Cameras are shy but Liam is still

THE HAY FILES For a time in the 1990s, boxing and terrestrial television epitomised a marriage made in heaven.

The saturation was such that ITV's commercial interests were satisfied as comprehensively as boxing's need for the oxygen of publicity. Audiences of ten million viewers on a Saturday evening gave the sport the type of nationwide exposure that only football can now expect to receive regularly.

That level of attention was never likely to last, nor has it. In the years since, boxing has succumbed to the charms of satellite television – creating the restrictive era of pay-per-view – and the BBC's costly flirtation with Audley Harrison has further alienated terrestrial commissioners.

But coverage is relative and while boxing may not be football, its profile remains elevated above every other combat sport in Britain. It is for this reason that few people in Leeds will recognise the name or face of Liam Harrison, one of the city's leading Muay Thai exponents.

Last month the 19-year-old lightweight won the world kickboxing title in Italy seven days before Danny Williams' contest with Vitali Klitschko in Las Vegas. One event was national news in Britain while the other went virtually unreported. But as Williams considered retirement over Christmas, Harrison was planning the next stage of an exceptional career which has progressed in the shadows of more prestigious sports.

"Thai boxing is huge in Britain and we have a lot of champions in this country," says Harrison. "But most people don't know anything about them because it doesn't get as much coverage as it should.

"I've appeared on Channel Five and Sky Sports but most of the shows are broadcast in the early hours of the morning and the aim has to be to fight on a prime-time slot. I keep hoping it might happen soon.

"I didn't come into this for publicity or money – I only got 30 for my first professional fight – but Muay Thai is a proper art, a true full-contact sport. Given a chance in Britain, I'm sure people would appreciate what we do."

Muay Thai is among the oldest of the world's martial arts with origins stretching back thousands of years.

Often referred to as "the science of eight limbs", the discipline allows fighters to strike with knees and elbows as well as their fists and legs, and primitive forms of Thai boxing also permitted biting and gouging among other methods of attack which are now banned by the World Muay Thai Council, the sport's governing body.

Harrison's world title was won under kickboxing rules which restrict boxers to conventional kicks and punches, but he has become a recognised figure on the Muay Thai circuit after two years of success in the Far East.

An impressive knockout of Thailand's Kiawsot in June of last year was followed by a third-round stoppage of All-Japan champion Hiromasa Masuda and two further victories over dangerous Thai opponents proved his ability to cope with the country's leading fighters.

During 2004, Harrison earned four wins from as many fights, maintaining an unbeaten professional record of 22 victories and two draws. The final success came on Italian soil when he stopped European champion Emanuele De Prophetis in the fourth round to claim the world title.


"A kickboxing belt is nice to hold but the Muay Thai titles are on a different level," he says.

"They're the target for every Thai boxer and that's what I'm looking at. But it's a gradual process and the kickboxing title has earned me recognition across Europe. The next step is to get myself known across the world.

"I've trained in Thailand for a couple of months before and I'm going back this year because that's the best way to push yourself up to their standard. There's only so much you can learn in Britain.

"The Thai fighters train for seven or eight hours a day and their dedication is amazing. Everyone in Thailand follows boxing – it's like a national religion.

"People in Britain wouldn't be able to imagine the atmosphere in Bangkok's stadiums. They're packed to the rafters for hours and you have crowds of gamblers throwing piles of money about. It's a great experience.

"But even though it's technically their sport, the Thais treat Westerners very well and I've never felt like I've got anything extra to prove. If you're knocking fighters out in the ring, people will love you whatever your nationality."

Harrison's talent became obvious in the months after he joined the Bad Company camp in Harehills, one of the country's most respected Thai boxing gyms.

The 13-year-old schoolboy was taken under the wing of instructor Richard Smith – a British, Commonwealth and European champion – and made his professional debut shortly before his 15th birthday, knocking out a fighter five years his senior.

The appearance fee of 30 was meagre but Harrison's continued success has brought greater financial reward and last year he was invited to a winner-takes-all tournament in Japan where the first prize was 20,000.

"Thai boxing was just an alternative to playing football when I was 13 and I never intended for any of this to happen," he says.

"I don't think anyone goes into sport expecting to reach the top, but once the chance came I made the most of it. This has taken me all over the world and I hope I've still got a few years of this ahead of me.

"Travelling to Japan to fight their national champion might seem daunting but you don't get asked twice and prizes don't come for free.

"Of course it would be nice to get more recognition but it's not really about that. I don't think there are too many people in Leeds who can call themselves world champion."