WITH friends like David Haye, who needs enemies?
The last time two British fighters met for a major heavyweight belt before Tyson Fury vs Dillian Whyte, there was a Shakespearian subplot. Audley Harrison had sparred Haye after he won the 2000 Olympics and Haye was a 19 year old amateur.
“I was the boss and he was the student,” is how Harrison described their relationship, but when Harrison later reached out to Haye, he was ignored.
Harrison was looking for a way back after Belfast taxi driver Martin Rogan outhustled him over 10 rounds to inflict a fourth defeat in 27 fights. At the time, Haye’s company, Hayemaker Promotions, had a contract with broadcaster Setanta and Harrison approached his former sparring partner to see if there was a place for him on a show that was topped by Ryan Rhodes.
As Harrison remembered it, the reply was: “There’s no room for you,” adding: “He [Haye] didn’t even speak to me. He had Adam [Booth] speak to me, which was even more insulting.” Haye didn’t deny this version of events.
“He’s gone past me and didn’t look back to help me out,” said Harrison after it was announced he would challenge Haye for the WBA strap in Manchester in November 2010.
“He boxed on five of my undercards, but he wouldn’t help me. Karma is going to smack him in the mouth.”
Karma was represented by Harrison’s left hand, the punch that had saved his career seven months earlier. Harrison said defeat to Michael Sprott for the vacant European title at Alexandra Palace would spell the end of his career.
Sprott had knocked him out three years earlier and, in April 2010, he was only three minutes away from beating him again.
The judges had Sprott ahead by six, five and four rounds going into the last and Harrison was fighting with only one hand.
He had barely thrown a right since the fifth round – later explaining he had ruptured his pectoral muscle – and with the end of his career only around two minutes away, Harrison was down to his last bullet.
He took aim at Sprott’s chin and hit the target with the mightiest of left hands. Sprott was smashed into unconsciousness, Harrison’s career was saved, and Haye would be next.
Harrison had called for the fight around 18 months earlier. Negotiations for a fight between Haye and Wladimir Klitschko fell through and Harrison said he was willing to face Haye.
He gave several examples of when Haye had wronged him, including a sparring session when he “turned up unannounced and tried to blast me out” in front of Lennox Lewis.
“Shut the Fcuk [sic] up Fraudley,” Haye posted on Twitter.
“If somehow we ever do fight, that career-high pay day you crave won’t cover your medical bills!”
Haye wasn’t alone in thinking that.
Harrison had been a disappointment since turning professional after becoming the first British fighter to win Olympic gold since Chris Finnegan in Mexico City in 1968.
He had looked like the fighter Britain – possibly the world – was waiting for.
Harrison was a good size at 6ft 5ins and had a degree in Sports Studies and Leisure Management from Brunel University, writing a 10,000-word thesis titled: ‘A Sociological Perspective On The Justification Of Amateur Boxing.’
This was enough to impress the BBC. They returned to boxing after a break of 15 years and invested £1 million to cover the start of Harrison’s career.
Harrison claimed he had the ability to win the British title in his fourth fight and would be world champion within five years, but progress was way slower than that.
General sports writers and those outside the trade found their stories in Harrison’s opponents as he fought a private detective (Mike Middleton), doorman (Dominic Negus) and butcher (Mark Krence).
Krence was also a cruiserweight and the crowd at the ExCel Arena warmed to him once he got through Harrison’s early bombardment and started to rally.
That six-round struggle was followed by defeats against Danny Williams, Dominick Guinn and Michael Sprott and by the time Harrison fought Rogan at the ExCel Arena in December, 2008, he was a 37-year-old whose career highlight at professional level was winning the meaningless WBF championship.
Every advantage apart from age – Rogan was also 37 – was with Harrison and it looked unlikely Rogan would make it through the second round after he was cut and badly shaken up. Harrison let him back into the fight and Rogan went on to snatch victory by a single point.
It looked like the end for Harrison and pundits wondered where it had all gone wrong for him. Jim Watt MBE told Sky Sports viewers during the Rogan fight that Harrison was boxing as though he had no belief in his own stamina.
He had Rogan in trouble in the second, but couldn’t get the finish that looked to be only a clean punch or two away.
Others wondered if Harrison had spent too long as an amateur and was unable to adjust, or perhaps the money the BBC had paid him had taken away his desire?
Haye didn’t offer Harrison the chance to answer his doubters after the Rogan loss, Eddie Hearn did. He wasn’t even a boxing promoter at the time. Hearn was working for Matchroom producing online poker tournaments and Harrison was on his table at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Harrison asked if Hearn could find him a six-rounder and Hearn offered him a place in Prizefighter, the eight-man tournament that had proved a stepping stone for unproven prospects and a way back for veterans.
Harrison was the clear favourite at the ExCel Arena in October, 2009, but sensed he was up against more than the other fighters.
Convinced his changing room was too cold, he asked British Boxing Board of Control officials to check temperatures in the others and the majority of the crowd booed him.
Harrison had let them down, but on that night, he delivered, lifting the trophy with wins over Scott Belshaw, Danny Hughes and Coleman Barrett, the latter a spectacular knockout.
“I’m back in the frame,” said Harrison afterwards. “There’s been a terrible campaign that has forced me out of the country.”
Harrison had relocated to Los Angeles and Haye promised a “humiliating” defeat that would prevent Harrison ever returning to Britain.
Haye said: “Audley is a big conspiracy theorist and thinks the whole world is against him and out to get him.
“Bottom line is, he didn’t achieve what he said he would at the start of his career. If I’d come out at the start of my career and made boasts I couldn’t back up, I’d expect people to say I was talking crap and that I was conning the public. As it happened, I was able to do what I said I’d do.”
Harrison told the press the world title was his ‘destiny’ and wore a T-shirt that read: “Yes I can,” but who was he trying to convince? Haye knew Harrison had doubts. In a press release, Harrison revealed he was training in the Big Bear mountains in California with trainer Shaheed Suluki and carried an axe with him in case he had to fend off wild bears.
Haye replied that Harrison should bring an axe to the ring with him, adding: “What good is an axe if you’re too scared to throw it?”
Haye only ever had complete confidence in himself. He picked hard fights and won them. The cruiserweight division conquered with wins over Jean-Marc Mormeck and Enzo Maccarinelli, Haye went up to heavyweight and knowing the press and public doubted he had the size to trouble the best in the division, he took on the biggest heavyweight champion in history, Nikolay Valuev.
The 6ft 3ins tall and 15st 8lbs Haye conceded nine inches in height and seven stones in weight to the Russian when they fought in Nuremberg in November, 2009, and he followed the “sting and be gone” instructions of Booth to outbox Valuev and take away his WBA belt.
In his first defence, John Ruiz was dropped after 22 seconds and three more times before the ninth-round finish and Harrison was next.
“My left hand will at some point land on your chin,” promised the challenger in the build-up.
“My right hand is faster than your left hand,” responded Haye. “That’s why I’m the champion and you’re not.”
Casual fans relished a grudge match, while those closer to the business feared the gulf between champion and challenger was too wide for the match to be competitive.
Haye claimed he didn’t watch videos of Harrison, fearing it would make him complacent.
Booth described part of the fight’s fascination by describing Harrison as “a fighter people are intrigued to watch as they are never sure what they are going to get.” Mostly, Harrison disappointed, but as he said after knocking out Williams in their rematch: “They don’t give away Olympic gold medals.”
Harrison could fight – but would he?
There were 19,019 in Manchester to see if the ‘Best of Enemies’ would bring out the best in Harrison.
For three minutes, Haye and Harrison fought as though they were the best of friends. They didn’t look as though they were trying to hurt each other.
Punch stats showed neither landed a blow in the first round and within a minute of the second getting underway, referee Luis Pabon was asking for more from both as the crowd grew restless.
Harrison did land a jab in the second, but that was all and there were boos from the crowd at the bell. There was more unrest in the third until Haye spotted a gap in Harrison’s defences and jumped in with a fast right hand. The punch found Harrison’s jaw and he stumbled and tried to grab. Haye had made his breakthrough and he opened up with both hands to drive Harrison back to the ropes. Harrison tightened his defences, making Haye stand off and have a rethink. He tried a couple of feints that gave him a sight of Harrison’s jaw and then slammed a right hand off his target. Haye knew Harrison was dazed again and jumped all over him, unloading around 30 unanswered punches to leave him on the floor. At the count of ‘eight,’ Harrison dragged himself up, but another burst of punches from Haye had him on rubbery legs again and the referee jumped in between them.
The aftermath was also messy. The British Boxing Board of Control considered withholding Harrison’s purse for a lack of effort and also spoke to Haye after he revealed he had told friends to bet on a third-round finish.
As for Hearn, he became so sick of being blamed for making the fight everywhere he went, he decided he was finished with boxing…