2010 as well as challenging for David Haye’s WBA world title later that year, Harrison’s contribution to UK boxing has been ringing out throughout the years.  

“I definitely left my mark on the amateurs,” he said. “I marched to Downing Street with a petition, made a press release, got all the boxers from my university to walk with me to meet Tony Banks, rest his soul, and wanted to fight the system for them. I said look, ‘I got the gold medal [in the 1998 Commonwealth Games], but you guys need to give us something to get us started’. That got us almost 500 grand and that kicked off the full funding for the 2000 Games. [His former amateur coach on Team GB] Kelvyn Travis, Ian Irwin and Terry Edwards also played a part in it. That’s where it started.

“You had the institute of sport, where the Amir Khan story started in 2004, then the James DeGale story, Tony Jeffries, David Price, and then the ‘AJ’ and Nicola Adams story,” he recalled. “It all came from the World Class Performance Plan in 2000. Look at Nicola, if a girl went to a boxing gym back then it was hard for her to get in there in the first place.”

Harrison’s desire to inspire and help others was fully realised when he went to Brunel University. A former prisoner and youth offender, he arrived there with a clear purpose. At a time when his peers were partying, he was parlaying the experiences of his youth, the streets and prison into his love of boxing and studying. He graduated with a degree in Sport Sciences and Leisure Management in 1999.

“When I got to university, I was 25 and most of people there were 18 and having the time of their life,” he said. “They were working on that maturity yet I was already mature and couldn’t mess around. I couldn’t enjoy the student parties. I’d already done that messing around. Plus I had three jobs: working security, as a lifeguard and as a personal trainer. I was on full-time catch-up as it was time to get serious in life. 

“There was also different clubs and fraternities, but we didn’t have a boxing one so I got on that and created one. We became really popular, we had around 80 members, and I arranged inter-college boxing tournaments, so I got my boxing trainer’s licence through the ABA and promoted my first boxing championship. We had six girls who got carded up and two of them fought each other on one of my shows.

“My university boxing club was the first club at university to have girls boxing, which was kind of frowned upon, but one of the stipulations for the World Class Performance Plan was that it had to be inclusive. Some people don’t remember that. Fake news is out there in abundance, but I was out there carrying the can.”

Harrison’s road to the 2000 Games was a rocky one, he tried three times to qualify before securing his berth. There were in-ring setbacks and drama outside the ropes. Terry Edwards was the GB Team’s Boxing Coach yet their relationship had broken down before the Games began. In an unprecedented move, Harrison demanded his own training team and told Team GB they could either like it or lump it.

Harrison celebrates Olympic gold, but he was also the catalyst
for future glories. Photo: Toby Melville/PA Archive/PA Images.

‘What’s the point of having a guy in your corner whom you hate, and whose advice you don’t want to hear?’ he stated when writing about Edwards in Realising The Dream, an autobiography that was released in the aftermath of the Games. He later credited Travis for the medal win that changed his life, Irwin was also part of the corner team that took him to success in Australia.

“My thing was about control,” he said. “Even during the amateurs, before the Olympics, I was in a terrible situation with Terry Edwards and said to Team GB, ‘If you want me to win gold, I can’t have him in my corner’. It was terrible behind the scenes. I didn’t look back. It was the same as a pro, people might say, ‘If you can’t get your own way just move on’, but I couldn’t move on. People would say, ‘That is ridiculous, Audley’.

“I always did things my own way. I remember a guy called Steven Cranston in the amateurs. He was a big guy, my first big test as an amateur and my first trainer, Pat Wilson from Northolt Amateur Boxing Club, wrapped up my headguard with tape. I said, ‘Pat, why are you doing that?’, and he said, ‘Just in case!’. I went out there, walked him on to a left in the first 10 seconds that put him flat on his back and that let me know the type of competitor I’d go on to be.

“Then I remember boxing Danny Watts, everyone thought I was going to be the big cheese. Instead, I went up to the Army barracks and Danny punched me all about the ring, I just didn’t perform. The good, bad and ugly of Audley Harrison was even there in the amateurs.”

Those who still try to discredit Harrison’s amateur career argue that he won his medal at a time when the point scoring system was geared towards a picking and poking, almost fencing, style of fighting yet his win over Dildabekov was based on intelligent pressure rather than just trying to pile up points on the computer system. Still, the argument when he turned professional was that he never quite made the transition to a new style of boxing. 

Harrison, though, still maintains that some problems he had in the ring as a pro were not down to spending so long in the amateur game and that he was fundamentally the same fighter in both disciplines. 

“They used to get on my back in the amateurs and pros because my style wasn’t about taking you out, it was about applying pressure: control the tempo, control the flow and space — it was about timing and distance. Look at Joshua against [Andy] Ruiz, he didn’t control the space in the first fight. If you take control of the space you take control of the fight. That is what boxing is all about.”

As ‘A-Force’ got older, he got wiser. His time in Feltham Prison had focused his mind on what he needed to do to rise above the situation that life had landed him in. However, it meant that there were some lost years. Harrison rarely raises any regrets, but he does have some advice for aspiring fighters. “If I had to tell the kids anything, it would be to do it when you are young,” he said.

“Not many people had the gumption I had to keep coming back after getting knocked on your back — and that was in life, forget the boxing ring. I had to overcome so much behind the scenes. I kept bouncing back, but in the end it got to me. If you are young, you can take the knocks and have enough energy left to get things done.

“It depends on how strong you are, how many hits you can take and keep moving, and by keeping the faith. I took some hits in life. I came from a rough, tough neighbourhood with no mum in the home, just my dad raising these boys. I was out wild in the street, no time for school and then in a young offender’s institute. I was way off the beaten path, but you can always come back.

“I came out of prison with more than a feeling, it was a purpose and, once I made up my mind, that is who I was determined to become. I went to university and I used boxing to get focused. I never wanted to be that boxer coming through with no education. They always speak about that in boxing. It grates with me. Once I knew that boxing was going to be the one, I knew I had to get an education so I wasn’t labelled as a boxer with a criminal record and no qualifications. I just did one course after another one then, the next thing you know, I’m at university.”

It was and still is a hell of a journey. A fractured family. The streets. Prison. University. The Olympics. LA. Those early days were a roller-coaster ride for Harrison, one that was only just hitting its first peak, and he was firmly in control of it. By the time he won gold, he had his hands firmly on the wheel.

Over time, he lost control and never recaptured those halcyon days of Summer 2000. It was frustrating for his fans, gratifying for his enemies and critics, and maddening for the man himself. Despite all this, he is one of the few who can genuinely pull a Frank Sinatra and say he did it his own way. Unlike most pros, Audley has taken ownership of his post-boxing life.

“No doubt,” he concurred. “People had the same frustrations about me in the amateurs as they did in the pros. It is a process. I had a gameplan, an agenda and was going to get there. In the Olympics, I finally shutdown all the outside noise. I was doing all these other things like the doors [security work] and personal training then finally had to let them go to focus myself. In the last six months, everything went into that one thing, the gold. When I am in something, I’m maximised in it.”

“It is coming up to 20 years now,” he added. “That moment in time is one that many people still say, ‘I’ll never forget it’. It lifted the nation, changed the face of boxing in the UK and there is no doubt that it was the springboard for amateur boxing.”

It is true. It began with gold in 2000. The amateur game was a thing of the past for Harrison, though. It was time for the professional business, with the emphasis on business, and he busied himself with getting the right team together. It really was a great year. Lennox Lewis had just dominated David Tua and was apparently breezing into a showdown with Mike Tyson. Harrison had netted gold and was the heir apparent to the throne. What could possibly go wrong?

Read about Harrison’s professional career in Part Two: After.


Main Image: Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport/Press Association.