The Pugilist

Farewell to Audley Harrison: The man who inspired a generation

The Pugilist

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Twelve years after clinching Olympic gold in memorable fashion, this is surely the end for Audley Harrison. As a last stand, Audley mustered just 82 seconds of action before succumbing to the onslaught of David Price.

Aged 40, and after two decisive defeats to Davids Haye and Price, it is hard to see how the British Board could justify a decision to keep sanctioning Harrison's fistic exploits.

David Price is now the heir apparent of British heavyweight boxing, an impressive distinction given the stiff competition offered by Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.

It remains to be seen if Price will cynically wait for the Klitschko brothers to retire, but it is hard to envisage a future in which he does not eventually contest the world heavyweight title. He deserves any success which comes his way.

All the same, whilst his victory might serve as a chapter in the David Price story, it is more significant as the final chapter in the Audley Harrison story.

Harrison will be remembered as a failure - but what a failure! He tried to bring boxing back to the people by negotiating a deal with the BBC - it didn't last. He tried to control his own destiny by establishing A-Force promotions - it didn't work out. He tried to win the WBA Heavyweight title aged 38, against by far the toughest opponent he had ever faced, with a lingering shoulder injury - and he lost.

Even after that humiliating defeat to Haye, when a baying mob 20,000 strong booed him out of the MEN Arena - even then Harrison would not quit.

He dusted himself off, waited for his injuries to recede, and got back into training. After a warm-up fight against Ali Adams, Harrison signed to fight Price, the British heavyweight champion and a feared prospect. This is the very opposite of cowardice, of which Harrison is often accused.

Even in the match against Haye, a damp-squib farce which infuriated hundreds of thousands of pay-per-view subscribers, Harrison, having been knocked down after taking serious punishment, got to his feet to beat the count, only for the referee to stop the fight after a brief restart - a piece of officiating which Harrison later protested was premature. It wasn't, but Audley's fighting spirit is beyond reproach.

With Harrison losing this fight and Vitali Klitschko on the brink of retirement, an era of heavyweight boxing is coming to a close. Given that no single fighter has dominated, this is perhaps best described as the post-Lennox Lewis era.

When Lewis retired in 2003, he neglected to complete his duty as a heavyweight champion, breaking the title lineage like Rocky Marciano before him. The heavyweight division has not been the same since.

Heavyweight boxing was in the doldrums after Marciano retired, and didn't really recover until Cassius Clay burst onto the scene and challenged champion-by-default Sonny Liston.

The man we now call Ali had aspirations beyond the ring, and was able to take the heavyweight title to new heights. Ali's idealistic zeal meant that he was more than just a fighter, and whilst it would be laughable to compare their boxing records, the same was true of Audley Harrison.

A slogan for the 2012 London Olympics promised to "inspire a generation". It is no coincidence that the last British gold of the games came from Joshua in the men's super-heavyweight boxing, the same event which Harrison blitzed in Sydney. Indeed, the rude health of British heavyweight boxing today can be traced back to Harrison's maverick example, and the trail he blazed at a time when British amateur boxing was woefully underfunded. And he didn't stop fighting for young boxers once the medal was around his neck: this is a man whose protests on behalf of amateur boxing were instrumental in securing lottery funding for the sport. Every British fighter who has started his career via the Olympics since owes Harrison a debt of gratitude.

Despite the groundswell of young British talent, it is hard to see a potential saviour of heavyweight boxing on the horizon, a fighter with enough talent and charisma to restore the title to its former glories. There is not enough of Ali in the dull Price, the thuggish Haye or the clownish Fury. These are common-or-garden pugs and little more.

Above all, the problem is that the heavyweight title has lost its lustre as sport's richest prize because America no longer takes it seriously. US big men prefer to ply their trade in the NFL or NBA, where even the bench-warmers can earn millions. To put it into context, Deontay Wilder, the best American amateur of recent years, acted as a sparring partner for Harrison in the training camp for the Price fight.

Increasingly, heavyweight boxing has become an arena for mercenaries rather than gladiators. Nobody could miss Haye's refusal to go out on his shield against Wladimir Klitschko, preferring to limp home to a points defeat and blame his little toe. Whilst it is difficult to criticise Haye's choice, if you remove the Corinthian spirit from the fight game, it is reduced to the cruel spectacle of legalised violence.

Counter-intuitively, in the blood-business that boxing has become, the very biggest fights are not happening. Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao make more money preserving their auras and beating weaker fighters rather than facing off; Lewis chose to retire rather than giving Vitali a richly-deserved rematch; the Klitschko brothers refuse to prove who the real champ is, preferring to preserve their familial bond. Whatever the excuses, if the best are no longer compelled to face the best, boxing is no longer a proper sport.

Whilst this does not provide an outright case for the outlawing of boxing, it certainly adds fuel to that fire. Perhaps Mike Tyson best articulated the case for the defence when he said; "This is a great sport. It can take men from humble beginnings and have them rub shoulders with royalty."

For all his failings, Tyson understood that it is the duty of a boxing champion to go out fighting, to lose the crown, and to confer legitimacy to his successor. Even after Lewis beat Evander Holyfield, many people refused to acknowledge him as champion until he had vanquished 'Iron Mike'. Tyson was nearly 15 years past his prime and had a good appreciation of his chances - slim to none - but he was still brave enough to give Lewis his laurels. The opportunity Tyson afforded Lewis was the same that an ageing Larry Holmes afforded Tyson, that an ageing Ali afforded Holmes, and which Lewis denied Vitali Klitschko.

In this new pragmatic era, an era marked by a cautiousness no doubt explained by the tragic state Ali fought himself into, boxing still has a wider function as a platform for aspiring politicians of humble origin, such as Pacquiao and Vitali Klitschko, and wannabe moguls like Mayweather and Haye. Nonetheless, something is being lost and perhaps Harrison, a pure-hearted man who only ever wanted the love of the crowd, is the last of a dying breed.

The future now lies with Price and the coming generation. All there is left for Harrison to do is to return to his well-appointed home in the City of Angels, spend time with his wife and children, polish his MBE and his Olympic gold medal, and wonder how it all went so horribly wrong.

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By James Garner

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