GARY Thornhill has painful memories of sharing a ring with Scott Harrison and Nicky Cook. As the only man to have fought both men in title contests, the former British featherweight champion has a unique perspective on their endlessly intriguing showdown at the ExCel Arena in London on Saturday night.
It was one Thornhill was happy to share with The Scotsman yesterday as the build-up intensifies to the highest profile and most significant defence of Harrison's World Boxing Organisation belt against unbeaten challenger Cook.
In September 2001, Thornhill faced Harrison at the MEN Arena in Manchester. The Scot was the rising star of British boxing at the time and defended the British and Commonwealth titles in style against Thornhill, stopping the Liverpool man in the fifth round with a sickening left hook to the body. In October the following year, Thornhill enjoyed home advantage at the Liverpool Olympia when he challenged Cook for the minor World Boxing Federation intercontinental super-featherweight title the Dagenham fighter then held. It was a case of dj-vu for Thornhill, his night again cut short by a left to the body, although it took Cook seven rounds to score the stoppage.
"I can remember both fights clearly and there is no doubt Harrison is the stronger man," said Thornhill.
"I hit him with everything I had when I fought him, but I just couldn't budge him. He's incredibly tough and just seems to walk through your punches. It's like facing a brick wall.
"Against Cook, it was a different story because I definitely got to him with a few of my shots. Fair play to Cook, he got to me in the end and he does hit hard, but if we see both men at the top of their game on Saturday night, then I can only see one winner. It all depends on what physical and mental condition Harrison is in.
"We all know the problems he has had over the past year or so outside the ring and no-one can really be sure until the first bell rings on Saturday night how he will cope with it all. From what I know of him, though, he's very strong-minded and single-minded. If he is spot-on with his attitude and his weight, then he has all the tools to do a number on Cook."
Only two other boxers, Carl Allen and Rakhim Mingaleev, have fought both Harrison and Cook, but they were journeymen put in front of them in the early stages of their respective careers. Thornhill hung up his gloves two years ago, having lost only five of his 30 professional contests, and he rates Harrison as the toughest opponent he faced in his 11-year career.
"I was in great shape for my fight with Harrison, possibly the best shape of my career, but the longer it went on, the harder it was for me," he said. "He is just so big and strong at the weight. Having said that, Cook is also big for a featherweight and when I fought him, it was up at super-feather.
"Cook's a good fighter. You don't win the British, Commonwealth and European titles if you can't fight. He's a nice boxer and he does have a bit of a dig, so he's definitely got a chance against Harrison if he gets it all right on the night. I think he will try and control the pace of the fight from the start, keeping Harrison at bay. He will try to take it into the later rounds and see what kind of stamina Harrison has.
"If Harrison is able to get on top of him quickly, though, we could be in for a quick night. Cook has been knocked about a bit in some of his recent fights and they were not at world level. If Harrison is at his best, then he will be a completely different kettle of fish to anything Cook has come across before. It's going to be fascinating, but I do see Harrison's hand being raised at the end of the night."