By Thomas Hauser
Audley Harrison has an attitude. "I've always been opinionated," says the man who triumphed in the super heavyweight division at Sydney to become the first British boxer in 32 years to win an Olympic gold medal. "I'll only do things on my own terms; never on anyone else's, unless their ideas match mine. Whatever social system or institution I've been in, I've rebelled against the authorities. I hate people telling me what to do. I could never be a middleweight and have people telling me I had to lose a certain number of pounds. Most people are afraid to speak out and put their neck on the line, but I'm true to myself. I'm a shepherd; not a sheep. I'm a non-conformist, a rebel. I love proving people in positions of authority wrong."
It's not lost on Harrison that, when he was younger, people would cross the street to avoid him. Now they cross over to ask for his autograph. "Being a public figure is a role," he says. "It's a game. Most people get tired of playing it after a while, but it's part of my job."
Harrison was born in London to parents of Jamaican heritage. When he was four, his mother left home to live with another man.
"I honestly couldn't tell you what she was like," Harrison says in his memoirs. "All I know is that she was a nurse, continues to live in northwest London, and has had three more children. It's a quarter-century since she left home, and I've seen her only three times since then. She has stuck with the guy she married second time around, so she can't be that bad. But there's no bond between us. She's just another woman."
Harrison's father, a plasterer, raised his four sons on his own. He considered giving them up for adoption, but decided not to when he learned that child welfare authorities would be likely to place them in separate homes.
"My dad is a decent hard-working man who has lived his life obeying the law," says Harrison. "He taught us all the difference between right and wrong."
Nonetheless, Harrison was a textbook example of a child from a broken home who went wrong. He was expelled from two schools, developed only meager academic skills, and was constantly in trouble with the law.
"When I was getting into trouble as a teenager," Harrison acknowledges, "I knew I was doing wrong. At first, it was about having fun and having an adventure. But as I grew older, mischief turned to misdemeanour and misdemeanour turned to crime. I never felt like a bad guy. I was a thrill seeking bored teenager brought up in a tough street environment where trouble hung in the air. But the older I became, the more I lived on the edge and the more risks I took. Scraps turned from fistfights to serious assaults involving bottles, knives, and knuckledusters. Most of the trouble involved showdowns with other gangs, although I did go through a bad bullying stage as I got older."
Ultimately, Harrison was incarcerated for 18 months after a wave of offenses including vandalism, street robbery, and assault. "I knew guys who, in all honesty, were no worse than me," he says, looking back on that time. "But they had stabbed someone in a fight and the guy had died, and they ended up doing life for murder. I could easily have been one of those guys. I'd been in plenty of nasty fights, and it was just luck that no one came at me when I had my knife."
Released from prison at age 19, Harrison resolved to turn his life around. He went back to school -- "I started at the bottom; got some basic qualifications" -- and eventually earned a college degree. While in school, he held a series of jobs ranging from work as a forklift truck-driver to a stint as a lifeguard. Meanwhile, his younger brother Rodney was a member of a local boxing club, and one night Harrison went to watch him fight. Soon after, intrigued by what he'd seen, he decided to give it a try.
"I was as raw as a boxer can be," Harrison remembers. "But I had an instinctive feel for it. I could throw a natural jab and a natural cross. My movement around the ring and my timing were good. I had quick hands. I could think on my feet. Everything felt right, as if I'd been boxing for years.
Harrison's first amateur bout was a second-round knockout of a local policeman in May 1992. Over time, he progressed up the ladder, winning a gold medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. But his ultimate amateur goal was Olympic gold.
Only two British boxers qualified for the 2000 Olympics. Harrison was one of them. There were 16 super-heavyweights in Sydney, and he prevailed with victories over Alexei Lezin of Russia, Olekseii Mazikkin of the Ukraine, Paolo Vidoz of Italy, and Mukhtarkhan Dildabekov of Kazakhstan. At age twenty-nine, he had fulfilled his dream.
Then it was on to Dream Two. Riding the crest of his Olympic success, Harrison turned pro with a financial flourish. Granada Media paid a large advance for his autobiography, written with Niall Edworthy. Octagon (a global sports marketing company) took him on as a client. But the centerpiece of Harrison's financial portfolio was an exclusive two-year 10-fight deal with the BBC for live United Kingdom television and radio rights to his fights. That deal, signed in January 2001, pays Harrison more than one million pounds. But oddly, the BBC failed to incorporate quality control provisions with regard to Harrison's opponents in the contract.
Therein lies the rub. On May 19, 2001, Harrison made his professional debut by knocking out an inept punching bag named Mike Middleton in the first round. On September 22nd, after a period of inactivity due to a cracked rib, an overweight out-of-shape Harrison boxed six dreary rounds en route to a decision over Derek McCafferty. A second round knockout of Piotr Jurczyk followed on October 22nd. After that, a damaged pectoral muscle sidelined Harrison for the rest of the year. He's now scheduled to return to action on April 20 at the Wembley Conference Centre against an American club fighter named Julius Long.
There are questions regarding Harrison's motivation as a professional fighter. There's also concern that he might be too fragile for the professional demands of the sweet science, given the fact that, as an amateur, he suffered through three hernia operations, a ruptured knuckle hood, a torn tendon, stress fractures in both feet, and torn ligaments in his shoulder. Doubts have also been raised regarding his training regimen. Between bouts, Harrison works with his former amateur trainer. Then, as a fight approaches, Thell Torrence and Kenny Croom fly in from the United States to sharpen him up.
In sum, Harrison hopes to follow in the footsteps of Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, the Spinks brothers, and Lennox Lewis as Olympic gold-medalists who won the heavyweight crown. But there are those who believe that comparisons with Tyrell Biggs are more appropriate.
"The British media is an interesting bunch," Harrison says of his critics. "I think they want me to do well, but they want me to do it on their terms. At this stage, it's about learning. People want me to get to the top, but it's important that I do it properly, which means slowly. I'll take plenty of punches and be in plenty of hard fights as my career goes on."
"My biggest assets as a fighter are my mental strength and ability to perform under pressure," Harrison continues. "In the ring, you've got to be prepared to go places where normal people can't go. It's kill or be killed. I'm a respectable puncher; not a big puncher. And for a big guy, I have good hand speed and good footwork. The guys I'm fighting now are the same level opponent that Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Lennox Lewis fought early in their pro careers. Give me time. I'll get there."
And then Harrison is on a roll.
"The press can sway public opinion, but it's not necessarily an accurate reflection of public opinion. I'm okay with the public's reaction to me as a professional so far. It's a big thing, being a British heavyweight. British fans are patriotic. They support their own. They're the most loyal fans in the world. But before Lennox, British heavyweight boxing was about fighters who were courageous, gutsy, strong, and losers. I don't want to be just another British heavyweight contender. I want to be heavyweight champion of the world. If it doesn't happen, so be it. But I think I have the talent to reach my goal. I don't fantasize. I visualize and dream, and then I make my vision a goal and do my best to turn it into reality. I'm boxing now because I want to; not because I have to. I search for adventure; and right now, that adventure is boxing. But if there comes a time when I don't want to box, either because I'm losing or because my skills have plateaued beneath the level where I want them to be, then I'm on to other goals."
What's left then is the issue of Harrison's contract with the BBC. There's a school of thought that neither the network or the public is getting its money's worth as Audley fights irregularly against the softest of touches.
Harrison responds. "In amateur boxing, there's a boy scout mentality. 'Think this! Think that! Do what we tell you to do!' And nothing prepares the fighter for the pros. But I'm beyond that. I'm cool, calm, and rational about the way I go about my business. Everyone, no matter what their job, wants to make as much money as they can. If they can negotiate more, they will."
"I negotiated a good deal for myself, and that's what I got," Harrison says in closing. "But you can't put a price on what I did for England. What I did at the Olympics touched a nation. I was carrying on her people's dreams. And I stayed amateur for 10 years pursuing my goal, because I needed a gold medal to do the business things I knew I'd want to do. But that medal wasn't guaranteed. I took the risks and put in the work, and it's only fair that now I reap the rewards. What's the point of boxing for 10 years and being the bravest gunslinger on the block if, at the end of it all, you have nothing to show for it?"
In sum, Audley Harrison might have broken the law when he was young, but he's not breaking any law now. All he did was go out and make the best deal possible for himself.
Over the years, thousands of boxers have been financially exploited by the system. If a boxer can go out and exploit the system for his own gain without doing anything unlawful, more power to him.
Award winning author Thomas Hauser can be contacted at email address: mthausermailto:mthauserrcn.com