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June 2001

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Olympic super heavyweight champion Audley Harrison's long-awaited pro career kicked off with a quick win surrounded in controversy. GLYN LEACH reports

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SOUTHPAW: hooks and crosses pounded Middleton into submission - Get Big Pic

Some fights just don’t warrant overdue taxing of the brain matter at my stage in life. Nor do they inspire me to leave my TV set for the arena (in this case Wembley, on 19 May) unless I can gain confirmation there will be a press pass waiting for me. And the professional debut of Britain’s Olympic super heavyweight champion from the Sydney Games qualified thus.

  We all knew what would happen when the 6ft 5ins, 18st 8lbs (260lbs) of muscle that is Audley Harrison — publicity prince and charisma king — was matched with American Michael Middleton, a bloke who not even the hardcore had heard of. (Is he black, white, Chinese?)

  What we had at Wembley was an event, a belated homecoming-cum-coming out party for a hero who would have punched for pay already had it not been for hand damage incurred Down Under.

  This debut, hardly unexpectedly, was not, repeat, not, a competitive athletic event. It was fun time. And the career of the massive, sculpted Eastender looks as though it could be a fun ride — for however long it lasts.

  Noted more for his outstanding abilities as a self-publicist, aided and abetted by the powerful Octagon Agency even before the Olympics, little was expected of Harrison in Sydney. The perception was that if Harrison could fight as well as he could talk, then way too many troops were used to retake the Falklands. Hand of God or not, Mr Maradona, your arse would have been grass, there only to be cut to bits by a Cockney lawnmower — on his lunchbreak.

  And clearly, if you listened to Our Aud, he would have romped Desert Storm in a matter of minutes, without the need for those insidiously brilliant but awful missiles that turn left at traffic lights and disappear up drainpipes — consider yourself lucky, Sadaam.

  But not only did Harrison come home with the medal in the division that kicked off the career of Lummox, sorry, Lennox Lewis at Seoul in 1988, he won over a nation with his easy charm, effortless eloquence and frighteningly complete confidence in front of the TV camera — the exact opposite of Lewis, in fact, and with a London accent rather than a mid-Atlantic drawl.

  With Lewis, we always hoped that a star would form. But we’re still waiting 13 years on. The lack of natural warmth in his public persona never has dissipated.

  In Harrison, a star was born and established in little more than 13 days, as long as it took him to cruise through his Olympic prelim matches and then dominate the final. A couple of TV interviews et voila.

  He returned to Britain and a two-year TV contract with terrestrial network BBC1, who had the sense to realise that here was a boxer that was not just worth covering, but who had the potential to develop into a presenter with a little encouragement. Stellar appearances on stalwart shows such as A Question of Sport only confirmed the impression.

  All systems were go for pro fight No.1.

But then the “issues” arose. There’s nothing stellar about what, in my opinion, was the catalogue of cock-ups surrounding this show (one of which being, I was informed by super snapper John Gichigi, that I didn’t even have a pass there, hence my watching it live on BBC1 like all but 5,500 of you — a good turnout for a debut, by any reckoning).

  Over six million viewers tuned in, four times the amount of last year’s highest boxing viewing figure. Hopefully they will not have been turned off by the tasteless political bullshit that provided an unpleasant smelling backdrop to the big man’s debut.

  I’d written months ago that Harrison seemed incapable of putting a foot wrong, so sharp did his dealings with the media and business fraternities seem. And, as usually is the case, that situation proved too good to be true.

  The problems started — or at least I became aware they were about to start — when I spoke to genuine, pukka boxing writers Steve Bunce and Steve Lillis, via mobile as they travelled by train to Hertfordshire (Frank Warren’s manor, for the uninitiated), for a lunchtime press conference on the Thursday of fight week.

  “Warren’s hijacked Middleton,” blurted Bunce in his usual understated manner once a story has his blood up.


  “Warren’s hijacked Middleton — I’ll call you later.”

  Of course, Bunce being Bunce, he didn’t call. And me being me, I never expected him to anyway.

  Not on deadline at that stage, I figured I could wait until the morning and “read all about it” in The Independent (still paying wonderfully rewarding rates, I understand) and The Sport, lesser organs of my incredibly well-hung journalistic compadres, who double as porn stars following the sad demise of John Holmes.

  Having developed a moral objection to buying The Indy after one of its I’m-so-far-up-my-own-arse-I-can-see-my-tonsils columnists rang BM’s office and was incredibly rude to one of our staff, I photocopied Buncie’s report from a copy in the local bagel shop. And found the article highly revealing.

  Clearly, not everything about Harrison had turned professional and all was not as rosy as I had once imagined, indeed hoped.

  Buncie’s opening para set the scene perfectly: “Audley Harrison, his manager, Colin McMillan, and his promoter, Jess Harding, were yesterday accused of trying to deprive the American boxer Michael Middleton of as much as £50,000.”

  Reading on, the Bunceman related a ridiculous situation whereby part of Middleton’s British Boxing Board of Control contract for the fight had not been filled in properly and resulted in the Florida journeyman becoming entitled to 21.25% of the TV revenue rather than the paltry £3,500 he was originally offered.

  The Harrison team’s attempt to diffuse the situation stretched so far as to offer Tampa Private Dick Mike (and he ain’t so great in public, either) a couple of hundred quid more.

  “They’ve attempted to screw me,” claimed the American, who thinks better than he fights. “It is that simple.”

  It certainly seemed that way to me, too.

  Middleton sought out the services of Andy Ayling, a young but vastly experienced Warren cohort who could erase his growing physical likeness to Heinrich Himmler simply by growing his hair a bit and buying a different pair of specs.

  (Note: Ayling looking the spitter of Himmler does not reflect at all on his wonderful employer, who, I must point out for reasons of legality, has absolutely no similarities to a failed Austrian artist who had a penchant for opening highly dubious shower complexes on the Polish border a few years ago and, at least in conversation with myself, Warren has never spoken in terms of annexing the Sudetenland, for all his ambition.)

  Suddenly, if only through association with his manager and promoter, Our Audley was starting to look like a bad guy. He was taking home a reputed £250,000 compared to Middleton’s purse, which would hardly have bought the American a decent holiday to recuperate from the beating he was hired to receive.

  Speaking of Middleton’s contract, his newly acquired British lawyer, Bernard Clarke, reportedly claimed: “It is a terrible document, the most one-sided contract I have ever seen.”

  Advised by the Warren axis, who I don’t blame one iota for this bit of tampering — here I think of them like the Paul Whitehouse character in The Fast Show, the “I’m a little bit whey, a little bit whoah, geezer” who you can’t leave an opening for because he will capitalise on your mistake/stupidity. Basically, it was so damned easy for the men from Herts to mess with this situation that they simply couldn’t help themselves.

  In their boots, I would have done it myself, if only through disappointment in former WBO feather champ McMillan. As secretary of the Professional Boxer’s Association, he should not, in my opinion, have been party to such shenanigans. I consider his situation with the PBA to be severely compromised by all this.

  Middleton immediately turned up the heat by sending in his £25 to join the PBA, thus placing McMillan — who is quoted in the Bunce article as blaming Harding for the contract cock-up — under further pressure. McMillan was now representing a fighter he managed, Harrison, against a PBA member. Utterly ridiculous, totally untenable and, I would have thought, exactly the sort of crap that the PBA was set up to eradicate.

  Anyway, I’m getting bored writing about this particular crap-laden aspect of the fight and I’ve just heard on the radio that, very sadly, Courtney Love has had a miscarriage and so, as a longtime admirer of Ms Love and her Hole (Kurt was just a pussy), please allow me to move on.

  But first, a word of advice for Audley, from a fellow Hackneyite — sort it, mate, this emphatically cannot be allowed to happen again. However, something tells me that if the A-Force is a fraction of the entity I believe him to be, he will already have that one worked out. Nuff said.

Come fight night, Mick the Dick, accompanied by Ayling and Robbie Warren (brother of the magnificent Frank) waddled to the ring knowing that he would now be paid around £35,000 — a nice, round $50,000.

  Middleton’s music? Money for Nothing by Dire Gits, erm, Straits. A hollow victory for the Harrison axis at best.

  Following what I find to be one of those rather ineffectual British soul divas singing the theme song to the thoroughly inaccurate Denzil Washington Hurricane movie, Our Aud (who I have only heard one person refer to as Ainsley Herriot, the Frank Bruno of British TV cookery), flanked by a brace of buff minders, entered the Arena to massive approval.

  (Note to Mr Harrison: Imagine what the reaction would have been like had the national anthem been sung, and by Gabrielle, the only British diva who counts? At least Gabby’s had a life to be “soulful” about — but Lord knows I’d never wish that life on anyone.)

  The staredown was a joke, simply because Audley had so far to stare down to make eye contact with the (allegedly) 6ft tall, 16 stone (224lbs) visitor.

  Having prepared in seclusion on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, with thoughtfully hired trainer Thel Torrence, one-time assistant to Eddie Futch in the Riddick Bowe team, Harrison looked like a super heavyweight, the new breed of giants exemplified by the likes of Bowe, Lewis and Michael Grant.

  This wasn’t going to last long and it didn’t. Middleton, 33, was out of there in two minutes, 45 seconds, left hanging on the ropes like a scarecrow caught on a barbed wire fence (oh what an imaginative, evocative writer I am).

  Audley? Can’t say too much. He moved well, has good handspeed, threw shots with good form from out of his southpaw stance, kept a sensible distance that made me wonder whether he’s worried about his chin. After all, Middleton’s contract did include a rematch clause.

  So far we know nothing more about Harrison other than he can do without the kind of publicity that preceded his debut.

  But there’s a long way to go and I’m tempted to say that things can only get better. At 29, he claims he doesn’t expect to be world champ until he’s 34. And if this fight did nothing else for him, it set him on his way. But that’s about all.

  A case of “watch this space”.

Also available to read from issue:

Magazine Contents:
Full details of the June 2001 issue - the complete contents listing.

World Rankings:
See where the top fighters were rated when June 2001 went to press...

Lennox Lewis's shocking loss to Hasim Rahman wasn't the first big heavyweight surprise - Lewis himself had been through it before with Oliver McCall. Here, GRAHAM HOUSTON presents his five biggest upsets in matches for the world heavyweight championship

California's Willie Jorrin has won and defended the WBC super bantamweight title in fights that many believed he lost. GRAHAM HOUSTON finds a fighter who is looking to make amends in his postponed rematch with Manchester's Michael Brodie

Olympic super heavyweight champion Audley Harrison's long-awaited pro career kicked off with a quick win surrounded in controversy. GLYN LEACH reports

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