AUDLEY RULES: AUDLEY HARRISON INTERVIEW
Isn’t it funny how you get images of people you’ve never met? Take Audley Harrison, for instance. He’s all smiles and jokes, especially for the camera, but he’s lived a life and half already. Take the time in his late teens when he was in Norwich prison. Sitting in his cell, Audley had something on his mind. He was there on remand, awaiting trial for two separate crimes, but he had a problem – a new inmate was questioning his role as the main man. After a life of petty crime and gang fighting, Audley might have been on a downward spiral, but he was still the top dog where he was. On his arrival at the youth offenders section of Norwich prison, he had taken up where he’d left off at school: the big man, the bully, the guy who ran the gang that was running the place. But someone was preparing to take him on and this couldn’t be allowed to happen. On the street, in prison, you just can’t let people take liberties – he knew he had to defend his honour.
Filling a sock with heavy batteries, Audley made his move during the 15 minute morning association period. Rushing the guy with his home-made weapon, he swung it half a dozen times, leaving his target bloody and in need of stitches. A period in solitary was his reward, but his reputation was intact. He was still the man.
Audley Harrison has come a long way in 11 years – and not just from his native West London to this book signing in Canary Wharf. He’s turned his life around, been a champion of the rights of amateur boxers, graduated from Brunel University with a BSc (Hons) and has an MBE into the bargain. He’s still a big man, but he’s a big name too – and now he’s in the company of the super big! In the book shop, his hardback is piled up high on a table alongside the biographies of people who were famous when Audley was still serving time: Neil Kinnock, George Best, Madonna – even Bruce Forsyth for God’s sake! It doesn’t get better than that, does it?
Waiting in the shop is an on duty policeman, but times really have changed – it’s not a warrant in the copper’s hand, it’s a copy of Audley’s book ‘Realising The Dream’. But the author is running late. “I don’t know if I can wait much longer,” says the policeman, nervously looking at his watch. He’s supposed to be patrolling Canary Wharf, but he’s nipped into the shop for a few moments to shake hands with the hero of Sydney, the first British heavyweight to lift Olympic gold in 80 years. He notices the list of future book signings on the wall and laughs. “Bruce Forsyth wouldn’t keep his fans waiting,” he says.
Audley cruises into the shop and poses with his book for the snappers. He studies the cover as if it’s the first time he’s seen it. “Realising the dream,” he reads aloud. He smiles and puts the book down. His mobile phone rings and we’ve lost his attention already. The policeman is short on time and really needs to get back to his beat, but Audley fever has set in. It seems that everyone is boxing fan now – and it’s not just the usual suspects who always tune in for the Saturday Night Fight. There are men and women in the queue, black and white, kids and adults, mothers, wives. “Am I big boxing fan?” asks the policeman. “I like boxing, but I’m a big Audley fan, and like everyone else I’d like to see him fight someone better next time. But I suppose he’s still learning. I suppose it would be a shame if he went in against someone like Lennox Lewis straight away and got a right pasting!”
There’s no danger of Audley Harrison rushing things. He’s mapped out a plan, and his life and career are both just part of a grand marketing strategy waiting to happen. That’s quite a turn around for the youth who was in and out of gang trouble through his teenage years. Unlike most sporting biographies though, Harrison’s book pulls no punches as he chronicles his life less ordinary. He talks of his expulsion from two schools, the scrapes that progressed to crime, the fist-fighting that moved on to knife-carrying; he talks of the death defying antics when train surfing, and of the friends who didn’t live to tell the tale; he talks about Feltham Young Offenders Institute and Norwich Prison and the Mount in Hemel Hempstead. His story is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – and that’s one hell of a story.
“I’ve already lived five lives in one,” he says, grinning with that big Audley smile, the one that in the past has got him out of almost as many scrapes as he’s been in. “I like to think it’s a good story. There definitely was a temptation not to reveal all, but I weighed it up and thought it was imperative that I got my story out now – the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I kinda just told it is as it is.”
Audley’s time in prison came out of a gang fight that resulted in the theft of a jacket and a small amount of cash. “When I went inside the sentence was a bit strong for the crime, but I held my hands up and said ‘fair enough’ because I’d done other stuff that I’d got away with, so all in all justice was done.” Having served a healthy chunk of his three-year sentence, he’s happy to admit to his rough past if it can at least serve as a lesson to others. “I think that so many people are in that position and don’t get a chance to get out of it,” he explains. “I sacrificed and became dedicated and I fought my way out of it, but we’ve all got that enthusiasm in us, it’s just that sometimes we need a chance, a bit of luck and we can make something of our lives.”
So you think that by coming clean, the book serves a valuable educational lesson – it’s not just about the best-sellers lists and serialisation rights, then? “I think it’s refreshing to have a good luck story for a change,” he says. “My book is a story of triumph over adversity, about how people can turn their life around if they just believe in themselves. I’m the only one who said that I was going to realise my dream and go to the Olympics. People have got to know that it’s within themselves, that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve.”
Audley seems happy to own up to his past misdemeanors, but looking back he’s thankful that he grew up before guns became de rigueur street accessories. He might have been handy with his fists and even carried a knife from time to time, but guns is a whole different ballgame. Would he have carried one if he was out there now?
“Probably, because that’s what everybody does now,” he says without a moment’s hesitation. “I didn’t grow up in a culture like it is now where people have guns. It started with fisticuffs and then the first thing you did was pick up a weapon, a bottle or whatever; next it got to everybody carrying knives, so I came around at the right time really.”
He paints a picture of something like Compton on the streets of West London, but was it really that bad or was it just UK youth out of control? What was an average night out back then? “The teenage Audley Harrison would have been meeting up with mates at the bus garage,” he says with a smile. “Any girls who’d come past would get chastised, people would come by and we’d shout abuse at them; we’d go up to the West End and mess about up there, vandalise a few shops. Then we’d come home and cause trouble on the night bus. Somebody would have a fight, somebody would get beaten up, somebody would get their purse snatched… something would always happen on the night bus! Then I’d go home and sleep until three in the afternoon.”
Street violence and smalltime crime are the kind of things, rightly or wrongly, that everyone can fall into given certain circumstances, but some of Audley’s other escapades are little easier to have avoided. Partaking in the extreme sport of train surfing, for instance. What kind of adrenaline buzz is it that makes you want to climb out of the window of a moving train and stand on the roof, dodging the posts and pylons and oncoming tunnels?
“To start with people were just hanging out of trains and it was quite safe if you didn’t let go,” he says. “Then it developed to climbing on top of them. It was quite stable up there, but obviously if you hit a tunnel or if you were drunk or it was night-time, you were in trouble. We were fearless though, that’s the bad thing about it. We really were fearless and people lost their lives.”
In his book Audley recounts the tales of his youth quite dispassionately, unphased by the lives lost train surfing or in gang fights. “It was never like my closest friends,” he says. “We were just like a big bunch of people who used to meet up… and even when people did die, I wasn’t there, I always missed it. I never ever saw it live in the flesh, I just caught the aftermath – it seem like I’ve been protected from that. Of course, everyone was shocked when something like that happened, but it was just like when Princess Diana died: I was shocked, I couldn’t do anything, but eventually you just get on with your life.”
And get on with it he did – surviving to tell the tale and to realise the dream. But with so many friends damaged along the way, was there a moment on winners’ rostrum in Sydney when Audley stopped to wonder how on earth he’d survived to reach this Hallmark moment. “Well I thought about what could have been and how I could have gone the other way,” he says. “I thought about how my friends are doing and how some have lost their lives… yeah, it’s upsetting, but life just has to go on.”
Four hours later, and with one satisfied police constable behind him, the book shop appearance is probably not even a distant memory for a busy boxer with more important things on his mind (God bless text messaging). He is due at a bar just under the north-east end of Tower Bridge to celebrate both the launch of his biography and his 30th birthday, but there’s a TV outside broadcast truck parked outside, surrounded by concerned faces. London Tonight have been trailing an interview all week and now that they’re set-up for the live feed, Audley is nowhere to be seen. But the man who likes to be known as A-Force doesn’t need to be places on time these days – he’s a big star now and he even has his own book launch party. Got to make the right entrance to that.
Some 90 minutes later – long after London Tonight has gone off the air – Harrison turns up. Flanked by minders and decked in more gold jewellery than you’d find in Hatton Garden in the January sales, he appears every bit the star. But not your common or garden star, that rare kind that comes along every now and again and whose popularity seems to transcend the sport which they represent. Everyone knows them, everyone likes them – even people who don’t really like sport. Think Bruno. Think Redgrave. Think Torvil and Dean. After all, if you can make people who don’t even like boxing, or rowing, or ice skating, sit up until the early hours of the morning to watch a minority sport, then you’re BBC Sports Personality Of The Year material.
But even for the man who invented himself, when Audley was packing for the Olympics, could he have ever imagined that his popularity would have reached this height? The nation certainly fell in love with his XXL personality. “It was unbelievable,” he says, “but people just warmed to me. I captured the public imagination which allowed me to transcend boxing in certain aspects and I feel privileged and blessed.”
But when did Audley feel the most privileged and blessed? When did he finally realise that his life would never, ever, be the same again? Strangely, it wasn’t at the final bell. It wasn’t even when standing to attention to the national anthem with the gold medal hanging around his neck. It was after the fight had finished, arriving back at the Olympic Village to a standing ovation from the entire British olympic team. “They were all there and that’s when it hit me – the realisation of my dream hit me then,” he says. “It was unbelievable to be put in that position. I had just achieved my own personal goal, but it put me on such a different platform and it effected the emotions of the whole nation. You feel like you’re on a wave and it’s like you’re not coming off it. When I was on the podium, it hadn’t sunk in – it was walking back when I finally realised the dream had been completed.”
Just the small matter of the Heavyweight Championship of the World now Audley. That should be worth a book or two!
THE PROFESSIONAL FIGHTS
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007