England v Australia
Fight or flight - Boxing Danny Grewcock
Justin Harrison
October 30, 2013
Danny Grewcock v Justin Harrison © Rachel Luckhurst

England versus Australia. One of sport's ultimate rivalries. Justin Harrison is no stranger to those matches, supporters of a red rose persuasion, or those who celebrate the Lions every four years will know him well. While he is renowned as a rugby player, he agreed to a different type of challenge against an English foe. A couple of weeks ago, he entered a boxing ring and faced Danny Grewcock all in the name of David Flatman's testimonial and charities. This is his account.

Bells ring for many reasons, a new beginning for newlyweds, the arrival of a customer through a door of commercial enterprise bringing hope for the vendor, the commencement of a trading day full of anticipation for economic windfall and then there is the bell to signal the start of a three by two minute round charity boxing bout in front of over 300 people against Danny Grewcock who, in an instant, morphs into a Canadian Brown Bear; a bear who has just been told all of his porridge was eaten and his entire house was burnt down, by me.

Justin Harrison receives some advice from Matt Stevens, London, October 2, 2013
Receiving advice from Matt Stevens © Rachel Luckhurst

And so it begins, it is quite simple really, it is a question of survival. Silly things enter my head as I negotiate the well wishers, or soon to be mourners, on my way down the 20-metre tunnel towards what looks like the smallest boxing ring in history, my bed is bigger than that. Thoughts go through my head - what if I slip on the step and pretend to break my leg, back or anything that will cancel the fight? What would happen if I just continued on past the ring and out the door, hailed a taxi and never answered my phone again?

Which brings me to the catalyst for this night in which I can comfortably identify for the rest of my life as the night I came to realise that fear of an opponent is real but nothing in comparison to the fear of exposure and failure before a gathering of bloodthirsty voyeurs who have come to see you perform just such a feat.

It was a non-descript afternoon in which I felt my iPhone vibrate in my pocket in between barking poor French orders at the team I coach in France's ProD2 competition, Racing Club Narbonne. The missed call notification told me it was from David Flatman, who I had the opportunity to play alongside at Bath Rugby during the 2009-10 season. We had many good times together and developed a friendship that meant we had an interest in more than what we did on the field together; a hallmark of the great characters in the rugby family is the integration they make with your tapestry of life. There are many who have been team-mates along the way, a loose term that merely signifies you played in the same coloured jerseys for a period of time. To be pulled out of the melting pot of mediocrity, Flats remained true to his honest and forthright character whilst making me feel like it was important to him to know how my life was going.

After exhausting my repertoire of poor French, Flats nonchalantly mentioned his testimonial year and that he was embarking on a series of charity events to raise funds. He was holding a boxing event, at this stage of the conversation I knew what was coming and in hindsight should have started making static noises and hung up in order to prepare a better response than yes.

It's about 15 seconds into Round One of the worst night of my life, it feels like I am in the interior cabin of a Range Rover Signature series, all leather and branding. My lungs are strangely burning and screaming for oxygen, strange given I haven't moved my feet and the only exercise I have done is raise my hands to shield my face from the eight-different-position drivers seat that is being thrown at me.

Survival instincts are strange things, in the middle of the extra time period in the 2003 World Cup, I wanted to develop an extra set of legs and break Jonny Wilkinson; in the middle of the first round in the ballroom of the Park Plaza Riverside Hotel I wanted the earth to swallow me up and offer me refuge from this caged animal that has been allowed out for six minutes.

There are two thoughts constantly bouncing around in my head, alongside my brain, how can I get knocked out heroically and why did I not train for this. Grewcock, aka the homeless and hungry Canadian Brown Bear, has clearly trained, muscles in his spit and various video clips on YouTube of his training sessions at a Bristol gym bare testament to that. My training consisted of shoulder shrugging in considering the appropriate response when asked why I was doing this by my heroic wife and muttering it is what mates do for mates, emphasising the 'it's for a good cause charity card'.

Finding myself still upright and alive at the end of Round One brings in an instant two contrasting emotions, joy, I am still alive and fear, there are still two rounds to go. This is where the role of the corner man becomes significant. Faced with a fighter who clearly does not want to be on the other side of the ropes and lacking in training other than the seven minutes of boxing advice he received from another fighters trainer in the dressing room.

It is the role of the cornerman to give advice, tactics, deconstruct and formulate a plan of attack for the forthcoming round, give confidence, re-assurance and above all belief. My survival is testament to the fact that I had the two greatest cornermen known to man, Matt Stevens (godfather to both of my sons and a lion amongst men) and Philippe Lecina (ex-Narbonne rugby union and Lezignan Rugby League player and aficionado of any French wine ever produced since the dawn of water to wine).

Round Two starts, there's that bell again; survive, survive, survive is a loud voice and it is winning the conversation. As I climb back inside the Range Rover I feel the world closing in on me, a strange calm comes over me and I am actually able to recall some of the things I was told by the seven-minute trainer, 'you have long arms, use your jab' springs to mind and I manage to stick a limb out which has my left fist attached to it.

This seems to work and I feel that the Rangey has a larger cabin area all of a sudden. The rest of the round is full of poor timing and left jabs that have the speed of an asthmatic ant with a heavy load of shopping. However, whether surprised or genuinely with me, there seems to be some roars of approval coming from somewhere and I have survived another round without having to be airlifted out.

My cornermen kick in and remind me that although I can't feel my legs and I feel like my lungs have exploded inside my chest cavity, I have one round to go, one round to survive, one round to finish the for a 'good cause' favour. The evening to me feels like an exercise in stupidity with hopes of muscle memory kicking in.

Two minutes does not seem like long when you say it but ,imagine, if you will, having two 15kg cinder blocks tied to your wrists, 95% of your blood oxygen drained out of you and a pair of lead shoes fitted to the bottom of your already fatigued legs. Now, imagine someone putting a pair of leather gloves on and, whilst you are in that standing coma state, directing as many blows as they can directly at your head while you count every second of two minutes and get worried at 20 seconds?

Justin Harrison and Danny Grewcock embrace at the end of the fight, London, October 2, 2013
Exhaustion at the end of the fight © Rachel Luckhurst

The sixth bell of the evening sounds and at once I am joyous, triumphant and gladiatorial. It is the best sound I have heard in my 39 years of being upright, I have conquered a mountain that was listed as impossible to climb, I have scratched the belly of a killer whale and doggy-paddled away, I have pulled the tail of a tiger and skipped through tall grass, I have survived.

I feel like raising my arms but can't, I put my arms around the hungry, homeless Canadian Brown Bear who has now morphed into Grewcock, one of the nicest and most considerate men I have met, when not standing on grass in shoes fitted with 18mm weapons.

Flatman is once again a good mate, my cornermen deserve a medal, the crowd are on their feet cheering for something and there has been some money raised for charity. Importantly, and above all else, one day when my boys are reading the myriad of digital media and evidence of my many misgivings and shortcomings, they will hopefully stumble upon a piece that was written about the evening in which I am described as putting up a decent showing in the boxing ring, stood by my word of committing to helping out a mate and was part of raising some funds for some charities, one of which is the Help For Heroes campaign.

Having pride is not a choice until you do something to be proud of, Jack and Hugo, I hope your Dad made you proud.

More information on David Flatman's testimonial year can be found at: http://davidflatmantestimonial.com
His next event is at Bath's Pump Rooms on December 7
Thanks to Rachel Luckhurst for the photography http://www.rleventphotography.co.uk

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