AFTER an hour in the company of Audley Harrison two things become abundantly clear: This is a man who settles for nothing other than perfection and if eating were an Olympic sport, Harrison would be in with a chance of adding to the heavyweight gold he won in Sydney a decade ago.
Halfway through a mid-afternoon snack of roast chicken and boiled rice, a portion so large that it would put most people’s Christmas dinners to shame, Harrison calls for the attention of the barmaid.
“Excuse me lovely,” he says with typical politeness. “I ordered half a cranberry juice and half an orange juice. This has way too much orange in it for me. Can I have another one, please? Exactly half and half, thank you.”
On Saturday night Harrison will go toe-to-toe with fellow Brit David Haye (right), almost unnaturally confident he is finally about to fulfill his ambition of becoming heavyweight champion of the world.
Anyone with even the flimsiest knowledge of Harrison’s career would be aware the story so far has been anything but straightforward and could mistake confidence for delusion.
After winning the Olympics and becoming a household name at 29, Harrison’s career almost immediately began to head in the opposite direction. A lucrative contract with the BBC was consigned to the dustbin after the corporation opted to remove boxing from its schedule permanently and Harrison was forced to sign with promoter Frank Warren.
It was hardly a match made in heave – Harrison claimed “I never ever wanted to sign with Warren” – and the 39-year-old’s career reached its nadir in December 2008 when he was defeated by Belfast taxi driver Martin Rogan.
A surprising upturn in fortunes coincided with his victory in last year’s Prizefighter series, a one-night knockout tournament normally the reserve of journeymen sluggers hoping for a once in a lifetime pay cheque, rather than a launchpad for those with designs on world domination.
If Harrison’s victory there showcased the natural talent he has never been accused of lacking, his knockout victory over Michael Sprott last April finally suggested he had discovered the fight and desire to fulfill his lofty goals. Behind on all three scorecards, Harrison found something from nowhere in the final round to send Sprott hurtling towards the canvas. With one punch, he was up and running again.
To have engineered an opportunity against Haye, having hit rock bottom, represents a remarkable achievement in itself, but Harrison being Harrison, he is not about to heed advice from elsewhere, or adopt a different approach. Just like the way he prefers his non-alcoholic refreshments, it’s his way or no way at all.
“I have no doubt my way will work out in the end,” said Harrison, who had by now moved onto tea and biscuits. “I’m like John Wooden the UCLA basketball coach. He was the greatest of all time and recently passed away. For 10 years he didn’t win a thing, then bang, he won it all.
“All great achievements take time and you have to have a plan. People like Wooden and Arsene Wenger are very intelligent guys. They might take some stick for doing things their way, but ultimately they have this inner belief that it will turn out right in the end. I believe it will for me too.
“Having been down there, it will mean more to do it my way. He who has his own pathway needs no map. I don’t need anyone else’s map.
“My life is no accident. I don’t need to listen to anyone else. OK it’s taken me longer to get here than I wanted to. I admit it wasn’t smart, the timeframe I set.
“It took me longer to learn how to fight than I imagined. I nearly fell out of the game and it took a lot of strength to get back where I am and now as a result of these knocks I know I am the complete fighter. That isn’t where David Haye is. I am ready for this moment more so than he is.”
Cocky, brash and handsome, Haye has the capacity to light up a flagging heavyweight division. But Harrison sees nothing special, nothing original in the Bermondsey boxer’s personality or style. Indeed, Harrison, quite the man about town in his younger days, sees a lot of himself in Haye at that age.
“I helped create him and that’s why I’m going to destroy him,” he said. “He can’t see the comparisons. I see how he goes out of control and I’m going to be doing him a favour. I’m going to be beating him up with love and compassion because it’s going to be good for him in the long run.
“Some people told me, my spies, he was in Vegas for the Marquez fight in July walking round in red leather cowboy boots and a red jacket, screaming trying to get attention. People looking thinking ‘who is this idiot’. It’s desperate.
“Back in the day I had a red tailor- made suit that I used to walk around in. All the moves I used to do he’s doing. I see how I must’ve looked back then. But I think I must’ve carried it off better. I’m smoother.”
Unlike the contender, however, Haye has the belts and titles to back-up his alleged arrogance. As Harrison has proved already this year, it only takes one punch to change all that.
“David is going to need his family around after I’ve finished with him. I’m sending him to a dark place,” said Harrison, who is perhaps ready to take his place in the limelight again.
THE A-FORCE | HIGHS & LOWS
Born 26 October 1971 in London
Becomes British Amateur super heavyweight champion in 1997
Wins gold at the 1998 Commonwealth games
Wins the Olympic heavyweight title in 2000 and turns professional
Harrison’s lucrative contract with the BBC?is terminated in 2004
Loses to Michael Sprout in 2007 and to Martin Rogan a year later
Wins 2009 Prizefighter series
In April he avenges Sprott defeat