Audley Harrison laced the build-up to his world title challenge with soundbites, from the iconic “Yes I Can” mantra and labelling David Haye a “false prophet”, to the insistence that he would fight “every second and every minute of every round”. In light of what actually happened, that might have been the most absurd pre-fight boast since hopeless underdog Peter McNeeley promised to wrap Mike Tyson “in a cocoon of horror” (McNeeley was then easily beaten inside one round).
Another quote that stuck in the mind was Harrison’s claim that he was “unbreakable”, calling to mind the movie of that name in which Bruce Willis played a man who literally could not be hurt. The film also had a big twist and, similarly, Harrison was promising an ending that no-one had seen coming.
Unfortunately, the result of the fight labelled “Best of Enemies” was as predictable as a buddy movie. Harrison was crushed, and not only that, all the faults for which he has been lambasted over the years manifested again in one miserable night. Since then, the soundbites have come from the critics and the fans instead. No longer is Harrison “unbreakable”. Now, according to his detractors, what he did – or, rather, didn’t do – on Saturday night is “unforgivable”. It’s a strong adjective, and one that’s typically used to describe the most serious felonies or anti-social behaviour.
But what was Harrison’s crime? It wasn’t rape, or armed robbery, or wife-beating, or drug use, or animal cruelty. His in-ring offence was not cheating, using performance-enhancing substances, or quitting. He has never used racist language, threatened members of the public, mocked disabled people or made ignorant remarks about sex abuse victims.
No, Harrison’s crime was to not be violent enough in a violent sport. True enough, the paying customer expects a certain level of effort from those involved in what is, after all, a form of entertainment. To that end, Harrison was undeniably guilty of failing to deliver, and you won’t hear me excusing him for that. But, as has so often been the case in his pro career, the criticisms have been over the top, ranging from widespread pleas for his pay to be withheld, to fellow fighter Carl Froch’s crass claim that Harrison “can’t show his face [in the UK] again”.
The way some people are talking, you’d think Harrison had raped someone. Or hit a woman. Or made highly public racist comments. But no, such things are the reserve of other boxers – boxers for whom such actions are tolerated, often marketed, and sometimes even celebrated.
The earlier list of misdeeds is one of real examples of crimes and appalling behaviour by other boxers, but because they were better fighters – or, crucially, more entertaining ones – they were excused. Tyson’s list of misdemeanours, as long as Harrison’s 86” reach, was shamelessly exploited in hyping the man and his fights. Tony Ayala Jr also resumed boxing after a prison sentence for rape and his comeback was packaged as a positive “road to redemption” story (he has since been sent back inside). Diego Corrales’ conviction for beating his pregnant wife is conveniently side-stepped because his boxing matches were exciting. Roy Jones’ and Manny Pacquaio’s involvement in cockfighting is brushed under the ring apron. Bernard Hopkins can make racial slurs and have them excused as “hyping the fight”. Ricky Hatton can be caught doing hard drugs and elicit sympathy as he goes through “difficult times”. And so on.
I don’t mention all this to pass judgement on those boxers, only to point out the absurdity of others passing such harsh judgement on Harrison when his “crimes” pale in significance next to them. But any crime is most keenly felt by those who have been a victim of it. If we merely witness or read about it, it’s not nearly so bad. Most of us can dismiss Hatton snorting coke as the lifestyle choice of a rich, young man – but a relative of an overdose victim, or someone who’s been burgled by an addict, might see it differently. You might insist Haye’s “gang rape” comment was simply big-fight trash-talk – but a rape victim would be appalled.
And so to Harrison’s “crime”, and why it has elicited such a disproportionate outcry. It’s because it had so many “victims”; because so many people were hit where it hurts. But “where it hurts” is not a body part ripped off by Tyson’s bare teeth, nor is it a face being smashed by Antonio Margarito’s potentially plaster-clad fists, or even the feelings of someone offended by Haye’s words. No, the afflicted area is one we can all identify with – the wallet.
A boxer raped someone else’s daughter, punched someone else’s sister, gambled as two animals ripped each other to pieces at his behest halfway across the globe? That’s fine, so long as they give us good fights. But Audley Harrison “cons” you out of 15 quid? Unforgiveable! Ah, yes, another quotable – Audley the conman.
But is he really guilty as charged? For sure, he didn’t put forth his best effort, and landing one punch does not equal value for your pay-per-view buck in anybody’s book. But at worst he was an accessory to the offence, not the instigator. Remember, Haye was making a voluntary defence of his WBA title. He didn’t have to fight Harrison, he chose to. He saw it for what it was – a low-risk affair for maximum financial reward. It made perfect economic sense. But that also means Harrison was invited to the fight. He didn’t promote it, he didn’t choose to put it on PPV, he didn’t set the ticket prices and he didn’t put together the undercard. All these concerns were the responsibility of Haye’s company, Hayemaker Promotions, and the broadcaster, Sky.
So, if you feel aggrieved that a mismatch and its paltry undercard were deemed PPV-worthy or that the cheapest tickets cost £60, take that up with Haye and Sky, not Harrison. Ah, but Harrison made us all believe this would be a competitive match, you might say. He promised, but he didn’t deliver. That’s fair comment, but was that a con job? Well, what’s he supposed to say? That he was out of his depth and unlikely to win? If a boxer expressing confidence – even false confidence – is a crime, then we’d better get busy building a whole colony of prisons to house the offenders.
Harrison was offered a million pounds to contest one of the most prestigious championships in sport. That he was arguably undeserving of the opportunity makes it even more obvious why he would take it. Think about it. Whatever your job, if you were offered a chance at a promotion, and a handsome pay rise to go with it, you’d take it – and if others thought you weren’t up to the task, you’d do your utmost to convince them (and yourself) that you were.
Yes, Harrison let a lot of people down, but none more so than himself. He probably would not have beaten Haye no matter what, but he could have given a better account of himself. That knowledge will hurt him more than the barbs of people he has never met, and will hurt him more than the loss of 15 quid hurt those critics.
Is Harrison guilty of something? Sure. But nowhere near as guilty as a great many boxers we have excused and then celebrated.
Unforgiveable? Not a bit of it. If you can forgive Tyson, Margarito, Corrales, Jones, Hopkins and co, then you can forgive Audley Harrison.
Yes, you can.