“Audley Harrison is going to be heavyweight champion of the world in 2006…He's got the right body, he takes his time in the ring with his big jab – he's got the package. They didn't rush him because of his age, and I'm happy about that.”

                                                              – George Foreman speaking to the BBC

In the current crop of heavyweights there are four semi-recognized belt holders, and a series of worthy and not-so-worthy mandatory contenders, but in almost every quarter one name is conspicuously absent from mention for true contention: Britain’s Audley Harrison.

Harrison, set to take on onetime Mike Tyson conqueror, Danny Williams in London on December 10th, is rarely mentioned as a future titlist and is on no one’s shortlist to challenge for a belt despite his unbeaten record and an Olympic gold medal in the 2000 games.

He has regularly been savaged by the British press and boxing fans for the conduct of his career – the issue which is likely the central factor resulting in being largely ignored, particularly by the American sporting public.

Perhaps no one summed up the state of the big man’s career as succinctly as David Payne writing for The Sweet Science.

“Rare commodities like Olympic gold medallists are traditionally pursued, signed, nurtured and guided by established promoters,” wrote Payne. “Preceding his present reincarnation and relocation to Las Vegas, Harrison’s career has been punctuated by injury, savagely criticized by jealous and bitter promoters, and undermined by creative but cautious matchmaking.”

The 6’5½” southpaw has admittedly fought infrequently for a fighter rising to contender status. His 19 fights have spanned the four years since his 2001 professional debut.

Harrison is currently on the fringes of contention by the alphabet organizations: WBC #14; WBO #14; IBF #13 and he is inexplicably unrated in the top 15 of the WBA. (Harrison remains at # 8 in the monthly Grant Top 25 Heavyweights based largely on his potential).

Post-Olympic fervor was certainly in his favor. He signed a massive television contract with the BBC and was allowed to choose his opponents – a deal almost unheard of in the business for all except the most elite of amateur stars.

As Harrison’s wins accumulated, however, his opposition did not progress accordingly. He was eventually dropped by the BBC and became a subject of much derision by fans in Britain – fans generally as loyal as any anywhere.

Unfortunately for Harrison the British boxing public’s loyalty is exceeded only by their knowledge of the sport, and they knew they were not getting their money’s worth.

Despite demonstrating the willingness to overcome adversity in the Olympics, fighting the gold medal fight in pain from a knuckle injury, Harrison’s detractors question not only the path his management has taken, but also his commitment.

Since moving his base of operations to the United States and linking up with the very successful promoter Dan Goossen, he has beaten hard battlers Robert Davis and Robert Wiggins. He may also be on the threshold of breaking out of his years in the wilderness.

Wiggins had built a reputation as a tough southpaw fighting largely on the club circuit and he had been stopped only once in his 25 fights coming into his bout with Harrison.

Harrison pummeled and dominated Wiggins en route to a fourth round stoppage. But in that bout another of the many reasons his detractors cite as cause for distaste was in evidence.

Harrison wastes no motion or punches ever. Consequently, his fights can be on the dull side, particularly if his opponent feels Harrison’s power early and elects to go into a shell.

In the opening rounds with Wiggins, neither man appeared to have the fire to destroy the opponent despite the fact that Harrison had clearly pulled ahead. Not until he unloaded his considerable power onto the head of Wiggins, effectively ending the fight (officially it came between rounds), did it seem he was all that interested.

As he faces Danny Williams, he faces not only a fellow countryman; he significantly steps up in opposition, and potentially takes a giant leap in required output.  Williams is big – he will likely weigh as much as 15 pounds more than Harrison – and his punching power is respected if not feared.

Williams fought in June stopping unheralded Zoltan Petranyi in three rounds. Of course his preceding two bouts, a stoppage of the shell of Mike Tyson, and his gutsy stoppage loss to defending WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko push his name into the “known” opponent category.

Though Williams is unrated by the alphabet bodies, a Harrison win in their bout would perhaps provide enough evidence for the sanctioning bodies to nudge him into a top ten ranking. Their bout will undoubtedly generate a large gate in London.

“Danny fits the criteria of opponents that I am looking for at present. I see this as a good opportunity to give something back to the fans,” wrote Harrison on his fan website recently. “It will be a tough fight and I will prepare for it as though it is a world title fight.”

What is also clear is that in order for Harrison to force a title shot he will likely have to secure a number one rating in one of the alphabet ratings.

Promoter Don King effectively owns all optional defenses for three of the titles, while Vitali Klitschko and his K-2 Promotions controls the WBC belt. Needless to say, Harrison will not be the recipient of an optional shot unless he’s willing to sign away future rights – an unlikely scenario.

The Williams bout provides the first venue on the road to wide recognition and could lead to another all-Britain showdown with the winner of the upcoming Matt Skelton-Kevin McBride match. It could also mean a short road to a world title match.

For now, Audley Harrison will remain the world’s most underrated heavyweight and it is in his hands to remove that mantle.

Harrison’s bout with Williams will take place at the ExCeL Arena in London.