“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
– John Wooden (US Basketball coach)
April 27th 2013 – it’s not a date that will be much discussed by fistic historians of the future. Belts didn’t change hands, nobody died, if anything, the boxing world collectively shrugged its shoulders. Meanwhile penny-a-line tabloid hacks sniggered and conjured sarcastic headlines.
So ended the final fight of the A-Force, Audley Harrison.
The apathy felt that night by the ten-thousand fans inside Sheffield’s Motorpoint arena and the rest watching at home was heightened by déjà vu. Harrison, the 2002 Olympic Super Heavyweight Gold Medallist, he of the dreadlocks and the natty one liners, purveyor of US-style, motivational rhetoric had just been done up in the first round. Again.
The whole event bore an eerily familiar air. He talked a great fight beforehand. He always did. Other than his Olympic success, Harrison’s ability as an orator was perhaps the biggest monkey on his back as a professional. He was so adept at creating and inflating expectation. Then when it was punctured, time and time again, people felt let down. They turned nasty. They still do.
Fraudley Harrison, Audrey Harrison, the A-Farce, these names will follow him to his grave. Before his last tango in the squared circle he had smiled at cameras and spoken softly of last chances and open doors, of putting things right. “This is make or break for me.” He said.
He was in against a fighter on the up, a real banger on a frightening bum-of-the-month KO streak, but one who was yet to be tested. If Audley could beat the odds and get through it, he said he’d go after the Klitschkos, or seek a rematch with David Haye. Those who remembered him losing to Michael Sprott and Martin Rogan raised eyebrows. “I’ve always had the ability.” He would say. “I’ve just got to get my mind right.”
The opponent that night in Yorkshire was, of course, Alabama’s Deontay Wilder, who now holds the WBC heavyweight title. The American was considered vulnerable, over protected and after Audley’s can-do mantras there existed a significant minority who gave him a chance, despite his previous capitulations. In the end, the fight lasted a grand total of one minute and ten seconds.
After all the well-chosen words, Harrison’s ring-walk had been sheepish, eyes wide with fear. Did he believe all the things he said himself? Once the moment arrived and the verbiage had to become action, it all evaporated. He emerged from his dressing room and through the waiting crowd like a mouse between the paws of a cat. All 6ft 5 and 18 and-a-quarter stone of him. You knew. You just knew.
From first bell he pawed a meek jab at Wilder. When the American advanced, he would scuttle back gingerly on his 41-year-old legs. His face, his body language, it all told you that he was that thing that no fighter should be. He was afraid. The first time the ‘Bronze Bomber’ connected with a right hand, Audley went. He crumpled back onto the ropes, using his forearms to protect his face while the enormous yank thrashed at him like a piece of malevolent farm machinery.
As Harrison rose at 8, dazed and crestfallen, what must have gone through his mind? For weeks he had waxed lyrical about leaving humiliation behind, banishing ghosts. Yet once again, around him the crowd booed, jeered and laughed. Failing to heed ref Terry O’Connor’s request to step forwards, he was stopped on his feet. There was a brief attempt at pointless protest, a clinging to a vestige of hope the stoppage could be premature, and then? What could he tell himself then?
It was over, but somehow it wasn’t.
Six months earlier, in Liverpool, the story had been much the same. This time the chinny banger clawing his way up the rankings was scouse skyscraper David Price. Coincidentally, Price and Wilder shared a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics. They also share huge right hands and a variety of technical and defensive limitations.
I remember watching the build-up with my wife. For all her many qualities, her appreciation of the noble art is limited, but she sat through this interview with Harrison by my side, then turned to me and said, “is he a really a boxer?”
I nodded. “Yep, he won the Olympics.”
“He doesn’t look like a fighter at all.” She continued. “He looks really nice, like he should be running a cocktail bar on a beach somewhere. There’s no fire in him.”
Audley lasted 12 seconds longer with Price than he did with Wilder. Other than that, the two contests were almost carbon copies. The first meaningful punch closed the show. Between those bouts he picked up another Prizefighter trophy and threw around soundbites about goals, missions and destiny.
No-one knew that Audley would never fight again after that evening in Sheffield. Initially he retired, but he’d done that before. Then he changed his mind. He’d done that before too. As recently as three months ago he was talking about a fight with Anthony Joshua to reignite his career. And then, just like that, last week he called time.
Post-mortems have poured forth, offering solutions to his riddles. What was it that Harrison lacked? Why did he never deliver? Was it heart, chin, head-movement, maybe all of them? Whatever the reasons, his Amateur promise did not translate to the paid ranks. He repeatedly came up short against international-class pros.
It doesn’t matter anymore.
The statement published on his website on March 26th made for interesting reading. Audley may not have ever reached the god-like heights he aspired to or seemed pre-ordained for after the Sydney gold medal, but he has achieved something else. Harrison sent a powerful message to fighters of any weight or level.
He will know that in practice, being a boxer is not like competing in any other professional sport, except perhaps Mixed Martial Arts. The discipline of dieting and training, lonely early morning runs are one side, although many sports exact similar demands. But the proximity of danger is unique.
As a fighter you will compete in an event in which your opponent will try to damage your brain. When the training is done and the crowd await, the arena hums with sweat and beer and you linger backstage, stomach churning, in isolation, you know that you must walk through them to the ring. There you will stand, almost naked, under the lights to bear your soul and maybe die before their eyes.
The psychological pressures are immense. To cope, young fighters must be heard-headed, stubborn. They resort to ‘never give up’ philosophies and epithets of invincibility. They refuse to listen to negative messages, refuse to stop, even when every ounce of their being tells them to.
This may appear to be bravery, but it is not just that. Serious, physical, public confrontation creates an intoxicating internal reaction. The adrenal and pituitary glands go into overdrive, pumping out hormones. Once this is experienced, it is impossible to replace. Without it, life becomes intolerable. This is why they do it and why they keep doing it. The body’s internally created drugs are deeply addictive too.
Sadly, for the young men we call fighters, this reality brings a new set of dangers. Like a skag addict who must up his dose to achieve the same high, the longer a career goes on, the more punches taken, the greater the risk of permanent damage. The truth is that nearly all boxers will suffer some form of neurological deterioration through the sport. The only question is how much. This is the price they pay for those nights of glory, of surging adrenaline, epinephrene and cortisone. The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.
In his statement Audley mentions new research into Traumatic Brain Injuries. He has recognised the symptoms in himself. For all of us this is food for thought. I know many fighters. Some are friends and relatives. I can think of several in their twenties who already slur their words. Others whose faces have changed markedly or are unpredictable and suffer mood swings. All these are symptoms.
Harrison talks of “years of denial” and “descending a little too rapidly into old age”. He has acknowledged the damage that boxing has done him. Few fighters are able to do that. Of course most of us knew he was finished after Haye in 2010. If he was ever going to do it, it was then, but he froze. Yet he kept telling himself and everyone else that one day he would achieve that dream. He just had to keep at it. The psychology imbued in him, imbued in all fighters, which carried him through to there, had turned against him. It is a trap too many fall into.
He refused to give up. He came back and back. People are applauding him for that, but then came Price and Wilder, two savage knockouts he did not need to suffer. He finally leaves the sport, like many before him, bankrupt and unfulfilled. He has to let it all go now, the validation he has sought for so long. He won’t find that easy. It is not a happy ending.
Boxing should remember Audley Harrison for that Olympic glory and his fabulous last round KO of Michael Sprott for the European title. We should also recall his charisma, his smile and eloquence, gifts he can use to make a new life. Let’s hope he got out in time and keeps them in retirement.
The world outside the ropes can be a cruel and unforgiving place for fighters. If Harrison is unsure of where to go from here, he could do worse than bear in mind my wife’s suggestion. He lives in California now, a perfect place for a charming ex-boxer to open a beach bar.
Mine’s a whiskey sour, Audley.
Good luck fella.
His next book, ‘Wiped Out?’ The Jerome Wilson Story will be available for pre-order shortly.