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When they weren’t kings – the 10-year scrap to rule Britain

Danny Williams
Oliver Fennell tells the story of four men – Audley Harrison, Danny Williams, Michael Sprott and Matt Skelton – who spent an entire decade scrapping for British heavyweight supremacy

BY the time Audley Harrison was booed out of Manchester Arena in November 2010 following his ignoble effort against David Haye, one of boxing’s greatest falls from grace was complete. Ten years had passed since half a million members of the Kingdom united at 4am to watch Harrison beat Kazakhstan’s Mukhturkhan Dildabekov in Sydney and be crowned British boxing’s first Olympic monarch in 32 years. A charismatic 6ft 5ins southpaw with gold around his neck and Her Majesty’s blessings in the form of an MBE, Harrison was already viewed as British heavyweight royalty to follow the lineage of Cooper, Bugner, Bruno and Lewis. Ultimately, though, this man of such princely gifts would become more of a pauper as far as the people were concerned.

The natives were revolting just months into Harrison’s professional career, and the rebellion would never relent. It was true he failed to live up to expectations, but failure alone has never been enough for the British public to denounce a sporting heir. After all, Bruno was beloved long before he won a world title at the fourth attempt, and Cooper a national treasure despite never doing so. No, far more damning was the perception Harrison just wasn’t exciting enough, coupled with a penchant for highly public self-aggrandisement, and amplified by his main rivals being likeable commoners.

Danny Williams, Matt Skelton and Michael Sprott were less talented and lower paid than Harrison, but while they too sometimes exhibited the same failings as the man with a million-pound contract in his pocket, they were more entertaining, more down to earth, they just seemed to tried harder. They were blue collar rather than blue blood.

Williams was the known quantity, a time-served British and Commonwealth champion seen as capable of bigger things. Sprott had long been established as an erratic performer just as likely to be bombed out as pull off a huge upset. Skelton turned pro to little fanfare 16 months later than Harrison but overtook him in less than a year.

None of them would turn out to be world beaters, but sometimes it is the flaws of fighters which make them that much more compelling, and they combined with Harrison for one of the most entertaining chapters in British heavyweight boxing.

Across the first decade of this century, Harrison split two-fight rivalries with Williams and Sprott [pictured above]. Williams did likewise with Skelton, and went 2-1 against Sprott. Skelton also got the better of a Sprott trilogy. Harrison and Skelton never met, but it was the only piece missing from the collection.

Williams was defined by equal helpings of thrills and frustrations. The same man who created the stuff of legend by knocking out Mark Potter while fighting with a dislocated shoulder, and who sent “Iron” Mike Tyson to the scrap heap in a dazzling upset, would also flop first against the flabby Sinan Samil San and then against Sprott, whom he had already beaten twice. He would resurrect his career numerous times after appearing to be damaged goods, but also let himself down on more than a few occasions by coming in overweight and/or undermotivated.

Williams’ win over Tyson in 2004 was by far the biggest that any of the four Brits scored. Tyson was some way past his best, but he was still dangerous and remained well inside the world top 10. WBC champion Vitali Klitschko had been eyeing a defence against his idol, and when Williams robbed him of that opportunity with a sensational four-round finish, he got the shot instead.

Danny’s defeat was as one-sided as it was brave. The eight rounds of punishment and four knockdowns he suffered possibly caused Harrison to imagine his leading rival had been softened up enough for a changing of the guard when they finally met in December 2005 to settle a grudge that had been simmering for a good four years.

While Williams had been trading with the likes of Tyson, Klitschko, Sprott, Potter and Kali Meehan, Harrison had stayed unbeaten but remained unproven, not to mention unpopular. He told of the British boxing establishment working against him for daring to be self-promoted, yet the armchair fan was more concerned with his failure to deliver thrills or belts. Still, this was his chance to do both.

Harrison was still being viewed in terms of what he could do rather than what he had done, and the bookmakers favoured him take the Commonwealth title. He was on the ascent, and Williams was believed to be in decline. But for neither the first nor the last time, Danny had been written off too soon.

After a contest that was more slow dance than slugfest, Williams earned a split decision. In truth, both boxers plodded more than punched, but Williams was absolved of blame because he had been on the front foot and, if we’re honest, simply because he wasn’t Audley Harrison.

Hounded out by the fans who castigated him for his cautious display, Harrison retreated to the US, the homeland of his new wife, Raychel, and where he would eventually spend his post-Haye exile. While he was gone, Williams entered into his next big domestic rivalry, against Skelton. Already 35 before he’d thrown his first punch under Queensberry Rules, Skelton had to move quickly with little time to polish his craft. His combat sports apprenticeship had been served in kickboxing, MMA and wrestling, which in the boxing ring translated to an unsophisticated but effective mauling, brawling method. Still, it was enough to win the English championship 12 months after turning pro, defend it, and then take the British and Commonwealth belts from Sprott in April 2004.

Another three title fight wins had led Skelton to a Williams match in July 2005, but Danny threw the promotion into disarray 24 hours before the first bell when, after weighing in, passing his medical and going home, he got his wife to phone promoter Frank Warren and cancel the fight, claiming he had the flu. Warren said he would never again promote Williams, but of course could not resist doing so when he and Harrison agreed terms five months later, and all was forgiven after the Brixton Bomber took Audley’s ‘0’.

Williams-Skelton at the second attempt, in February 2006, was a classic. The rematch, less so. In the first instalment, the veteran once more earned a split decision over an unbeaten prospect, but this time Williams thrilled, thanks to an opponent whose instinct was to throw hands – and his head – rather than step back. The two traded bombs throughout and fought almost to a standstill.

A shame, then, that Williams would pile on 21lbs in the five months before the keenly anticipated return. He teased the press with tales of a secret coach, before eventually revealing he had trained himself and then tipping the scales at 288lbs. Predictably, he was outworked and outpointed.

Now the country’s top heavy, Skelton signed to fight his one remaining major rival, Harrison, in December 2006, but a broken right hand ruled the Bedford man out just a week before the bout. They would never reschedule, and this particular rivalry would never be settled – but another would be, and emphatically so, on the same date. Skelton’s replacement was none other than Danny Williams.

Insisting he was in shape despite the late notice, and having shifted those same 21lbs that had encumbered him in the Skelton rematch, Williams was confident. Harrison, though, had a point to prove, and Williams was taken aback – and apart – by an uncharacteristically aggressive A-Force who cut him up and chopped him down in just three rounds. Aglow, Harrison proclaimed in the post-fight interview: “2007 I win the world title, 2008 undisputed”. For the first time, his bombast was taken seriously. But not for the first time, his momentum would be unceremoniously snapped just two months later.

With Skelton on the shelf, the next best option for Harrison was Sprott, the erratic Reading man with 10 losses to his name but having beaten Williams as well as the likes of Holden, Potter and Pele Reid, and some solid European foes. He was respectable enough as an opponent for a Harrison now seemingly – finally – in the form expected of him, but he was not expected to win.

The formbook was followed in the early going as Sprott was dropped in the opener, but two rounds later the underdog uncorked a hellacious left hook that knocked Harrison clean out. As a reminder that the Williams revenge win had done little to change the fans’ feelings towards Harrison, the sight of him lying unconscious triggered not concerns for his welfare but hugs and high-fives inside Wembley Arena. Never before had the public’s feelings for Audley been more apparent – or distasteful. Again, it looked over for Harrison. Again, it was not. Again, he retreated to sunny California to convalesce. Meanwhile, Skelton healed, contested a Sprott rematch instead of a Harrison showcase, and won again to not only reassert himself atop the British rankings but also secure a WBA shot.

On a skills level, Skelton was perhaps the least likely of the four to win a world championship, but he made the best attempt at it. Whereas Williams was crushed by Klitschko, Harrison would later be embarrassed by Haye, and Sprott would never contest a world belt, Skelton pushed Ruslan Chagaev hard in a January 2008 WBA title challenge in Dusseldorf.

It was not exactly close, but it was certainly credible, and it was the high point in a career that, unlike Harrison’s, was built on substance rather than promise, and unlike Williams’ and Sprott’s, was characterised by its consistency. Williams by then was struggling through an unlikely but unimpressive second British title reign. Skelton would win the European title later in 2008 but fail to defend it. Sprott would continue his yo-yo ways, but would have one last dance with Harrison in what would be the most dramatic of all the matches involving the four.

Harrison had signed with Eddie Hearn and secured a surprisingly well-received 2009 Prizefighter tournament win. Hearn, then a rising promoter yet to establish the hegemony he enjoys today but blessed with an eye for the long game, reckoned he could squeeze one more run out of the then-38-year-old Harrison, and a masterplan that would have looked laughable less than a year ago suddenly started to take shape.

The Prizefighter success may have flattered to deceive, given the three wins came against men who could at best be described as “triers”, but Harrison had looked good even so, and was back in the headlines. Next up: a challenge for the European title, and the WBA ranking that comes with it.

The champ was a certain David Haye, and if Hearn could manoeuvre his new signing into a shot at him, and let the two fighters do the talking, he knew he would have a blockbuster on his hands. First, though, Harrison would have to win the bright blue belt. Initially, he was to have challenged defending champion Albert Sosnowski. The Pole looked beatable, and thus fit into the plan perfectly. But then he vacated after securing a title shot of his own – a May 2010 WBC loss to Vitali Klitschko – leaving Harrison to square off against the next available co-challenger: Sprott.

For Harrison and Hearn, even better than challenging a beatable champ was the prospect of winning the vacant belt and avenging a defeat in the process. Sprott, despite the emphatic nature of his victory last time they met, was once more the underdog, having lost four times since, but again he was bang up for it.

He bossed much of the contest, with Harrison reverting to defensive type against an aggressor who’d previously sparked him out. This could be partly explained by Harrison suffering a shoulder injury early in the fight, leaving his right arm largely ineffective – especially awkward for a southpaw. Sprott chipped away, won most of the rounds, and went for the kill in the final stanza – only to be spectacularly knocked out by a savage left hook.

It was a sensational finish to a dramatic contest. Somehow, Harrison had won, had gained a world ranking, and was on course for Haye. He had even, by winning one-handed in a fashion similar to Williams’ incredible performance against Potter a decade prior, by refusing to give up and then somehow finding the finisher, refuted that most dogged of allegations – that he had no heart. And then the Haye fight happened.

Audley Harrison

On the biggest stage of his professional career, after a decade of peaks and troughs, and after proving the doubters wrong by even contesting a world championship, Harrison landed just one punch before he was taken apart in the third round.

Harrison fought on. They all did. Incredibly, Williams still does. But they did so with increasingly diminishing returns, making the Haye fight a natural, albeit dismal, end to a 10-year tale of four fierce rivals who brought the best – and the worst – out of each other. They may not have become four kings, but they gave us some right royal entertainment along the way

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