Audley Harrison defied the critics and perhaps logic yesterday as he announced a U-turn on his retirement plans.
Last month had seemingly seen the end of an era in the world of British Boxing when Harrison announced his intentions to finally hang up his gloves after a rollercoaster of a career spanning close to 20 years.
Perhaps unfairly dubbed one of the sport’s biggest joke acts in recent years, the 41-year-old former Olympic Gold medallist and European Champion had originally decided to call it a day after American Deontay Wilder consigned him to his seventh professional career defeat inside the first round of their bout at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield.
But after less than four weeks out of action Harrison announced, via a statement on his personal website, of his intentions to return.
"As days passed, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with the decision," said Harrison. "Seeing my son born crystallised me decision."
Audley’s wife, Rachel, gave birth to Hudson Hugh Harrison on Thursday and the boxer said becoming a father has heavily influenced his decision to return to the ring.
"When I made the tough decision to walk away from boxing, I knew it was not going to be easy," Harrison added.
"There is no way I am going to tell my son, ‘I gave up because I didn’t want to climb the mountain again, I didn’t want to dust myself off again, when I’m now in the best shape of my career, doing things I haven’t done for years, and back in love with the sport’. How can I retire when I know I have another shot in me?
"If I don’t get up and try again, everything I’ve stood for would mean nothing. Setbacks pave the way for comebacks. I believe it so I have to live it and go again."
A-Force, who has only once in his entire career lost consecutive fights, was set to leave a legacy of disappointment and failure to fulfil enormous potential. However, the 6 foot 5 giant is determined to leave his career on a high by making one final attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
It was a career that had started so promisingly when, at the age of 28, off the back of a glittering amateur career, he claimed victory at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, crushing Kazakhstan’s Mukhtarkhan Dildabekov 30-16 on points in the Gold medal match.
After his medal win, Harrison was awarded an MBE, and in 2001 he turned professional: signing a £1 million deal with the BBC to show his first ten professional fights, making him the first British fighter to sign a direct broadcast deal. His autobiography: 'Realising a Dream' also hit bookshelves while sponsorship deals flew in from around the world.
Mike Middleton was clinically dispatched inside three minutes as Audley won his first professional fight at Wembley Arena, with over six million TV viewers also keeping a close eye on his progress.
Harrison continued to progress and continued to win – taking his first 19 bouts without defeat – claiming the WBF Heavyweight Title in the progress. In four years of unbridled success he conquered opponents from across the globe, winning bouts in both England and the US. His impressive 14 knockouts even included the unfortunate Rob Calloway, who was forced to retire after having his jaw broken in round five.
When the BBC decided to take all boxing off their schedule permanently, Harrison’s contract was not renewed. Harrison insisted the decision had nothing to do with his boxing ability and he quickly formed a new partnership with Al Haymon as A-Force Promotions was re-launched in the USA. On ‘The Best Damn Sports Show Period’ he said he was now ready to step up and face world class opponents and get a title shot.
But Harrison’s seemingly inevitable rise to World Champion was unceremoniously halted in December of 2005 as Danny Williams, already the veteran of 37 fights and vanquisher of boxing legend Mike Tyson, won a controversial split decision success. Williams, a long-time bitter rival and sceptic of the A-Force franchise, took the Commonwealth title and Audley’s career arguably never recovered.
Dominick Guinn became the first and still only man to inflict back-to-back defeats on the Brit as he claimed a unanimous point’s decision. Harrison put the defeat down to a loss in confidence suffered after defeat to Williams and promised to come back stronger.
Andrew Greely was knocked out inside three rounds as Harrison made an off-TV comeback fight in America and he was soon rewarded with an opportunity to take revenge on Williams, after Audley’s scheduled opponent – Matt Skelton – withdrew due to injury.
This time Harrison fought far more aggressively, flawing Williams twice and winning on a third round knockout. Williams was left with a broken nose and severe lacerations for his troubles and Harrison was once again lauded as a contender for the world title. He soon signed a promotion deal with Frank Warren, who promised Harrison a world title fight by 2007.
Those plans were quickly thwarted however when Michael Sprott became the first boxer to knockout Harrison as the pair fought for the European title. This third professional loss left Audley’s future surrounded in uncertainty and although he claimed he could make another comeback, Warren suggested than any return to the ring would be for a reduced purse, since the public would have no great interest.
Harrison belatedly returned on the undercard of the Bernard Hopkins vs. Joe Calzaghe fight in April 2008, defeating Jason Barnett with the new aim of a world title shot by 2009. Brazilian George Arias was also beaten on points in September, but after only gaining what the BBC described as "an unconvincing victory", and being overshadowed by Amir Khan’s first defeat later on the same card, his hopes of future success hinged on a fight with Belfast taxi driver Martin Rogan in December.
Rogan, unbeaten at the time and recent victor of the inaugural Prizefighter tournament, won the contest by a referee score of 96-95 and left Harrison’s career in tatters.
Unperturbed, an admirably determined Harrison returned to win 2009’s reincarnation of the Prizefighter tournament with three straight victories and began 2010 with a twelfth round KO of Michael Sprott, again avenging a defeat from earlier in his career.
In hindsight perhaps this was the point at which Harrison should have retired. His defeat of Sprott had earned the 39 year-old the EBU European Heavyweight Title and, despite his lack of a World title, had ensured him a highly respectable note to end an up and down career.
On the 8th June 2010, Harrison vacated his European title, announcing his intention of getting a world title shot, and Audley’s dream finally came true as fellow Brit David Haye offered him the chance to fight for the WBA Championship on the 13th November.
Unfortunately, the dream soon turned into a nightmare, with Harrison heavily criticised for his performance that culminated in a third round knockout after a barrage of punches from the ‘Hayemaker’. Statistics from the fight showed that Audley only landed a single punch in the entire duration of the contest.
British and Commonwealth champion Dereck Chisora stated: "I’d never show my face again if I fought like that. It was pathetic. He disgraced himself and he disgraced British heavyweights, he shouldn’t get paid the reported million pounds he is earning after that shambles." European light-heavyweight champion Nathan Cleverly also expressed his belief that Harrison should retire.
Harrison was even forced to suffer the indignation of an investigation by the BBBC, who withheld some of his purse while a full investigation into the fight was carried out. His full purse was eventually granted nearly two months later.
On the 15th November 2011, shortly after his departure from BBC reality show Strictly Come Dancing, Harrison announced that he would return to boxing for one last time saying that "It could be over, but I just need to go and check."
Despite a victory over Ali Adams in May 2012 that won Harrison the International Masters Heavyweight Title, defeat followed once again at the hands of rising British star David Price in October, the fight lasting just 82 seconds.
Be it foolish optimism, a hurt ego or the desire to regain some of his pride Harrison once again refused to retire and returned in March of this year to win his second Prizefighter title – his route to victory including a long awaited beating of old foe Martin Rogan.
But a second first round knockout in six months at the hands of unbeaten American Wilder, a widely touted possible World Champion of the future, had initially seemed enough to convince Harrison to finally call it a day.
In the wake of his return, Harrison commented: "I can’t walk away with that performance. If I do it would haunt me until I’m old and grey. I got up, they should have let him come to finish me and let me show what I got.
"People who worry I may get hurt, thank you for your concerns. We live in a free society and my desire for freedom and autonomy is my universal right."
Audley Harrison will only ever be remembered for the latter stages of his career: floored in a matter of seconds by a pair of boxer’s younger, fitter and stronger than Harrison. If titles were won on determination and heart alone then A-Force would have a very full trophy cabinet.
The risk with this latest comeback is that he will establish himself only as an embarrassment when, in reality, it seems unfair to clinically categorise Audley’s career as a failure.
While even Harrison would admit that he has so far fallen short of his own targets and ambitions, the success he did experience, especially early in his career, should prevent him being remembered as only a sorry looking fighter too scared to throw a punch.
Sport is not as simple as having a line separating success and failure. Look at the world of football that has lost the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher to retirement in recent weeks. None of them World Champions, all of them highly respected professionals who achieved many accomplishments in their careers.
Yes Boxing is an individual sport and reliant only on the ability of the individual, but a failure to win the ultimate prize should not distract from the many awards Harrison did capture. There is a grey area between success and failure, and whether you’re a glass half empty – he failed to achieve everything we hoped – or a glass half full – he still achieved so much – kind of person, Audley undoubtedly lies right in the middle.
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