For a country so small, Scotland has punched well above its weight in producing champion boxers. Benny Lynch, “The Little King of the Gorbals,” famously lit up the flyweight division in the 1930s, trading blows at football grounds north and south of the border. Tragically the pocket dynamo’s fall from grace and losing battle with the bottle put him in an early grave at just 33. Still, he is rightly revered as the nation’s greatest ever ringman. A while back, there was a petition to erect a statue of Benny outside Glasgow Central train station.
After Lynch came a cast of rugged, tough and talented fighters such as Walter McGowan, Jim Watt, Ken Buchanan and amateur standout Dick McTaggart, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1956. Buchanan in particular is acknowledged as one of the finest lightweight battlers of the last several decades and he was deservedly inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000.
Since the turn of the millennium Scotland has continued to produce quality fighters: Alex Arthur, Ricky Burns and Josh Taylor all rolled off the production line and lifted world honours. But one man to achieve the same feat – but who has largely been forgotten – is Scott Harrison, the enigmatic WBO featherweight champion from 2002 to 2005. Moustachioed Harrison wore a permanent scowl and brought a shudder-inducing intensity to the ring, as he single-handedly brought big time boxing back to his homeland. Braehead Arena was the mean-mugging puncher’s stomping ground: he had ten bouts there on the spin in his heyday, including a humbling defeat to Manuel Medina and quickfire revenge bludgeoning.
As a teenager, I met Harrison in between those bouts. Clad in an oversized leather jacket, with a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, he was navigating a mob of fans in the lobby of Bellahouston Sports Centre. It was November 2003, and my gym-mate Craig Docherty was set to defend his Commonwealth title that night. Deep in training for the Medina rematch, Scotland’s most famous active boxer looked as solid as a rock and projected cold menace while repeatedly muttering “It’s gonna be a war” as he signed autographs. Despite being schooled a few months earlier, “The Real McCoy” made good on his promise, dragging the Mexican into a slugfest and trouncing him that December.
Boxing doesn’t often make it into the sports pages of national newspapers in Scotland, but something about Harrison captured the public’s attention. A huge featherweight with an unstoppable engine and no-bones-about-it demeanour, his ascent included impressive victories over former world champions Tracy Harris Patterson and Tom Johnson, plus the capture of British and Commonwealth titles, a common route to international stardom for homegrown fighters. Harrison was a high-tempo, hard-as-nails aggressor who traded on fitness derived from early morning runs up Highland mountains. He seemed to have a bitter vendetta against opponents, glowering at them during the referee’s instructions, seek-and-destroy mode activated from the moment he vacated his dressing room. Or woke up that morning.
In the early days, Harrison expressed a desire to face fellow British featherweight Prince Naseem Hamed, but the possibility of an intriguing civil war was snuffed out by Marco Antonio Barrera. Guided by promoter Frank Warren, Harrison instead challenged Juan Pablo Chacón in October of 2002, outpointing the Argentine champion with a combination of toughness and pace. With fewer than twenty pro bouts on his ledger, he could call himself a world titleholder in a division laced with talent.
Names like Barrera, Hamed (yet to retire but never to compete again), Morales, Marquez and Tapia beckoned. A year later, a young firecracker named Pacquiao exploded onto the scene. You could scarcely imagine a more lucrative weight class in which to make your bones and earn a fortune. Yet none of those mega matches materialized. Instead Harrison made Braehead a tiger pit, beating a succession of solid opponents, guys like Wayne McCullough, Walter Estrada, Victor Polo and Michael Brodie. In November 2005, aged 28, he successfully defended his belt against Nedal Hussein. He wouldn’t fight again for seven years.
So what happened to this national hero with the world at his feet? In short, he went off the rails. Booze. Depression. Imprisonment. Rehab. Like Lynch before him, Harrison suffered a downward spiral, only this one played out in full Technicolor. The fighter went from the sports page to the front page, was in and out of court for a variety of offenses, and was eventually sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a Spanish prison. The crime? Drunkenly assaulting a couple while trying to steal their car – then attacking a cop who sought to apprehend him.
Things went from bad to worse a few years later, when Harrison was sentenced to another four-year stretch stemming from a brawl at a Malaga brothel in 2007. In a newspaper interview last year, his fiancee Stacey said that “While murderers and drug dealers get a soft touch, Scott faced the full force of the law with nothing held back.”
The ex-titlist served out the final part of his sentence in Shotts, a high-security facility in Lanarkshire, before being released in the summer of 2018. Between bids – and while appealing the brothel case – he made a short-lived comeback, defeating Hungarian novice Gyorgy Mizsei and journeyman Joe Elfidh, before dropping a wide decision to Liam Walsh for a fringe title in 2013.
Scott Harrison turned 42 last year and still professes a burning desire to reclaim a world title, saying “When I win it, I can retire quite happily.” The British Boxing Board of Control have other ideas, steadfastly refusing to issue him a license. Of course, the board’s blockade does not necessarily prevent him from competing. In 2012 heavyweights David Haye and Dereck Chisora – license-less after their bust-up in Munich – fought in London under the auspices of the Luxembourg Boxing Federation, the same federation that recently licensed 55-year-old Nigel Benn for a scrapped appointment with Sakio Bika in Birmingham, on the undercard of which Harrison was due to appear. The Scot insisted he would keep the Birmingham date, new promoters having stepped in, but it never happened.
Some people will find it difficult, even impossible, to sympathise with Harrison. What is he but another hard-headed fighter whose lousy discipline and foolish decisions wasted many of his best years? Unlike Burns or Taylor he was never a telegenic “good guy” whom it was easy to root for. Even in his early days, darkness engulfed him. With Harrison there were no airs or graces or smiles or platitudes. When it came down to it, he was just a bloody good fighter whose nastiness extended beyond the boundaries of the ring.
In the pantheon of great fights that never happened, Harrison vs Burns ranks high, at least on British shores. It’s difficult to imagine it being anything other than a memorable back-and-forth war of wills between two of the gutsiest Scots to ever lace up gloves. Interestingly, Harrison sent a good-luck video message to Burns and Taylor before the Selby and Prograis fights. But he couldn’t resist adding “If I had my license I’d fight either one of yous. It’d be a brilliant fight up here in Glasgow.”
Those who never saw Harrison compete may wonder how good he was, or could have been. It’s easy to sniff at a 27-3 record that lacks lustre. But on his day, he was a truly formidable specimen: tenacious as a scrapyard dog, big at the weight, with freakish stamina, strength and resilience. The Chacon, McCullough and Medina II fights provide ample evidence of his talents.
Harrison has long intended to take ownership of his troubled life story, which up to now has been documented almost exclusively by the tabloid press. In December he planned to release his autobiography Truth and Redemption but, like the mooted comebacks, it never happened. If and when it is published, it may shed some light on the factors that presaged his downfall and it may even endear readers to its brooding, unknowable subject. However, there is a good chance that it will – like so many autobiographies before it – be an exercise in rewritten history. We have to wait and see.
For the time being Harrison’s life and career remain a cautionary tale, and his legacy is defined as much by what could have been as by two world-title stints and seven successful defenses. Although the term “hurt business” usually alludes to the effects of a violent trade, here the hurt stems from a probable lifetime of self-recrimination, guilt and regret. It would require a Panglossian outlook to militate against such an emotional flood-tide. Despite the odds, Harrison seems battle-ready for the long days ahead. — Ronnie McCluskey