FUNERALS are either an exercise in lamentation or a celebration of someone’s life. Oliver Harrison’s funeral was the very definition of the latter.
The hugely-respected trainer passed away in April 2019 after fighting cancer with the dignified silence that he carried with him throughout his life. People within the local boxing community knew that he had been ill, but only those closest to him knew the extent, and it took the notoriously private trainer a while to divulge the severity of the fight he faced.
Oliver’s funeral took place on a gloriously sunny Salford day. There had been a gathering at Oliver’s Gym so people could pay tribute to him in his spiritual home. By the time everyone got to the church, it was standing room only at the back.
All of Oliver’s family, former fighters and friends had packed out the church. It was a beautiful service for a beautiful soul, full of kind words, music, respect and tears.
Towards the end, the priest asked if anyone would like to add a tribute. There was a moment of silence, no one likes to go first. Then a man strode confidently to the pulpit, grasped it with both hands, cleared his throat and with the delivery of an evangelical preacher said: “I am here TODAY to talk to YOU about Oliver Harrison.”
Instead, he went rambling on about splitting up with his wife, being separated and alienated from his son, falling on tough times, depression and pretty much everything else except Harrison. Everyone exchanged quizzical looks. Then we got to the crucial part, the meat and bones of the story.
The man — I still don’t know his name to this day, none of us do — told us that at his lowest point he had attended a local community gym where a trainer had taken some time out to teach him the ropes. He never forgot the boost it gave him.
Later in life, he had reconciled with his son and discovered that they both shared a love of combat sports. His son told him that he had attended a local gym and that a trainer had made him feel welcome, showed him some basic moves and gave him lots of encouragement.
“Do you know who that trainer was?” asked our impromptu preacher. “That man was called Oliver Harrison. The man we are celebrating here today!”
If he had a microphone, he would have dropped it at that point. He didn’t, he just sauntered away to re-join a by-now appreciative crowd. Then there was the burial. A chance to final goodbyes. The sun was still shining. People had brought coolers full of ice, rum and Irish Moss. Once it was over, music started to blare out and people stood around to talk about Oliver, boxing and life.
Former British, Commonwealth and European super-welterweight champion Jamie Moore shared a special bond with Harrison. It was more than just trainer and fighter, it was mentor, friend, confidant — all based on mutual love, respect and trust built up through many gym sessions.
Moore had organised a wake for Harrison at a venue nearby. There was Caribbean food aplenty and, again, it was more an atmosphere of celebration rather a sober affair.
“Me and Martin Murray were looking at each other both thinking: ‘We need to get him down now’,” said Moore when talking to Boxing News about what had turned from a meandering speech at the pulpit to a powerful demonstration of what Harrison meant to the people he met.
“We all went, ‘Wow’, at end as he had just encapsulated everything that Oliver was about. It was just meant to happen. It just shows you that you need patience. Patience is everything because if we’d lost it with him before he got to that point of the story we wouldn’t know where he was coming from.
“Luckily, he got to the crucial part of the story, and it epitomised what Oliver was all about. It made us realise Oliver’s impact on this dad and that he felt relief knowing that his son was under Oliver’s wing. Oliver always made people feel comfortable and worked hard for the community.
“I’ve opened a gym in Walkdon. When I am dealing with kids who might go wayward, I’m talking to them and thinking about that story. Thinking that I’ll talk to the kids the way their parents would want them to be talked to.”
Harrison hailed from an era where you built a fighter up from scratch and stuck together through thick and thin. Harrison and Moore had some ups and downs in the ring, yet the bond was never strained outside of it. In fact, it grew over the years, rippling through their family and friends to create a tight unit that has lasted beyond Harrison’s death to the point where Moore is preparing Oliver’s son, Lerone, for his professional debut. “If Oliver could have asked me one thing before his death, it would have been to train his son, Lerone,” said Moore, who admits that the burden of this new responsibility has opened old wounds.
“We got to the point where we could have a conversation without having had it. I feel I’ve had that conversation with him since he died, if that makes sense. I told Sharon [Harrison’s partner] to let Lerone bide his time and that he’d come back to us when ready after taking a year out. And he did.”
“We are all excited about Lerone,” added Martin Murray, who fought for world and sanctioning body titles four times under Harrison. “Oliver was massively into family. It is still really sad to think he is not with us. He brought that feeling into boxing because he made it all about the fighter, which is how it should be. We are all here now for Lerone and massively believe in him.”
Harrison was notorious for his refusal to grant interviews. It took a lot of enticing on the part of Moore, by then a pundit, to get him to agree to an exclusive Sky Sports interview. “He never wanted that limelight,” said Moore. “He told me he’d only do it for me, so we went down and did a little training piece. In fact, they put it out again on the anniversary of his death. I watched it again knowing it would break my heart.”
“Before we got going on the interview, I reached out and pulled an eyelash from his face,” recalled Moore. “That got me. It broke my heart seeing that. It wasn’t fight and trainer, it was father and son, we had that intimacy in terms of there being no boundaries. I was that close to him. It is even difficult to talk about him in a positive way because it makes me so emotional.”
Sadly, the world title never happened for Harrison, but Oliver was around to witness Rocky Fielding winning a version of the WBA super-middle title against Tyron Zeuge in 2018, a year before Harrison’s death. “He was too sick to be there,” said Moore, who ran the corner that night.
“I was safe in the knowledge that he was there witnessing Rocky winning a [WBA] title. That’s how close we were, being there or not would not have made a difference to him.”
Colleen Moore, Jamie’s wife, was also part of Harrison’s extended family. We forget that the families and friends of fighters are handing their loved ones over to their trainer. They have to believe that someone like Harrison has his fighters’ best interests to heart.
“I remember Jamie telling me that when Oliver said he wanted to train him he told him he’d get him to European level,” she recalled when reminiscing about how Harrison first came into their lives. “It is amazing the journey they went on — they had the trust.
“What made me really made believe was when Jamie and Oliver took on Michael Jones. Jones was training to fight Paul Samuels, but Jamie stayed in the gym because he had a feeling it wasn’t going to happen and he’d get it. The best memory is the two of them winning that British and Commonwealth titles. It was a turning point in both their careers and a big part of their path together.”
“It was just after losing to Scott Dixon,” said Jamie, taking up the story of how Harrison first came into their lives. “Oliver drove past me after I’d left the gm. I asked him if he would do my corner for my next fight. He offered to train me and said he’d make me a European champion. Then he said anything beyond that was down to me. There is a picture in Oliver’s gym of the European title win and I’ve written on it that he said he’d get me there — and he did. I wouldn’t say that first meeting was the only moment, but it was a standout moment in my career because if that conversation hadn’t taken place my life, not just my career, wouldn’t have gone the way it did: the successes, the failures and everything else came from that conversation.
“He’d go over things again and again in the gym, and I couldn’t understand why he was doing it until I was in the situation in the ring where it had to be instinctive, like that defensive stuff on the ropes when I was tired against [Matthew] Macklin. He told me that when you are tired or hurt you can’t think, you just do it. I was like: ‘He’s like Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid!’ He’d been getting me to paint the fence then was just throwing stuff at me. I didn’t realise what he’d been doing to me.”
Harrison had turned his gym into a family affair and extended that intimacy by growing close to the families of his fighters. In order to train a fighter and commit to him fully he felt that he had to feel a bond. Martin Murray felt it from the moment they first met. When we spoke over the phone, he was sat in front of his laptop looking at photos of his former coach and reminiscing on the ups, the downs, and their memorable trip to Argentina to tackle the world middleweight king, Sergio Martinez.
Murray revealed that Harrison’s unflappable pre-fight demeanour and attention to detail was behind what became a great away performance against a bang-in-form champion. “Oliver was brilliant over there,” he recalled.
“He had been big in Thai Boxing so had been all over the world to all these different places and he brought that experience of travelling to boxing. He was so focussed. It was all tactics. We were training on a tennis court in Argentina, and he had Martinez’s style to a tee. We worked on drill after drill, but we were never going to get it over there. He was absolutely gutted and p**sed off because we thought that we had it. It wasn’t just that I was denied, he was denied as well.
“We won together, lost together and learned together. We were all like a family, he loved his fighters. If you gave him 100 per cent, he’d give you double back, and now we all want to make sure that Lerone goes all the way.”
Humphrey Harrison is committed to carrying on the legacy of working within and with a community while trying to bring professional fighters through his gym. The former fighter was so close to his little brother he continually referred to him in the present tense when we spoke. In many ways, with both Humphrey and Harrison’s former fighter Tomasz Mazurkiewicz continuing his legacy, a huge part of Oliver’s spirit and energy still roams around the gym and the community to this day.
“He is the youngest of three boys, an observer who is very serious, but he has another side where he can be nice and jolly,” said Humphrey. “Oliver is very magnetic. Quite private until you got to know him, then you discovered he was a different person who loved a joke.”
“He was always involved in contact sports,” he added. “We did Thai Boxing before professional boxing and then coaching. We got on fantastic in the gym. We were extremely close. We have a close emotional attachment, very much attached and extremely close as brothers. The best memories are from the times we spent together just talking. If anything would happen, he would refer it to me to talk about first. It can’t be put down to just one memory of him because there are so many.
“What I will say to you, is that he kept his illness to himself for a long time. Then one time he came to me very quietly and asked me to come to the hospital, which was a big concern. I asked him why. He told me he thought he had cancer so I asked what sort it might be. He said he didn’t know, but I think he knew and knew the hurt and alarm it would put on me, so it took him a while to open up to the extent it was. You had to be extremely close to him to know what was going on.
“He didn’t want to get anyone worried in anyway, so he kind of played it down.
“Oliver kept everyone happy, if you know what I’m saying, positive, and believing that he would get better. He was an absolute unbelievable fighter. Some of the doctors couldn’t believe how he recovered from certain operations. At one time, the family was called in to say the last goodbye only for him to pull through. That’s how strong-minded he was. We haven’t changed a thing in the gym. It is the exact same as it was when Oliver was here. We won’t change a thing.”
Harrison is no longer with us, but his son, Lerone Harrison, is about to embark on his professional career. Lerone is excited to be moving on with this next chapter, yet it is bittersweet as he always imagined his father would be the one to lead him into the professional ranks. His WhatsApp profile picture is an image of him working the pads as a young boy with his father.
After Harrison’s death, his son became disconnected from the gym. During Harrison’s life, his father had told him to learn from any mistakes, rather than punishing him for them. Those values remain instilled in him.
“I missed the gym,” Harrison told Boxing News. “I wanted to do it properly. Do myself, my dad and everyone justice. My dad and I used to do things over, and over, and over again — he’d drill them into you and when I got back into the gym again, I just did things instinctively.”
However, Lerone told me that Harrison carried over the lessons he gave out in the gym into their home. “If I was in trouble at school, he’d talk to me, but everything was always calm in the house, he wasn’t what you’d call a strict father. He would let me make my own decisions then explain what I should or shouldn’t have done — just like he did in the ring. In training, if you were not doing well on the bar-bag he wouldn’t shout, he’d just encourage you.”
“I’m glad his funeral wasn’t a sad day,” he said when asked about Oliver’s death. “He wouldn’t have wanted that. He’d have wanted people to behave like they did when he was still here. That he left what lessons he needed to leave, and they were happy with what he left us with. There are so many stories about him like that guy’s one at the church. I went to Nigel [Travis’s gym] in Moss Side, and someone came up and told me a similar story.”
Sadly, a circle closed when we lost Oliver Harrison, but then the cycle continues despite the sorrow and pain, and you do everything you can to create those fond memories again. That is what life, love, loss and boxing is all about.