AUDLEY HARRISON had absolutely no chance of winning a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It is a simple fact, a fact that is forgotten too often. Since that October day, Harrison has taken so much stick, been constantly ridiculed for things he has said and things in the ring he has not done. Sure, he has been to blame for a lot of the criticism, made some dumb statements about opponents, put his neck on the line, was arrogant, unrepentant and rude at times. However, the distant echoes of the jeers, cheers and laughter the night at Wembley when he was knocked out cold by Michael Sprott, left on the canvas with his leg twitching, his hand reaching hopefully and instinctively for a tender comforting touch from somebody that cared, was an awful moment. That was a low.
It should have all been so very different.
On August 18, 2000, there was a media day at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. It was the ancient home of British sport’s hopeful competitors, the venue quite literally at the end of the road. The boxers had been there since the early ‘70s – that is seven Olympic Games without a British boxer in a final. It was not a lucky place, trust me.
Harrison had a Commonwealth Games gold and had flopped the year before at the World championships in Houston, Texas. I had somehow persuaded a paper to send me to Houston for a week to cover Harrison’s quest. He beat the Uzbek, not the best Uzbek, in his opening contest. Still, it was a win and then he was close to four stone heavier, every bit of six inches taller than Turkey’s Sinan Samil Sam, but he lost without troubling a sweat in his next contest. Disaster, Olympic glory was off and there was an ugly fall-out. Harrison never tried, it was a plan he claimed.
The Houston flop was in August 1999 and by the time the first bell sounded in Sydney, Harrison had fought 14 more times and lost three contests. He had also held court with his thoughts on boxing, boxers, promoters and other drifters in our business. He had his plan, his blueprint for glory and a crazy method to his madness. He talked and he talked.
“It’s just me and 15 men,” he told me one night at the Repton gym long before leaving for holding camps and the Olympics. “I know 12 of them, I’ve seen them fight and I know how to beat them – three I’ve never seen. Don’t’ worry, I will know how to beat them, leave it
to me.” We listened.
He had no chance, people in our game said. Still, many were just getting a few things in order, just preparing for him pulling off the shock and winning Britain’s first gold medal since Chris Finnegan back in 1968. Never let anybody tell you that it was inevitable, written, or easy to predict his victory.
There were signs, small things; Harrison had beaten three of the men in the draw, had lost to two others. Samil Sam had turned professional after taking gold in Houston. “I knew what I was doing, no sweat,” Aud had told me in Houston after losing to the troubled Turkish boxer. But, no British boxer in 1999 had ever lost to a World amateur champion and known what he was doing. Well, that was the thinking, that was history, that was boxing fact.
And then the draw was made. The moment of truth, in many ways. This is where all the people that dislike, have dismissed and refuse to believe that Harrison could ever fight need to look away. Sorry.
Harrison was drawn in the opening contest against Alexei Lezin, a Russian boxing idol. Lezin had lost to Wladimir Klitschko at the 1996 Olympics, had beaten Vitali to win a World amateur championships and was the double European amateur champion. It had been nearly 40 years since a British boxer had won the European title. And, Lezin had beaten Harrison 6-1 on points 11 months earlier. There is more: Harrison had an injured hand from a fight in July and had fallen out with some of the British coaches. “Don’t worry, I know how to beat Lezin – leave it to me,” Harrison said. Leave it to him.
There was a minute left in round four and Lezin was winning 8-6. Lezin, the mighty Russian, the World and European amateur champion was winning. What did you expect? Then it changed, the normal was over and Harrison cracked home a left and Lezin was out of his head. What just happened? Take that. He was gone. The referee panicked, Lezin stumbled, tried to protest, but it was off. “Leave it to me.”
That was the gold, make no mistake.
Next Harrison bludgeoned Ukraine’s Oleksi Mazikin 19-9. It was Harrison’s highest ever score and he had a bronze. Now people in the fight game were starting to adjust their thinking. In the semi-final Harrison was against Italy’s Paolo Vidoz and he had narrowly beaten him 10 months earlier. However, after that fight Vidoz had done an Audley and told the adoring Italian press that it would be easy to get revenge. “Leave it to me,” Paolo joked. Also, Vidoz had stopped Calvin Brock and beaten Samuel Peter to reach the semi.
Vidoz was ruined that day in Sydney. Nose broken, heart broken and left broken. Harrison won 32-16. Harrison was in Finnegan territory.
In the final the big Kazakh soldier Mukhtarkan Dildabekov never had a chance. It was a Harrison revolution, the judges smiled and put their thumbs up. Harrison’s hands were busted, his body shattered. At the bell, well, you know the rest: Harrison won 30-16, he had the most precious and rarest of gold medals.
“Leave it to me.” He was not joking.