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By Matthew Handley
Sauntering into The Oxford Union, Audley Harrison carries an almost absurd breeziness given his 6 foot 5, 255lb frame. He’s much more relaxed than when he last came to town in his “big bright suit”, shortly after his gold medal success in the 2000 Olympic Games, a feat which still, disappointingly for him, marks the zenith of his career. Today, clad in summer gear, he’s incredibly relaxed as he chats candidly about his life and career.
Growing up in the ‘projects-esque’ Stonebridge in London, Harrison describes how at the “age of nine, I had an epiphany; to be a famous sportsman”. Such dreams remained profoundly distant throughout his youth, living in circumstances from which he admits he “was lucky to get out alive”. Harrison was perennially in trouble; “You’re a product of your environment, if you choose to be that way”. For a time, he chose to be so, winding up in Felham Prison aged 17 for theft. “I used that time for reflection, but I decided, “I’m not going back there”. “I think boxers provide good role models, for people from the streets”; that’s certainly how Harrison perceives himself. In an almost cinematically clichéd turnaround, Harrison went to Brunel University, attaining a 2.2 in Sport Science and Leisure Management, whilst at the same time working three jobs, and rising to the top of the amateur boxing scene. After winning titles at national level, Harrison, aged 28, flew to Sydney to box in the Olympics, and took the heavyweight gold (an achievement which, he is keen to highlight, was Britain’s greatest in the sport in 32 years).
Since then, Harrison’s career hasn’t gone as planned. He was given a contract with the BBC to screen his first 10 professional fights, but this was ended in 2004, for what Harrison claims were the “wrong reasons”. “They didn’t like me as a businessman… and it broke my heart. For the first time, I got emotional about my career, and the cracks started to show”. It is here that Harrison is perhaps at his most compelling; he buys into the sport’s machismo bravado, yet, at the same time is unafraid to display true vulnerability. He doesn’t make excuses in describing his career’s lowest point, an embarrassing third round defeat to David Haye in 2010; “That wasn’t good enough by my own standards”. Standing in the corner, still yet to recover from a torn right pectoralis major muscle, Harrison admits “for the first time, I felt weak”. “I’m very good at talking the talk, but sometimes, I don’t walk the walk”; the hackneyed turn of phrase doesn’t do justice do his refreshing honesty.
Harrison is undoubtedly correct when he claims to have the gift of the gab. He’s thoroughly engaging throughout our conversation, but is also a master of self-aggrandisement. “I’ll be leaving boxing soon” he admits, but his recent victory over Ali Adams sets him up nicely for a fight against David Price, British and Commonwealth Champion, in Liverpool this October. He admits this will be a tough bout, before dropping the mother of all soundbites; “I’m going to shock the world, 100%, the story’s going to end on my terms”. I ask him how he sees this playing out; he admits “one more loss, and it’s over”. And if he wins against Price? “I want to take on one of the Klitschkos”s for a world title”. After his performance against Haye many will find this suggestion laughable, but for Harrison, a believer in positive thinking, it’s a thoroughly attainable goal. “I turned my life around. I kept believing, overcoming. And here I am now, at the Oxford Union!” For someone who was enthralled by the Rocky films growing up, and whose life and career has carved a Balboan path, perhaps the perfect ending to an imperfect career could lie in the ring against either Wladimir or Vitaly. Watch this space…
This interview was provided courtesy of The Oxford Union