The anti-Mayweather: The sad, cautionary tale of Audley Harrison

A cruel game.
A cruel game.
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
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The coming superfight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquaio is building, with much back and forth between the two camps. The May bout is due to be the biggest in history, on course to generate more ticket revenue than the Super Bowl and to answer Mayweather’s claims to be the best ever.

There was another event in boxing this week, that happened without much fanfare. The British fighter, Audley Harrison, retired for the second time, with brain damage from a life in boxing. It seems odd now to compare Harrison to Mayweather, but it could have all been so different.

Mayweather is considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world today—but as an amateur, he only managed to achieve bronze at the 1996 Olympics. In 2000, Harrison won gold in the super-heavyweight category at the Sydney Olympics. His career looked set for great things. So how did Harrison go on to seven losses in a 38-fight career while Mayweather is currently undefeated at 47-0?

Boxing is not just what happens in the ring. We’ve already written about how Mayweather’s business skills are as good as his boxing and how, since 2006, Mayweather promotes his own fights—even hiring his opponents. But Mayweather did that deep into his career, when he was already a marquee draw and understood the game. Harrison had all the talent in the world. But he didn’t appreciate that a professional fighting career needs to be nurtured and built up. He threw himself straight into the deep end.

Harrison turned pro after the Sydney Olympics and, puffed up with the glamor of being a gold medallist, decided to promote himself immediately. He signed a £1 million-deal with the BBC to show his fights to the biggest possible domestic audience. His handpicked first four opponents? A private detective, a factory worker, a part-time nightclub bouncer, and a pub owner. They were hardly fair fights. He won his first 17 match-ups—but the glamor was gone and the public turned against him after one unwatchable bout after another.

Worse, picking his own terrible opponents meant he was never ready when the big fights did come along. Harrison lost a British superfight to David Haye, only throwing a single punch in the whole fight despite a height and weight advantage. He was booed into the ring and out of it. Harrison was later brutally knocked out in the first round and lasted 70 seconds in what we know now were his two last fights.

Harrison always refused to quit despite insults and abuse; he even threatened a comeback as recently as January at the age of 43. But those knockouts have now come back to haunt him. In retiring, Harrison said:

After years of denial and sticking to my guns, I’m finally getting out of my own way. I’ve suffered a few [traumatic brain injuries] and will have to work hard to reverse some of the effects taking punches to the head has brought about to my overall health. I have vision problems, vestibular issues that lead to balance disturbances, and have serious bouts of irritability and moodiness that comes with TBI recovery.

He is also facing bankruptcy:

I’ve made many mistakes and learned some tough lessons along the way. I made tons of money and splurged lots of it away with reckless money management, immaturity and a desire to build my empire like [Scarface character] Tony Montana.

The man nicknamed “A-Force” now serves as a cautionary tale for what can happen to a boxer who takes charge of his own career. Meanwhile, Floyd Mayweather is facing the biggest fight of his career—and will likely bank at least $120 million from one night.

In 2000, many predicted that Harrison would go on to become one of most successful fighters around today. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.