Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Life and Times of Audley "A-Force" Harrison

Evening - I promised you all something lighter, so here it is.

As a new patron of the excellent Boxing Gossip channel on YouTube, one of the perks was the chance to ask for a video about a specific topic. Not wasting any time, I pretty much immediately suggested this to Tom, who (along with Hatman of HatmanStrikesBack fame) is undeniably one of the more knowledgeable pundits offering his take on the world of pugilism. While I look forward to the video that will follow, it also seemed apt to commit my own thoughts about one of British boxing's most divisive and controversial characters to the page. What follows is not a breakdown of what's available on Boxrec, but a more 'bird's eye view' of both fighter and man.

Cards on table, I eventually grew to have something of a soft spot for Audley, although this was not always the case. Earlier on in his career I joined in with the appropriation of some unfortunate nicknames that Harrison seemed to have almost accumulated a registered trademark on. Let's rattle a few off while we're here:- Fraudley, A-Farce, Gay-Force, Parcelforce, Fraudley Embarrison. Being referred to in this way can't have been any fun and must surely have a humbling effect on somebody whose early years as a professional were punctuated with arrogance and boasts about his 'greatness' and 'destiny' that were rarely (though by no means never) matched by in-ring performances.

This is the thing with Harrison - the setbacks he suffered did inject a dose of humility into the man and I eventually found myself (as someone who has made his own catalogue of mistakes) finding the continued outpouring of bile towards him by keyboard warriors somewhat excessive. It struck me that some of those self-styled pundits and armchair psychiatrists were projecting their own failings in life onto somebody else, or simply 'cyberbullying' what they saw as a safe, acceptable target. Audley had become a 'legitimate outlet' for the sort of abuse that might normally be reserved for convicted murderers, terrorists and paedophiles - this felt inherently wrong from a distance.

Many regard the fighter known as 'A-Force' as some sort of national joke figure, as if he's the worst British boxer in history or something like that. To illustrate the point, when Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff had his own circus of a heavyweight fight against a man who threw one shot in four rounds (and dropped Flintoff heavily with it), there was a serious discussion about whether or not Harrison should be his 'next' opponent. Thankfully, Freddie's abortive boxing 'career' ended the night it began and the almost certain trip to intensive care that Audley would surely have inflicted upon him never materialised. People who actually know boxing know how crazy such talk really was.

The facts of Harrison's career are as follows. He had a 31-7 record and was 19-0 at one point while being ranked in the Top 15 of a couple of the governing bodies. A former European and 'world' WBF champion, he also won the popular Prizefighter tournament on two separate occasions, becoming the first man to do so when he stopped the rugged American Derek Rossy to clinch an international version of the event in 2012. An anti-climatic first-round loss to current world champion Deontay Wilder would follow, mirroring his defeat to David Price some 18 months earlier. Then there's that WBA title fight with David Haye, for which Audley is mos fondly (or otherwise) remembered.

You can't talk about Audley Harrison without at least referencing the shambles against Haye, an avalanche of 'big build up' followed by a dreadful farce of an event in which it's well worth remembering the Hayemaker himself played more than a cameo in the perceived ripping off of the paying customer. It's not for me to state whether or not the fight was 'on the level' but that first round where neither threw a punch in anger ticks every imaginable box for a 'fixed fight' or betting sting and those questions have certainly been asked. If Harrison had some sort of pre-fight meltdown, you have to ask why Haye didn't latch onto this immediately and finish it there and then?

With regards to his career, while it hardly puts him at the echelon of the sport or comes seriously close to justifying the hype around Audley following his 2000 Olympics win, it's one that 90+ per cent of those taking up professional boxing would bite your hand off and accept. Possessed of very good (if sometimes overrated, not least by himself) skills and power, there is no doubt whatsoever that Harrison was plagued by several in-ring and external issues. However, the persistent charge that he is some sort of coward, or lacked the heart to be a fighter on a generic level, are amongst those I would emphatically reject. Try climbing in a boxing ring yourself before making such claims.

Probably the biggest issue he had was an acute awareness that his ability to take a shot did not come close to matching his talent for dishing it out when he chose to (see Hersisia, Wade Lewis, Williams 2 and the second Prizefighter win for evidence). Rather than trade on his own strengths and make the opposition worry about him, Harrison fought in a reticent manner reflective of somebody who was over-thinking, obsessed with quite literally hitting without getting hit. While this had served him well in the 'fencing with gloves on' sport that is amateur boxing, the pro game would expose this for the flawed methodology that it was and lead to a series of embarrassing losses.

Another 'Audley issue' was one of weight. I couldn't help but think that Harrison was sort of infatuated/obsessed with Lennox Lewis and wanted to emulate him rather than be the best version of himself that he could be. Remember the Lewis-style hairdo in the Haye fight? When he dramatically cut his weight (albeit very late in his career) from a bodybuilder-ish 18 stone to a more athletic 16-12, it was a glimpse of the Audley Harrison that could have been, albeit with a sense of 'too little, too late' attached to it. In that second Prizefighter victory, Audley looked slick, mobile and had lost precisely nothing in the way of power. He was never, ever at his optimum as an 18 stone fighter.

Then there are the problems around trying to do it all himself, way too soon. While it's true that he paved the way for Hayemaker Promotions and others, being something of a pioneer in the process, Harrison should really have been knuckling down with decent trainers and honing his craft in the pro ranks rather than attempting to (in his own words) build a business empire like Tony Montana. That his early fights (which would have been fine on undercards) were topping bills and being sold as main attractions only added to the suspicion held by many that he was overly attracted to the fame and money aspects of high-level sport rather than producing elite-level performances.

Perhaps the nadir of that period came when, after getting rid of Matthew Ellis in two rounds, Audley asked the paying public who they'd like him to fight next out of a 42-year old and mentally unwell Frank Bruno, or former WBO champion Herbie Hide. This was a cynical attempt to buy into some crossover appeal that reflected badly on all involved and after the audience 'voted' overwhlemingly for Bruno, a somewhat slighted Hide went absolutely insane and incited a full-blown riot. Harrison would later form a domestic 'Fabulous Four' with Matt Skelton, Danny Williams and Michael Sprott in what were unfortunate and barrel-scraping times for British Heavyweight boxing.

On ability alone, Harrison should really have been above all of that, cleaning up and then moving on.

Something else to ponder is the reason for Audley's eventual retirement, namely the discovery of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) that led to him losing his BBBC licence. Now I'm no medical expert, but TBIs are not the sort of injury that appear out of nowhere having not been noted beforehand. It is perhaps worth asking how many times Harrison had previously passed medicals by the width of a coat of paint, whether he knew deep down that he was endangering his health as well as his career by jumping in with the likes of Haye, Price and Wilder in particular. It would certainly go a long way towards explaining his hesitant and somewhat negative style when facing punchers.

Audley Harrison cannot possibly have been as bad as some of his detractors suggest or his career record would have been closer to 7-31 rather than the 31-7 it was (including a few victories in rematches). It's also worth asking how well he could have done if some of what I'd outlined above had been different, had he grafted away from the spotlight rather than embracing a celebrity lifestyle following the Olympic success, kept his weight down the right side of 17 stone and acknowledged that other fighters had at least as much to be worried about as he did, usually more so (perhaps Haye and Wilder, at least at the time he fought them, are the exceptions to this).

Could A-Force have left a Klitschko or Lewis-style legacy in the Heavyweight division, as he claimed he would upon turning pro? The answer to that has to be negative. Sooner or later, Audley's less than granite jaw would have caught up with him and at best rendered him a former champion, a temporary custodian of one of the alphabet straps. However, in the era of Maskaev, Chagaev, Liakhovich and Rahman I don't see any rational case for suggesting that Harrison could not have claimed a portion of the title, albeit briefly, given a different set of circumstances. There were glimpses of what he could have done but these were not frequent or consistent enough, sadly.

If you disagree with me then please feel free to add a comment below.

Many thanks for reading and I'll leave you with the only appropriate music I can think of - thanks Audley for all the memories and I'll catch you next time.

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