By Martin ‘the Brain’ Potter of the One More Round podcast
With the London Olympics fast approaching and the Great Britain boxing squad looking possibly the strongest it’s ever been going into a major tournament, the expectation is that following the games a plethora of British boxing talent will explode onto the professional scene, bringing with it an avalanche of success. Whilst I do think the likes of Anthony Joshua, Tom Stalker and co have massive potential should they decide to punch for pay, the pitfalls of turning professional after a successful amateur career can not be ignored…
The highest profile casualty and most obvious example of an amateur medallist flat-lining in the professional ranks has to be the 2000 Olympic super-heavyweight champion Audley Harrison. ‘A-Force’, as big Audley took to calling himself, was a marketing man’s dream after he struck gold in Sydney; huge, talented, smart, ambitious and full of (misguided) confidence. Audley told the world that he would turn his Olympic medal into a professional world title and the world believed him. The BBC – who has since cast professional boxing into the sporting wilderness – believed in Harrison so much that they handed him a one million pound ten fight deal and afforded him the luxury of choosing his own opponents. Big mistake.
After a series of terrible fights, in which Harrison refused (or was unable), to relinquish his jab and grab amateur style, old ‘Auntie’ Beeb jettisoned Audley, and seemingly boxing, for good. And Harrison, as we all know, never did win a genuine world belt, although if you measure success in cash earned then I concede that he did do rather well for himself. In Audley’s case it simply seemed to be a matter of styles. As an amateur fighting in three round contests with a headguard – where pitter-patter punches are valued over rugged aggression – Harrison was able to employ his long jab, hold up close and not worry about the rough stuff. After switching codes Audley soon found lesser skilled fighters could compete with him through sheer force of will and a desire to inflict pain. Audley didn’t like being punched in the face.
It is not only Audley Harrison who found the transition from the vest to the chest difficult. Of the Olympic class of 2008, which included such luminaries as James DeGale (gold), Frankie Gavin (pulled out, but 2007 amateur world champion) and David Price (bronze), none have so far fought at world level, with only DeGale getting up to British and European title standard. Of the three, Frankie Gavin’s development has been the most frustrating to watch. Perhaps the most gifted amateur fighter that Great Britain has ever produced, Gavin has spent more time and effort fighting his personal demons than opponents in the ring – I can only hope that he has now truly turned the corner and will fulfil his vast potential. As for DeGale, he now seems set for legal wrangling with current / former(?) promoter and manager Frank Warren which could potentially keep him out of the ring for a while, whilst Price is still at least a year away from world level (by his own admission).
So is the weight of expectation placed upon high-profile amateur fighters who turn pro too much? Has the Harrison effect ruined it for everyone?
My feeling is that to be a successful world champion in a sport as unforgiving as boxing you need to be extremely mentally tough. Therefore if you can’t handle the expectation then it unlikely that you would have the mental capacity to be a world champion anyway – Audley Harrison falls into this category. David Haye and Carl Froch both bagged amateur world championship medals and both went on to pick up titles as pros; both men are blessed with a mental toughness that matches their physical attributes. Haye is also rather handy with a tripod…
Perhaps it is unfair to ask if Harrison ruined things for future amateur medallists seeking to forge a career in the pro game as in many ways the BBC is just as culpable. Instead of accepting the fact that they made a mistake with the way in which they dealt with Audley and going back to the drawing board, the BBC instead cut all ties with professional boxing – in TV terms at least. Yet now, a decade later, ‘Auntie’ has the cheek to call up British boxing’s biggest players for a radio debate on ‘the future of boxing’. Unbelievable! If the BBC gave boxing a chance then I’m certain there would be even more amateur fighters gunning for London 2012, in the knowledge that professional super stardom, as opposed to pay-per-view obscurity, awaited them.
My conclusion is that amateur boxing is a good barometer of boxing ability but perhaps not so great a guide to a fighting heart. When you have genuine amateur pedigree and success and are also able to combine this with heart, mental fortitude and determination, the likelihood is that you will become a successful professional boxer. I sincerely hope that our 2012 representatives fall into this category and become more Amir than Audley. Good luck!
To hear more of my ill-informed views on a wide range of subjects from sport to Stallone you can tune into my new show, the One More Round podcast at www.onemoreround.libsyn.com or you can download back episodes of my old boxing show at www.boxingclever.libsyn.com or via iTunes (search Boxing Clever podcast). You can also contact me on Twitter @theboxingbrain or @onemoreroundpod or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.