This week Audley Harrison announced his retirement from boxing aged 43, as a result of traumatic brain injuries suffered. The fighter also revealed he is facing bankruptcy as the curtain finally comes down on a once promising career as Britain’s one-time hope for a home grown heavyweight champion.
There are those who will only remember Harrison as the opponent David Haye annihilated in seventy seconds, but few may also recall how Harrison was the first British fighter to win a gold medal in the Super-Heavyweight division at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
In the early 2000s, Harrison was the darling of the boxing media, fresh from his win in Sydney, he signed a lucrative contract with BBC Sport, who broadcasted his professional debut against Michael Middleton to an audience of 6 million viewers. His contribution to the sport in the early 2000s helped pave the way for future Olympians to make the jump to the professional boxing ranks.
Despite this, Harrison leaves the sport with his reputation less than intact. He retires with a record that includes seven career losses, four of which were knockouts at the hands of Michael Sprott, David Haye, David Price and Deontay Wilder in his final fight in 2013. Throughout his career Harrison has been the victim of severe public and professional criticism for his efforts in the ring. When he participated in the Celebrity Big Brother in 2014, the mockery he received from fellow contestant James Jordan encapsulated the lampooning he regularly endures.
The case of Audley Harrison highlights the modern obsession with winning in sport. Football is the greatest example of this obsession, highlighted by the regularity by which football managers are hired and fired. In 2014, Mark Robins was fired as manager of Huddersfield Town after just one match of the new season. A 2014 study by the Journal of Sports Economics into this phenomenon highlighted that football managers in England whose teams fail to perform are more than three times as likely to be fired as they would have been in the 1950s. Logic would dictate that the regularity of changes to the managerial position would only further undermine stability at a club. Yet, the obsession with winning dictates that heads should roll on a regular basis in a futile effort to change fortunes.
The study also suggested this trend has intensified in sport due to the influence of big money. When Audley Harrison lost to David Haye in 2010, he was labelled a ‘disgrace,’ by the then Commonwealth Heavyweight champion Derek Chisora and his one million pound purse from the fight was withheld while the bout was investigated by the British Boxing Board of Control. It was later reinstated.
The level of renumeration in modern sport often leaves athletes open to criticism, but even when athletes fail spectacularly in their bids for greatness, do we have the right to take away their livelihood and label them a failure? That level of pressure is synonymous with professional sport that’s why confidence and the ability to cope with pressure are key components in the succeeding in sport, but how can our heroes succeed when we go to great lengths to demolish their confidence and ruin their motivation for the sport?
Winning is the ultimate goal in sport, if the emphasis is not on winning then sport loses its competitiveness. However, the level of money in modern sport has spawned a culture where failures and setbacks are seen as weaknesses and as such a financial risk.
In the golden age of boxing in the 1930s and 1940s boxers fought with such regularity that occasionally they incurred a loss but it did not detract from their status as a reputable fighter. In modern day boxing, the marketability of fighters continues to be built on undefeated records.
Nobody wants to be a loser, but the reality is that all sporting contests produce them. The problem with modern sports is that we only equate success with being top of the pile. We do not acknowledge or respect the hard work it takes just to be a contender. We also fail to realise that in all sports, competitors operate at different levels. We can’t all be a Muhammad Ali or a Roger Federer so we still need a Henry Cooper or a Tim Henman to make it interesting.
Audley Harrison may not have reached the pinnacle of his sport but he is by no means a loser. He has faced a great deal of adversity in his career. He was twenty nine when he finally turned professional, an age when most professional boxers are already in their prime. His contract with BBC Sport was terminated seventeen fights into his career so he set-up his own promotional company. He was dogged by injury throughout his career but he demonstrated ability, winning the European Boxing Union (EBU) heavyweight title in 2010 and avenging defeats over previous conquerors Danny Williams, Michael Sprott and Martin Rogan.
Sadly, because of our obsession with praising winners and vilifying losers Harrison’s own personal triumphs over adversity will go largely unnoticed. Boxing is a tough sport and Audley Harrison has always conducted himself as an articulate and personable ambassador for the sport. I remember the jubilation of him being crowned Olympic champion in 2000, a significant achievement in any lifetime. With that in mind, I hope in retirement Audley Harrison finds the recognition he deserves.
Header Image Rights; Audley Harrison | Instagram