Interview: Scott Harrison, ex-world champion on the comeback trail
HE mutters the words under his breath as he shakes hands.
“Long time, long time.”
As understatement goes, it is as accurate as the metronomic left jab which once guided Scott Harrison to the pinnacle of his sport. He is now back at base camp, seeking to embark upon a second ascent to world title glory at the age of 34.
It has indeed been a long time since Harrison had cause to engage with sports writers. The last six-and-a-half years, during which he should have been at the peak of both his ring abilities and earning power, have instead seen him of far greater interest to the news reporters who have documented his chaotic, often violent and alcohol-fuelled fall from grace.
“Aye, hopefully I won’t end up on the front pages again,” he says. “It’s the back pages I want to be on from now on.”
The road he hopes will lead to ultimate redemption begins at the end of this month when he is scheduled to finally return to the ring with a ten-round contest against French-Algerian journeyman Brahim Bariz at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.
Harrison has much to make up for, not least to himself. He has already expressed his contrition for the myriad transgressions which have seen him the subject of scores of ugly headlines, cost him his liberty on more than one occasion and trashed his reputation in the eyes of many who once regarded him as one of Scotland’s most accomplished sportsmen.
Scepticism over Harrison’s prospects of stabilising his life and recovering his status inside the ring remains widespread, both among the general public and the boxing fraternity. There is a suspicion and fear that the Cambuslang man will press the self-destruct button yet again. He knows the doubts will always remain, but insists he is focused on “proving myself right, not proving other people wrong”.
Boxing’s unmatched capacity for producing tales of tragedy among its combatants was brought sharply into focus three weeks ago when Johnny Tapia, an iconic three-weight world champion whose life was tormented by his battles with depression and drug addiction, was found dead at the age of 45.
For Harrison, the news was especially poignant. He met Tapia back in 2003, the American having travelled to Glasgow to witness Harrison’s stunning demolition of Wayne McCullough in a defence of the WBO featherweight title. Tapia was mooted as Harrison’s next opponent, but the contest never materialised. Although Tapia’s career continued, he was never able to fight for a major title again and ultimately lost the biggest battle of his life.
“I was shocked by that news,” reflects Harrison. “Johnny had a lot of problems in his life, obviously. I’d like to pass on my condolences to his family. The guy was a legend and it was great to meet him that night at Braehead. He shook my hand and told me I was a great fighter, which meant a lot. He was a brilliant fighter and will be sadly missed. His story had a tragic ending.
“I’ve obviously come through a lot of bad situations myself in the last few years, I’ve been to some really dark places, but my story can still have a happy ending. I’m still here standing and looking forward to getting back to work again.”
Throughout our conversation, Harrison repeatedly refers to his ring return as “work”. He badly needs it. Declared bankrupt five years ago, there is a basic incentive to make a success of his comeback which underpins his ambitions of reclaiming world champion status.
He is reminded of it every day in what has become a ritual with his three-year-old son Jack before he sets out to pound the streets from the Cambuslang home he shares with partner Stacey to the Cathkin Braes.
“In the morning, wee Jack runs down the stairs and gets my trainers for going running,” says Harrison, his face for the first and only time betraying the hint of a smile during this interview.
Along with ten-year-old Scott and five-year-old daughter Maria, from his marriage to previous partner Jackie, it is clear that young Jack provides Harrison with a much needed point of focus.
“Jack loves the boxing already,” he adds. “I take him down to the gym at the weekend and he punches the bag with his older brother. Scott junior wants to go to my fight on 29 June, so maybe we will let him come along. He’s old enough now. The wee man wants to come too, but he’s too young.
“My kids are a huge motivation for me in this comeback. This is how I earn my money, through boxing. So I’ve lost so much, being suspended and out of work for all these years. I’ve lost a lot of time and a lot of money. Getting my licence back means so much to me. I’m a professional fighter, this is a business as well as a sport.
“My family are the thing that kept me going the most throughout the bad times. Stacey and my three kids, my mother and father. My boxing kept me going as well, believing I would get my licence back one day.
“Wee Scott and Maria have got a world title belt each, the two I won first time around. So I have promised Jack that he will have a world title belt as well before I’m finished. I’m not going to let him down.”
It is easy to forget just how successful Harrison was before his life imploded so ruinously. His last fight, against Nedal Hussein at the Braehead Arena in November 2005, was his ninth successful world title contest, by some distance the most achieved by any Scottish boxer.
He immediately avenged his only defeat as WBO featherweight champion, to the wily Mexican Manuel Medina, and should have been on the cusp of securing lucrative and career-defining showdowns with some of the sport’s biggest names.
“During the commentary of Manny Pacquiao’s fight against Timothy Bradley in Las Vegas last weekend, they were mentioning me,” he says. “Wayne McCullough was one of the co-commentators and spoke about me.
“Me and the PacMan were meant to have fought at one time, when he was moving up through the weight divisions. I didn’t know who he was at the time. But he has turned into an absolute superstar. He’s a brilliant fighter and he’s made a hell of a lot of money. The guy is a legend. It’s a pity I didn’t fight him back then, or guys like Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez who were all talked about.”
While many of his contemporaries moved through the weight divisions, Harrison remained at featherweight from the day he turned professional at 19 to that last title fight with Hussein. The constant strain of making the nine stone limit, in defiance of nature, is cited by Harrison as a significant factor in the mental stress he experienced away from the ring and which ultimately saw him stripped of his title in 2006.
“I used to have to get my weight down from nearly 12 stone, walking around normally, to nine stone for the fights,” he says. “By the time I got into the ring, I was dead. That used to kill me but I was caught in a Catch 22 situation because none of the world champions at super-featherweight back then wanted to put their titles on the line against me.
“It wasn’t happening for me at nine stone but I had the choice of holding on to my WBO belt and earning a good wage, or relinquishing it and then challenging someone else in a higher division for a fraction of my usual purse. My decision was to keep my title but, looking back now, that was wrong.
“I’ve lost a lot but there comes a time when you have to draw a line on the past and just move forward. I’ve got an opportunity to become world champion again in the lightweight division and I’ve got to make sure I take it.
“I feel good, I’ve been training hard. I’ll get this fight against Bariz out of the way, maybe have another one soon afterwards, and then I’ll be looking for a world title shot. I’m going to make sure I make the most of my opportunity.”
Curiously, the 29 June show will see Harrison make only his second appearance at the Kelvin Hall, the most iconic venue in Scottish boxing. His only previous appearance was a three-round stoppage of Australian Tony Wehbee in a Commonwealth title fight back in 2002.
“To fight anywhere in Scotland, after coming through what I’ve been through, is a dream come true,” he adds. “To perform in front of the Scottish fans again will be unbelievable. The Kelvin Hall is a brilliant arena, it’s a wee bit strange I’ve only ever fought there once before. It was a great night against Wehbee back then and this should be the same, in terms of atmosphere.
“It’s definitely an appropriate place for me to come back. It’s hard to believe that was ten years ago, but I was close to a world title fight when I fought Wehbee that night and that’s what I want again. I don’t have time to hang about.
“When I left, before I was suspended, I was world champion. So, after a couple of fights, I should be in the world title mix again. Why should I be coming back to fight for the British title? I’m sure one of the lightweight champions will want to challenge me.”
After two spells of incarceration, for three months in Barlinnie in 2008 and then two-and-a-half years in a Spanish jail which ended last September, obvious doubts remain over how Harrison will cope with a return to boxing after such a lengthy exile.
There are examples of successful comebacks after enforced absences, most obviously Mike Tyson reclaiming the world heavyweight title after prison time sidelined him for four years. But, at 34, how much can Harrison have left to offer?
“People can box on for a lot longer now, into their 40s,” he shrugs. “I don’t really know how much longer I can stay in this game. It’s difficult to put a number of years on it. But I can box for as long as I feel good. It could be another five or ten years. I’ve got a good team of people around me now and I’m looking forward to the future. It’s exciting times for me, getting back to work again with a clean slate.”
Harrison has never been a man to betray his deepest feelings, generally maintaining a dour countenance in keeping with the grimly focused attitude he brought to his most effective performances in the ring. But there are moments during our conversation when his eyes glisten slightly in an indication of just how much hope he is investing in his pursuit of atonement both in and out of the ring.
“It is quite emotional,” he admits. “Listen, I’ve been out of the ring for over six years and been in and out of jail. It’s been murder, absolute murder. But this is what I love doing. I love fighting, I love boxing, I love performing in front of the fans. I want to break records, win a world title again and defend it.
“I was still world champion before I went to jail. Who beat me?
“It’s about getting myself right. It’s annoying, because I’ve wasted a good few years of my career. But you live and learn, don’t you?”
Let’s hope so, Scott. Let’s hope so.
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