'The sky is the limit': John Harding Jr interview
From prison to the middleweight ranks, John Harding Jr talks about his remarkable personal journey, and the role Dillian Whyte has played in it...
“Dillian Whyte has given me a lifeline,” confides south London middleweight John Harding Jr in reference to the leading heavyweight contender agreeing to manage his career. An arrangement that will see itself tested in the ring for the first time later this month when Harding appears on the undercard of Matchroom’s latest Sky TV offering at The O2.
With his traditional stomping ground rarely taking him beyond the small hall confines of York Hall, this is the perfect opportunity for the 34-year-old to showcase his talents to a larger audience. His gratitude to his new manager for securing this participation is self-evident. “I am so grateful for Dillian getting me on this card,” he says.
“He didn’t have to do it, but he has given me this brilliant opportunity to change my life, I’m just a normal human being. I was down and out. But I don’t listen to anyone that tells me I can’t do anything. It’s a big stage and the sky is now really the limit. It’s great to get the opportunity to try and be a role model for people.”
Life wasn’t always like this for Harding. Back in 2015, he walked out of Brixton prison with a burning desire to turn his life around and make a positive impression on his community.
However readjusting to life outside of the prison gates was predictably less than straightforward for a man that had served time for drugs offences.
“Coming out of prison I had prepared myself to work. But a lot of people were just like staying away from me and saying, ‘don’t trust him,’ and stuff. I just stayed to myself for a bit until I figured things out.”
The fixed routines and monotony of prison life had provided Harding with plenty of time for contemplation. He determined to focus on what he would do following his release and how he could best prepare himself for this new direction once the doors reopened again on his life.
It was a state of mind that was further driven by personal loss.
“My mother passing away ultimately made me stronger,” he confides. “But in prison, you have no distractions, it’s not like you can go out and party to take your mind off things. You just dwell on your thoughts. It’s just thoughts, thoughts and more thoughts. It was tough but it really made me the hard worker I am now. It gave me that motivation and work ethic.”
Harding had fought 13 times as an amateur prior to his incarceration, but sporadically and without the necessary application. Behind bars, he focused on boxing as a career post-release. “I spent my time training and preparing and stuff. I met someone recently and they said, ‘I remember you in Brixton prison, you were always out on the yard shadow boxing and telling everyone you were gonna be a boxer.’
“I just had this vision in my head,” he remembers. “But at the time I was 17 stone and a bit fat. But I knew what I wanted and worked every day in the gym on getting the weight down and by jogging in the yard.”
Towards the end of his sentence, he was given a job in Stockwell library, and it was hurrying back to prison – perhaps, the ultimate oxymoron - that he first encountered ‘The Body Snatcher’.
“I had to be back for a certain time, was speed walking to make sure I wasn’t late and there was Dillian Whyte walking past me. I thought I would nod to him and he nodded back. Little did I imagine then that he would one day be my manager.”
Following his release, Harding laboured to further reduce his weight and kicked off his professional career at light heavy, before moving down to super middle and ultimately finding his natural home at 160lbs. Before signing with Whyte earlier this year he had accrued an unbeaten record of six wins and a single draw.
The draw occurred against the notoriously tricky Anthony Fox in just his second fight. The Wiltshire battler has of late specialised in halting the progress of numerous unbeaten prospects, as he seeks to carve out a future beyond journeyman status.
Harding recalls this blemish and feels that it is symptomatic of the poor leadership and advice that he received from his old team.
“I just didn’t have the man management that I have now. I thought I had to train every day until I felt like I was dying. It took it out of me and I had nothing left for fight night and didn’t show my best. I didn’t know anything about Fox and for a while, I wondered what I’d done wrong. I felt so low, so bad. I was meant to beat this guy and have sparred better people. I thought I was just meant to walk straight through him.
“But what sort of manager gets you into those fights? You are meant to get used to the pro game. I didn’t know and just thought I was in the right hands. But after I see him [Fox] beating up prospects left, right and centre I began to understand.”
But now with the leadership and guidance of Whyte managing his development Harding is comfortable that he is on the right track. A series of chance meetings between them led to a gradually evolving friendship and respect developing between the two men. “I used to see him in Miguel’s gym and would just speak to him. He would always be happy to give me advice and talk. He was just a friendly guy,” remembers Harding.
“Just before the Parker fight I came down to the gym to train and he was there. He turned to me and said ‘Are you gonna spar?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ I just jumped in and did about four rounds with him and ever since then he wanted me involved. I think he just respected someone that would stand there and try and trade with him.”
The current set-up is a world away from the sometimes dry contractual relationship that can often exist between a fighter and their manager. It is obvious Whyte sees potential in his new protégé and at the same time is seeking to help out a mate.
Harding, in turn, is anxious to repay that faith via diligent focus and positive results in the ring.
At the relatively advanced age of 34, there will be those that question just how far Harding can go. Yet he dispels any notion of age presenting even the flimsiest of barriers. “It doesn’t worry me. I don’t look it or feel it. I am feeling as young as ever and don’t think that I need to rush anything. I’ve got plenty of time. I want to enjoy it,” he says languidly.
For Harding, it is all about the journey. One that has taken him from the grey walls and diminished prospects of Brixton prison to an upcoming night under the lights at The O2. It demonstrates what having the right dreams and the work ethic to recast them from the imagination into physical form can do.
He casts his mind back to those old day’s one final time and recalls: “In prison, they called me ‘a waste of talent’. The governor used to say that to me: ‘Harding, you are a waste of talent.”
The time may soon come when he will have to reconsider that view.