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Audley Harrison and the Fear

Andy Ryan returns to BLH with a look at the fatal flaw that led Audley Harrison, who retired in March, to a pro career filled with disappointment.

Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Cowering on his haunches in the corner of the ring, he had both gloves raised above his head to form a futile shield against the onslaught. It took almost two years for Audley Harrison to admit what everyone else saw that April night in Sheffield; this had to be the end. A final humiliation in a career of too many.

If you want to understand the flaw that turned an Olympic gold medallist into a national joke, rewind the video by 90 seconds and look at the fighters' eyes. As the pair touch gloves, Deontay Wilder is poised, at ease. He knows what he wants to do and believes in his ability to do it. Now the camera pans to Harrison and there's the wide-eyed fear of a man who believes the game's up.

We'd all seen this face before. Describing his first defeat to Danny Williams, journalist Donald McRae described Harrison as looking "as petrified as he was confused." When they grudgingly awarded him his purse after the David Haye debacle, the British Board of Boxing judged that Harrison had "frozen." Frank Warren cruelly declared that "not much of Harrison's colossal frame is made up with heart or balls."

Boxing isn't divided between the fearful and the brave. Cus D'Amato declared that "every fighter that ever lived had fear" and it was the first thing he'd teach his proteges. He told them about how a deer in danger used fear to perform extraordinary feats, illustrating that fear harnessed was a safety mechanism. But allowed the freedom to roam, fear paralyses.

Starting with a few easy fights was a reasonable way for Harrison to begin his pro career. He deserved time to adjust to life without a head guard. Yet when two years in he was still choosing only fighters who posed no danger to him, Harrison was refusing to confront the reality of professional heavyweight boxing. He needed a proper apprenticeship, a chance to build the mental strength needed to confront man mountains with dangerous intent.

The procession of cab drivers, bouncers and pub landlords inevitably brought derision. He was jeered out of the ring in just his second fight and the nickname "Fraudley" had already stuck by the end of his first year as a pro. A less fragile fighter would have shaken it off. When Harrison admitted that "there are times when I just want to stick my finger up and say 'eff you' to all you people who have been crucifying me" it showed that it hurt. Having the public against him cannot have made the fear any easier to deal with.

Sports psychologists talk about a vicious cycle of fear and it's not hard to see it at play in Harrison's career. He goes into the Haye fight so afraid that he throws one punch, making it easy for Haye to inflict a savage knockout. When faced with his next big fight against David Price, the memories are there, maybe even playing on repeat in the back of his mind. Fear leads to another bad performance, which in turn leads to deeper fear.

When Harrison spoke with confidence about beating Haye, Price and Wilder, was it cocky delusion or a brave face hiding the fear? Perhaps the fear only took hold on fight night. His ego might have been strong enough to sustain him through the build-up but then self-belief departed when he entered the ring. It's all so much easier seated in the comfort of a press conference.

We probably never saw his true abilities. And yet the story may be altogether sadder than a parable of wasted potential. Announcing his retirement, Harrison spoke of the traumatic brain injuries which have left him with vision problems, problems with balance, serious irritability and moodiness. It may be that the grim lesson is not that he should have conquered his fear but that he should have listened to it.

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