Thursday, 22 September 2011

Strictly Redemption for Audley

Many years ago, I read an interview with Gary Numan in a music magazine where amongst other things, he took the time to thank his fans for sticking by him throughout a career that had seen its share of dizzy highs and prolonged wilderness periods. The one-time synthpop god turned rocker observed that "it's not always been easy being a Gary Numan fan" - as he was somewhat before my time, I never truly got the opportunity to be a committed fan of his work or otherwise, but Numan was very much a new man 'of his time' and this bunny imagines that in subsequent years, as fashion and music moved on, clinging to what was very much a phenomenon of the early 1980s might have become deeply uncool. Anyway, here's my favourite Numan/Tubeway Army number by several miles, 'We Are Glass'.

I thought of this because after hearing that Olympic Gold Medalist and under-achieving pro Audley Harrison had become the latest sportsman to take the Strictly plunge, it struck this bunny that a penny for the thoughts of A-Force on whether or not 'it has always been easy being an Audley Harrison fan' might represent very good value for money. For all his faults - apparent arrogance, bravado and more undelivered promises than Tony Blair, I still find an ability to like the man that defies anything that vaguely resembles logic. That gold medal he won by boxing superbly in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics has of course been the sole reason that he had so many opportunities to revive what could be politely described as a stop-start pro career and retain at least some of the celebrity status he enjoyed when he was very much 'the man' a decade ago. It has also been a weight round his neck, causing every move in that career to be placed under the microscope, judged against elite-level standards.

Of course, some of this is self-inflicted. Nobody forced Harrison, promoting himself under the A-Force moniker, to declare that he would become British champion in just five fights or continue such boasts despite ample evidence that he was not developing as a professional. Moreover, the Beeb themselves should know all about Audley and his tendency to disappoint, since they shelled out a cool million to broadcast his early bouts on terrestrial television. The fights themselves fell into two categories - hopelessly lop-sided mismatches where an over-matched relative midget was squashed in rapid time, and tedious contests that went the distance with Harrison pushed far too close for comfort. The names of Derek McCafferty Mark Krence and Dominic Negus will not be familiar to anyone other than genuine fans of the noble art, but that is entirely the point. All heard the final bell, clearly taking rounds off Audley in the process - hardly the stuff one would expect from the natural heir to Lennox Lewis.

Probably the best fight of the Harrison/BBC partnership did not take place in the ring, but followed A-Force's one-sided win over Matthew Ellis. This was the infamous occasion where talk of a bout between Harrison and a 42-year old Frank Bruno was gathering pace, shortly before the former WBC champion was sectioned under the mental health act. Fellow British heavyweight and all-round loose cannon Herbie Hide clearly feels left out as Audley and Frank pose for the cameras, deciding to take it out on the furniture. These scenes were indeed 'disgraceful' as commentator Jim Neilly put it, but as compelling television were stratospheres above the non-fight that preceded it.

Harrison was 28 when he won Olympic gold and unwisely spent the best part of a year being a 'somebody' before turning professional. In the first (it should be added, unbeaten) chapter of his efforts in the paid ranks, it was quite clear to the viewer that for a fighter looking to win world title fights that may go the distance, Audley possessed a serious issue with stamina and conditioning, fading badly in the latter stages of six or eight-rounders and allowing inferior opponents back into contests they should never have been in. As the calibre of opposition increased, the defeats came - long before the night he shared a ring with David Haye, A-Force had been firmly nailed to the canvas once, and found himself on the wrong end of three decisions by the judges.

The first of these was without doubt the worst 'fight' I have ever seen on television - when a crowd feels the need to chant 'fight, fight, fight' halfway through a contest, they probably deserve to be refunded in full. The 'winner' of this 'contest' was Danny Williams, former slayer of an ancient Mike Tyson and generally well-regarded amongst most boxing fans for his bravery and courage (he once won a fight against Mark Potter by knockout with the use of only one arm). After taking a split decision and the Commonwealth title with it, Williams later claimed that he had 'trained himself', opting not to bother with the services of long-time mentor Jim McDonnell, then prepared for A-Force with a regime that consisted of Pizza, films and Mr Kiplings cakes.

Apparently, he knew that Harrison 'didn't fancy the job' - when one boxer accuses another of essentially lacking the intestinal fortitude to fight, this is a serious business. This bunny has been in boxing gyms, weigh-ins and covered fights from ringside, so knows that as a general rule, fighters are a breed who extend respect to each other. For someone within the fraternity to apply the label of coward to anyone who climbs through the ropes implies that they have no right to be there, that they are cheating both the paying public and themselves. This questioning of fighting heart has, rightly or wrongly, dogged Audley every time a move in his professional career has not gone to plan, although he exacted brutal revenge on Williams nearly a year to the day of their first fight, at the same venue, the Excel Arena - without doubt is the most complete performance Harrison ever put together in the paid ranks.

This is the conventional media wisdom on the man, and it is worth exploring exactly how true this is. What becomes apparent when re-watching some of his amateur fights is that Harrison clearly fell into the category of boxers who were far more proficient in one version of the sport than they could ever be at the other. The sanitised world of the amateur ranks of course offers the protection of headgear, and is pretty much an examination solely of the technical attributes of boxing. It also operates on a computer scoring system that enables a tall southpaw like Audley to 'pick-pocket' points from the outside then escape from danger. This still takes considerable pugilistic skill, and there is no doubt that he excelled at it. In the professional ranks, with long and gruelling bouts calling on a man's character, fighting resolve and ability to 'hang in there', there is no point pretending that Harrison fell short in these areas, at least on occasion. A-Force is certainly more boxer than fighter.

In that sense, the smart thing to do if all other aspects were equal would have been to stay amateur and leave boxing historians to ponder "how would Audley Harrison have fared as a pro?" in much the same way as the sport's scribes do about Teofilo Stevenson. However, money talks and £1 million before taking a punch in anger will scream at absolutely anyone. Of course he had a choice, but the other was one that next to none of us would have made in the circumstances - ultimately, Audley was limited as a professional fighter, but stuck at it, launching several comebacks for considerably reduced purses (including the shoot-out of Prizefighter which is certainly no place for gutless wonders) and trying to make the most of what he had. For years, this bunny has viewed his brash pre-fight talk as an attempt to convince not us mere plebs but himself that he could do it. His nervous in-ring performances would appear to back this thesis up.

Can we talk about Harrison without mentioning that 'fight' against David Haye? I honestly do not know what to make of it - was it a betting sting, a one-sided mauling or an occasion that A-Force simply could not cope with and left him caught in the headlights? What I wanted to know at the time and a part of me still does is - if Audley lands flush on Haye with something resembling his best shot, what happens next? This was the million dollar question that led many (this bunny included - and it's online if you wish to look it up) that Harrison had a serious chance of springing an upset, if he could just park his demons for one night and regard it as a no-lose situation. When you saw him approaching the ring with eyes like saucers, it was natural to fear the worst - and it would be fair to suggest that the worst is what we got.

However, go to anyone lacing up a pair of gloves for the first time and tell them, "you'll be a Commonwealth and Olympic gold medalist, win your first nineteen fights as a pro, avenge two of your losses, claiming the WBF and European titles in the process - oh and  by the way, you'll freeze on the biggest night of your life and get tanked in a world title bout" and an overwhelming majority, probably 90 per cent or more, would bite your hand off. Judged by normal standards, Harrison has had a pretty successful career in boxing despite falling well short of his ultimate goal.

Of course the boasts and bravado have done him no favours, but he has also turned his life around since a mis-spent youth lost to gang culture wound up with a spell in a young offender's institute. Reflecting on his life and working towards a degree in sports studies was one half of his redemption, boxing the other. That ability to acknowledge that a portion of one's life has been screwed up and say 'no more' takes great courage and deserves genuine respect.

So if appearing on Strictly serves as some form of character rehabilitation with the British public, then it is one that he deserves - the scorn that has often been heaped on a boxer who undeniably fell short of our initial hopes has often been more akin to that aimed at a mass-murderer, and some of it has been vindictive and far from humourous stuff. This bunny won't be watching, but sincerely hopes he progresses in the competition - more than anything, it might buy Audley a few months away from the hostility that has followed him for most of the last decade. Perhaps it would be for the best if this were his last performance as a 'somebody' and he retired from boxing immediately afterwards?

I'll leave you with that winning performance in Sydney - take care and I'll catch you soon.

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