Saturday’s WBA heavyweight championship in Manchester, UK, produced the expected outcome; a comfortable victory for David Haye. The champion blitzed Audley Harrison in three rounds, with the challenger landing only a solitary punch throughout. Haye entered the fight as the bookmakers’ 7-1 on favourite to retain his title, yet the response of the British media and public to the fight has ranged from derision to outrage. Why such an embittered reception to a result that was so widely anticipated?
A typical response can be found in Britain’s Sunday Mirror newspaper; under the indignant headline “What a FrAUD,” Harrison is decried as an “imposter” and the event itself as “a night of total embarrassment for British boxing”.
What the article fails to mention is that the night is also expected to be the most profitable in British boxing history, having sold out Manchester’s 22,000 capacity MEN Arena. The card is also likely to break domestic pay-per-view records for revenue and number of buys; such was the unprecedented level of demand that many viewers – this writer included – experienced delays for hours before the start as fight fans jammed box office telephone lines.
The outcry of sympathy for the hundreds of thousands who paid £15 ($24) to watch on PPV is misplaced; people wanted to watch the fight, they were not forced to. The reason is simple: Harrison mockery has become a near national pastime during the past decade, another example of the British tendency to overhype and build up heroes, only to viciously knock them down once they transgress.
This is not to absolve Harrison of responsibility for his reputation; he has more than earned the disdain of boxing fans by continually speaking of his “destiny” in winning the world heavyweight championship, despite doing nothing to support his claims. Following his 2000 Sydney Olympic win, Harrison was rewarded prematurely by the BBC with a £1 million ($1.6 million) ten-fight contract. Afforded the luxury of handpicking his opponents, Harrison followed each outlandish boast with lacklustre performances in the ring. When his paymasters grew tired of his failures and cut his deal, Harrison spoke of betrayal and accused the BBC of “borderline institutional racism.”
Because of this, much vitriol has been directed at David Haye for agreeing to fight Harrison and for failing to take on one of the Klitschko brothers. The latter issue is still to be resolved, but Haye would have been foolish not to take the Harrison fight; the British public all but demanded it. Harrison re-captured boxing headlines back in April when he became European champion via a 12th round knockout of Michael Sprott. It was not long before the boxing and mainstream media – and of course, Audley himself – began to speak of him as a potential challenger for David Haye’s WBA title.
With Harrison’s four embarrassing losses to journeymen fighters – including Sprott – seemingly forgotten, the bandwagon continued rolling and demand kept rising until it became clear that the bout would be a significant money maker. Haye stood to receive his biggest ever pay day for what he believed would be an easy night’s work; frankly, the decision would have been a no-brainer.
As the hype machine rolled on in the UK, Nikolai Valuev, who Haye defeated to win the WBA title, sensibly stated that “the only thing Harrison can pray for is a miracle.” But his voice of reason was largely ignored as respected British sporting pundits from Oliver Holt to Des Lynam lined up to trumpet Harrison’s chance of winning. British heavyweight legends Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno – both world champions in their own right – even came forward to lend further credence to the notion that if Audley landed his big left, then anything could happen, as occurred spectacularly in the Sprott fight. Of course, this all happily ignored the fact that Michael Sprott is... well, Michael Sprott, whereas David Haye has won world cruiserweight and heavyweight titles. Even more laughably, some pundits talked up Haye’s chin as being a crucial factor in the fight, despite the fact that whilst Haye’s has been exposed once by Carl Thompson, a former WBO cruiserweight champion, Harrison had been wobbled on numerous occasions by near to club level fighters.
For his part, Harrison fuelled the fires with his usual expression of bravado, including the curious assertion that “David Haye doesn’t accept that he’s going to get hit, and when he does get hit, he’ll be knocked out.” In the event, Harrison was correct on one count: Haye was hit. Once.
This could all have been spared if we hadn’t been so credulously paid attention to Harrison’s idle threats and encouraged his delusions of grandeur. We had heard all of his boasts and predictions before, and they had always come to nought. There was no reason to believe otherwise on this occasion.
The British do indignation and moral outrage very well, but in this case there is no one else to blame but ourselves – there was certainly no clamour from the across the pond for the fight, which went largely unnoticed as Pacquiao and Margarito fought on the same night in Dallas’ Cowboys Stadium. One cannot help but feel that despite all the hopeful claims, people knew that Harrison would lose, but wished to see his epic tragedy play out to its conclusion; from hero to laughing stock, from partial redemption to ultimate humiliation.
After all was done, Britain’s once revered Olympic gold medallist exited in the most ignominious of fashions, with chants from the Manchester crowd of “you’re sh*t and you know you are” resonating around the arena. In all likelihood, it was what many of them had come hoping for the opportunity to do.