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20 Years Ago: Harding Upsets Andries in Atlantic City
By Paul Upham: Unknown Australian Jeff “Hitman” Harding walked into the Trump Plaza Convention Center in Atlantic City, USA on June 24, 1989 as a long betting outsider against WBC light heavyweight boxing world champion Dennis Andries. The raw 24 year-old from South Grafton, NSW had only fourteen professional matches on his record as he entered the fight of his life.
The offer for WBC No.2 ranked Harding to fight Andries was only finalised 23 days earlier on June 1, after the sudden retirement of Canadian Donnie Lalonde, who had been scheduled to challenge the Englishman for his world title.
“People are talking about me making a million if I can win the world crown,” Harding told the media, “but money is irrelevant at the moment. I just want that green WBC world title belt. That will make up for every sacrifice I’ve made in my 24 years. Not going out, not chasing girls. Living like a monk.”
The week before the fight, Harding, who won a silver medal as a middleweight at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, stunned some American locals by knocking down in sparring former WBC world light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad with a savage left-hook. Australian promoter Bill Mordey and trainer Johnny Lewis had realised they had a rough diamond on their hands.
Ringside at the Trump Plaza, the owner himself, Donald Trump, was seated in the No.1 seat in the house, alongside promoter Don King and then undisputed and undefeated heavyweight champion of the world “Iron” Mike Tyson. Baseball royalty was in attendance with greats Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams watching on.
24 year-old “Hitman” Harding, who stood 6’0 ¼ tall and weighed in at 174½lbs, had made his professional debut in July 1986 and his record stood at 14-0 with 11 knockout wins.
The 35 year-old champion Andries, 34-7-2 (21) had weighed in at 175lbs and was 5’10¼ tall. He was trained by the trainer of world champions Emanuel Steward.
In round 1, both boxers began at a fast pace. There were hard body shots traded as neither boxer gave ground in centre ring. Light on their feet, these were two superbly conditioned light heavyweights who could hit hard and punch fast. A right hand from Andries, dressed in the traditional gold Kronk trunks, cut Harding above the left eye towards the end of the round.
The match was televised live on the American ABC television network to over 30 million viewers as part of the Wide World of Sports program.
Blow by blow commentator Dan Dierdorf questioned whether the boxers could make it to the 12th round such was the fury being unleashed inside the ring.
“Not at that pace they can’t!” replied co-commentator Alex Wallau.
There were wild right hands from Andries in round 2. Harding’s chin remained solid as the fought at close range and you could have held the fight in a phone booth. There was no holding and little side to side foot movement. It was simply punch for punch being traded in centre ring. Harding, in black trunks with white trim, soaked up everything that was given to him and he simply kept working.
Harding stuck to his body attack in round 3, as Andries showed the first signs of beginning to tire.
“I’ve got the fight dead even,” Andries trainer Emanuel Steward told his boxer. “You’ve got to start throwing more punches.”
Originally born in Georgetown, Guyana, Andries became a UK citizen, before moving to Detroit to link up with Steward and train at the famed Kronk Gymnasium. A series of right hands from the reigning champion landed flush in round 4, but Harding kept walking forward. “The man is easy to hit with right hands,” observed Steward, at the end of the round. “Nobody can take them for so long.”
An Andries’ left hook in round 5 was glancing, but saw Harding sprawling on the canvas. The Australian was not hurt and went down more off balance than anything else. It was the first recorded knockdown of Harding’s professional career. He had reportedly been down once as an amateur.
At ringside, the voice of fellow Australian Jeff Fenech could be heard above all others, urging Harding to regain his momentum. The tall fighter worked his way back into the round with sustained body punching. The pressure on the champion was intense.
In rounds 6 and 7, Harding’s impressive conditioning was noticeable as he kept up his up-tempo workrate.
“We’ve got to be tidy,” reminded trainer Johnny Lewis, in Harding’s corner.
The brutal pace was taking its toll on Andries in round 8. He was less steady on his feet and backing off onto the ropes. Andries was throwing one big punch at a time as he tried to knockout his advancing opponent to bring a quick end to the contest, which was sapping his strength round by round.
But Andries was stung by a Harding combination and he was forced back onto the ropes. The taller fighter was beating Andries to the punch. Fellow Australian Jeff Fenech, seated next to Mike Tyson, was applauding enthusiastically at ringside.
Blood trickled from Harding’s mouth in the corner as Lewis inspirationally urged him on. There was a confidence about his demeanour, despite his inexperience in the environment he was exposed to.
It had been the best round so far for Harding and over in the opposite corner, Steward was making it clear to Andries what he had to do to win.
“You got to knock this man out!” he demanded.
There was some relentless attack from Harding in round 9, as Andries tried to fight him off. Some right uppercuts caught Harding and pushed him back onto the ropes. He simply shrugged them off and marched further forward. At the bell he strode back to his corner with determined purpose.
“You have to stay in close, you are hitting him six to one,” pleaded Lewis.
By looking at the faces of the two boxers at the beginning of round 10, Harding was certainly the worse for wear and looked like he was fighting a speeding express train which had been bearing down on him. There was swelling to his left eye and cheek. Blood flowed from his nose and mouth. Andries was less banged up, but gave the impression that he was hanging on only through his champion’s heart.
Harding looked like a beaten fighter in round 11, but he simply kept coming forward. He was punching constantly and showed no signs of letting up, despite the punishment he had sustained A right hand snapped Harding’s head back violently, his eyes looking up at the ceiling of the arena for a split second. But there was no let up. A six punch combination finishing with a hook to the jaw knocked Andries back into the ropes. It was a give and take war.
Andries was hurt to the body and he backed onto the ropes again. The champion was trying to punch back simply to survive. At the bell, Harding had a spring in his step as he almost ran back to the corner.
This was the longest fight of his career so far. Never before had Harding contested an 11th or 12th round.
Lewis urged Harding to summon one more round of fury to take the world title from the champion. Unbeknownst to Harding, he was behind on all three judge’s scorecards and needed a knockout to win.
With the opening punch of round 12, a left hand rocked Andries and he was pushed backwards and caught on the ropes. He was trying to fight his way back, rather than hold on, but he was an easy target and Harding unleashed a right which put Andries down on the canvas.
Andries struggled up and beat the referee’s count. Harding rushed in and dug to the body and then landed another right hand. Andries was down again and slowly climbed back to his feet. Again, Harding rushed forward with Andries seemingly only held up by the ropes. The Australian dug to the body and Andries was unable to defend himself. Referee Joe Cortez jumping in to stop the fight by 12th round technical knockout at the 1:23 minute mark.
Blood was streaming down Harding’s face from a large wound above his right eye. But he felt no pain. There was only jubilation as he charged back to his corner to share the win with his team. They embraced in centre ring and then held Harding aloft on their shoulders, as ring announcer Michael Buffer uttered the best phrase in boxing that any boxer could ever want to hear, “And NEW champion of the world...”
The tall, skinny kid from South Grafton in New South Wales, Australia with the endless reserves of guts, courage and determination, was now the WBC light heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
“Hello to my mum and dad at home,” said Harding. “I’ll be home and I’m the champ!”
Harding praised his trainer Johnny Lewis, who had decided to accept the fight.
“Johnny Lewis took the fight,” he explained. “That was as good enough as a win for me. Johnny Lewis. I love this guy. I got the knockout. I was there to the end.”
Going into the final round, Harding was behind on all three official scorecards. Judge Ismael Quinones Falu had 107-105, Judge Arsenio Garcia 104-103 and Judge Richard F. Murry 106-103, all for Andries - something that the now former champion was not aware of.
“You kidding me? I was told that I was behind,” said a dazed Andries. “It was an amazing fight. I take nothing away from him.”
It was one of the most dramatic endings to a boxing match in many years. It was pipped for Fight of the Year in 1989 only by the equally amazing Roberto Duran vs. Iran Barkley split points decision.
“One of the best performances I’ve seen in 30 years of watching sporting events,” said Harding’s promoter Bill Mordey.
“A better performance than Rocky,” said American promoter Bob Arum, who had watched from ringside.
“Forget Phar Lap and Jeff Fenech after the courage Jeff Harding showed today,” said three-division world champion Jeff Fenech.
Messages of congratulations flooded in for the new world champion.
“Congratulations on your magnificent victory,” said Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. “You showed great courage in coming through in the final round.”
Harding was taken to hospital after the fight and had 21 stitches inserted in cuts over both his eyes. While celebrations roared on around him, he was just happy to have the WBC world title around his waist and his trainer by his side.
“I was disappointed I didn’t get my picture taken with Mike Tyson,” smiled Harding, “but when Johnny put his arms around me and said: I love you, Hitman, nothing else mattered. I was the world champion and no one is going to beat me.”
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