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Audley Harrison won the Olympic super-heavyweight gold medal in 2000 at Sydney, turned professional and signed a multimillion-pound deal with the BBC as the great new hope of British boxing – and three years later simply vanished.
After an 18-month exile in Las Vegas, Harrison, now 34, returns to London on Saturday night when he fights compatriot Danny Williams for the vacant Commonwealth heavyweight title at Docklands’ ExCel Arena. ITV, which began to broadcast boxing again six months ago after a 10-year gap, will screen the fight, making it the first professional championship contest to be shown at prime time on terrestrial television in the UK since 1995.
Harrison left for Las Vegas June 2004 and boldly predicted that his future – which according to him was also the future of heavyweight boxing – would be played out in front of vast and adoring crowds of Americans. But injuries have limited him to just two fights since leaving Britain, and both of those easy wins failed to elevate Harrison’s position to the heights of his expectations. Since Olympic glory, his career has been one long anti-climax, risking himself against only mediocre boxers. He is unbeaten in 19 fights, but Williams is the first opponent to stand a chance of beating him.
Williams, 32, has been close to the top of the world heavyweight division since the late 1990s, but was brutally beaten last December by World Boxing Council champion Vitali Klitschko, who retired last month. Williams was knocked down seven times, and after the massacre he was advised by Frank Warren, his promoter, to retire. Thankfully for Warren and ITV, the boxer ignored the advice and fights for the promoter again tonight in a pairing that is likely to deliver the channel a high viewing figure.
Williams’ most famous victory was in 2004 when he beat Mike Tyson, who although past his best by then remained a serious contender. However, the loss to Klitschko and the nature of it erased the memory of that win, and many, including Harrison, believe the defeat was so severe that it has taken too much out of Williams for him to triumph tonight. “Danny has always lacked focus and that has cost him dearly,” said Harrison. “I have the focus, the talent, the team and the plan to succeed and win the world title.”
Harrison maintains there are fight options in the US for him to consider after tonight’s encounter. He insists these were in place long before he agreed to meet Williams eight weeks ago, but in boxing empty promises, deception and denial are often all that keep fighters sane.
Saturday night’s fight is too much of a risk for any boxer to accept if he has an option on a world title contest. Harrison has clearly had talks with American satellite channels Showtime and HBO, but the notion that he is a leading heavyweight player is rather wishful. The Briton is the best of a chasing pack, and once he has proved he can beat a talented rival over the championship distance of 12 rounds, he will get the respect he often talks about it.
Harrison is the punters’ favourite but that has more to do with his insistence that Williams is a “shot” fighter than an accurate reflection of their form. Williams says he is fine and that Harrison is trying desperately to convince himself that he can win. “I know he’s lost his nerve. I can tell because I’ve been in big fights before,” said Williams.
By 10pm on Saturday night, it will be clear whether Williams has anything left and if Harrison is as good as he has been claiming for five years.