What Happened When International Rugby’s Most Violent Individual Went Boxing?

'The Machine' Danny Grewcock v Justin 'The Plank' Harrison in a three-round boxing match you say? Seconds out...
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'The Machine' Danny Grewcock v Justin 'The Plank' Harrison in a three-round boxing match you say? Seconds out...

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I don't want to upset Danny Grewcock. Living in Bath for ten years cemented him as one of my favourite ever athletes and I really really don't want to upset him, but I think I'm going to have to. Sorry Danny. For all his mild eccentricities and (yes, the most boring cliche ever) "gentle giant" off-pitch nature, he is one of the most violent men I have ever seen playing sport.

Grewcock is six foot six, eighteen stone, a blackbelt in karate and for over fifteen years at rugby Union’s highest level he struck terror into the opposition and kept the disciplinary panel permanently busy.  A phenomenal career that included over 150 appearances for Bath and 69 Caps for England, Grewcock toured three times to New Zealand and never managed to complete a trip without being banned or sent home for foul play. Known unofficially as Bath’s enforcer on the pitch, he is also known for his mild-mannered nature off it - although Stan Collymore (who foolishly crossed him one night in Dublin) may disagree.

In short, a man you would have to be an absolute nutter to fight. Step forward an absolute nutter – the Australian Justin Harrison - who agreed to get in the ring with Grewcock for three rounds as part of the testimonial year for an ex-teammate of both players, David Flatman.

About as far from the normal stereotypical rugby prop forward as you can get, the erudite Flatman hung up his boots last year and is now balancing a new life as communications Director for Bath Rugby, columnist for the Independent and current guest presenter on ITV's Aviva Roundup.

Although a testimonial was initially dismissed, it became real for Flatman after he realised he could use it as a vehicle to raise significant funds for charities close to his heart. You can read more about the testimonial here. I'm not sure why he decided to host this boxing match, but I know that he could hardly have picked two more ideal opponents.

Also six foot six and eighteen stone, Harrison is himself no stranger to controversy. Like a mysterious Victorian villain, he suddenly left England in 2009 after an afternoon in London peppered with incident. Before this interesting episode, Harrison’s biggest claim to fame was stealing a lineout ball in a crucial Lions test and being nicknamed "the plank" by Austin Healey, who was presumably annoyed that anyone would try to steal his crown of rugby's most prolific irritant.

I met Harrison just before the fight and found myself talking to a man with a great line in self-deprecation and a sharp, dry wit. He was nothing like the menacing figure I’d been promised. I spoke to him as he was writing down his introduction - when I asked him if it was his last will & testament he just shrugged, laughed and asked if he could run it by me. He did, it was funny.  Now Head Coach of Narbonne, we talked about a Toulouse game I’d seen him play in for Bath and the great food and wine in that part of the world – smiling, he mused “but next week I might be doing both through a straw”.  Faced between him and Healy, who I’ve also met, I know who I’d rather have a pint with. He was remarkably calm for a man about to fight Danny Grewcock.

Introduced as “the most violent man ever to have played rugby for England” I get the impression that Grewcock sees fighting as part of his life, like breathing and getting up in the morning. Harrison probably sees fighting as something that happens occasionally, as an unwelcome but necessary part of being Harrison.

Ringside, I find myself surrounded by huge men in tuxedos, many of whom have played rugby at the highest level. There is a lot of testosterone in the room, not helped by the numerous beautiful hostesses with very little on who are “on loan” from Platinum Lace Gentleman’s Club. I recognise James Haskell who is so comically huge he looks like a professionally drawn cartoon caricature of a huge person. I stare at his feet to make sure he is not actually a Bison.

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In the ring both men look tall but Grewcock, in the red corner, has clearly been training. His biceps are as big as Gilberts and he’s looking psyched. He’s doing that thing that psyched mad people do, banging his own head with his fists. Harrison when he said “I’ve not trained for this” is clearly not lying. Although a big man, he’s lacking definition and obviously enjoying the good life in SW France.

Round one and Harrison does the opposite to what was expected and takes his time, keeps his guard up, taking a flurry of punches from Grewcock who explodes into action. Any thought that this is going to be a walkover is quickly dispelled as Harrison, until now absorbing a lot of pressure, suddenly responds with some jabs of his own. But Grewcock is on top here. He fires a couple of uppercuts, Harrison responds by launching some optimistic haymakers – I can’t help thinking that if one of those lands it’s goodnight Danny. Harrison is also smiling and as well as the right hooks he’s also launching a verbal torrent of his trademark sledging. The dying seconds of the round see a flurry of punches from both men. If I was Harrison, I’d be happy so far.

Round two and Danny is pummelling Harrison, but he’s refusing to give up. This seems to confuse Grewcock, perhaps not as used to taking it back as he is to dishing it out.  Not only is Harrison not moving a step back, he’s occasionally attacking and taking it to the favourite, resulting in some surprising roars of approval from the braying mob - most of whom are here supporting Grewcock. Whatever the outcome of this bout, Grewcock will know he’s been in a fight.

Round three and I think Harrison is winning some of the crowd over with his bravery. He hasn’t got much technique, but is as courageous as the Lion he’s fighting (sorry, couldn’t help it).  Both boxers are clearly tiring now. Harrison, the size and speed of an Easter Island statue, is struggling to keep his huge arms lifted and it’s probably only the chinstrap on his headguard keeping him upright. But kudos to him, he never gives up and for a moment has Grewcock on the ropes. In the last seconds of the last round the guys go at it like they are fighting for their lives, which might even be true in Harrison’s case. The fight ends in a brilliant, brutal all-out display of uncontrolled insanity that sends the crowd into a frenzy. Both men have given it everything and for a moment I’m thinking it might even result in a draw. There is no such ending, Grewcock correctly wins on points and until the day Julian White takes up boxing, the glory is his.