Harding Jr’s road to redemption after three prison spells – with help of Whyte

Sitting in a prison cell was nothing new for John Harding Jr by the time he got to his third stint behind bars.

But one day in Brixton, minding his own business, a prison guard inadvertently lit a fire inside the 30-year-old which would change his life.

“It really, really fired me up, man,” Harding recalls, the event clearly still etched in his memory.

“When I was in my prison cell, I used to have little pictures on the wall from when I was doing amateur boxing. You know, like training pics?

“There was one when I met Steve Collins and got a picture. One day, one of the prison officers came in and he looked at it.

“He just looked at me, shook his head and he said: ‘Harding, man you’re a wasted talent’, and that was like the lightbulb.

“Numerous times he said it. I used to read poetry out in the church and people would be touched, I’d see people crying from my poetry.

“The officers, I’d hear them say, ‘man, that guy Harding, he’s a wasted talent’. It fired me up, that ‘wasted talent’ phrase.

“I just sat there in my cell and I swore, I’m never going to be a wasted talent. I’m just going to make sure that’s not me and from then on it was in my heart.”

Five years on from his lightbulb moment, Harding, now 36, is still driven by his desire to escape that "wasted talent" label.

On October 4, he is set for a second crack at the English middleweight title as he takes on Linus Udofia on the Matchroom Boxing card headlined by Joshua Buatsi's return.

The empty Marshall Arena at Stadium:MK will be a far cry from the South East London estate where Harding was born, raised and quickly fell into a cycle of violence and gang culture. 

“If we were sat down doing this in person I’d be going until the morning,” he says via Zoom call. 

“But I’ll give you the short and sweet version. As sweet as it can be, anyway.” 

Harding is half-joking, half-deadly serious.

You sense he certainly has enough stories to last several hours, and they almost certainly are not sweet bedtime tales. 

“I grew up on an estate in New Cross and growing up there, it was a lot of what outsiders would call gang culture, but to us it was just brotherhood,” he explains. 

“We’d have all the boys together, hollering back and forth to people from Peckham, Woolwich, other areas.

“There were people getting stabbed, but it was just a normal thing. You grow up and you learn about survival more than anything.

“Then you start selling drugs, that’s just a way to survive, to bring food home and then eventually to have new trainers and stuff like that.

“Fast forward and a few friends have died, everyone starts turning on each other, it’s a dog eat dog world when you’re growing up on those estates.

“People are on top of you, to the side of you, you’re all crushed in and sometimes you can’t help but get into confrontations, especially when it’s over money.

“I went to prison three times, then my last time was when I properly quit smoking. I used to smoke heavily.

“I was always on and off, there were times I wanted to commit to amateur boxing but at the same time I was still hustling and still smoking weed as well.

“I came out of prison for the last time five years ago and I said, ‘you know what, I’m going to stick at this, I’m going to do it’.” 

It is no surprise that when Harding left prison for a third time in 2015, many expected him to simply fall back into his old ways.

Instead, he turned back to boxing to keep on the straight and narrow in a bid to ensure he would never end up on that troubled road again.

He says: “I knew I wanted to get back to boxing when I got out and I went back to the gym again.

“I turned professional in 2017, hooked up with some great people around me, Chris Kongo, Richard Riakporhe, Isaac Chamberlain,

“A lot of people said, ‘he’s only going back to prison, I don’t trust him’, and there was so much negativity. There still is to this day.

“When you’re trying to turn over a new leaf, there’s still people out there you’ve had back and forth with back in the day, and now they see me and they’re amazed at your transformation.

“There are still some people who will hold grudges and won’t be happy, but I can only do what’s best for me and what’s in my heart and it’s good to know it brings peace to some people.” 

Harding’s professional career hit an early stumbling block with a draw against the tough Anthony Fox.

But he put together a string of wins and fate soon dealt him another life-changing hand as he was drafted in to spar DIllian Whyte ahead of his fight against Joseph Parker in 2018.

“He asked me to spar him then that was it,” he recalls. “We had one spar in the Parker camp where a lot of people were amazed I was just trading with him.

“People saw my heart, that’s what got me really noticed, and now I see him not just as a manager but as another brother.

“Now I’m out here (in Portugal) and it feels like a fairytale moment just talking about it, but it’s real.” 

Two years later, Whyte has gone from sparring partner to manager.

But he’s also a lot more than that.

“That’s my brother from another, man,” Harding says. 

“I’ve been used to being with him, every day and walking next to him every fight, holding that belt, shouting at him and you see it when he ring walks me, he does the same thing.

“We lose together and we win together, and that’s the way it’ll always be. He’s like a brother, always cracking jokes, we’re always laughing together, working hard together.

“He’s a guy with a big heart and he doesn’t follow the crowd. He saw something in me that nobody else did and gave me opportunities a lot of people wouldn’t and that just shows how beautiful his heart is.

“In my eyes, he’s already a champion, even without the belt, and there’s nothing but love from me to him.” 

With Whyte in his corner, Harding is a man on a mission.

At 36-years-old and without time on his side, Harding could have been forgiven for feeling he had accomplished all he needed to when he suffered a loss to Jack Cullen in his first English title shot last year.

Instead, he insists his journey is still only just beginning as he takes on a journey much bigger than any single fight, driven by a desire to inspire the next generation of those at risk of making the same mistakes he did. 

“A lot of people from my past probably look at it like I’ve already made it," he admits.

“In some ways I guess I have, but in my eyes there’s a lot more to come and it’s just the beginning.

“I get a lot of messages from people who are incarcerated, through people, DMs and everything, talking about me as the guy who came out of prison and turned things around.

“If my life can touch them and strike a chord, that means so much to me.  It’s more than just one single fight now. Right now I’m carrying the prayers and a lot of people on my back.

“There’s a whole generation and a lot of people where I’ve come from that can change based on a decision I made quite late on in my life, so I just want to do those people proud.

“I can go as far as I want to go, as far as my body will take me.

“I still feel young, look at me – pretty boy! I still look young, I’m still looking mid-20s and I feel it. I don’t feel old at all.

“I’m just going to keep pushing to go as far as I can, and my main job at the same time is also inspiring others.

“That’s what my life has become about – people who are reading this, I just want them to know that you should never feel it’s too late.

“Never let people tell you you’re too old or you can’t do this. People tell you what they can’t do because they can’t do it.

“But I’m here, I’m proving to people you can do things other people don’t believe are possible. When I put Linus Udofia down on October 4th, people are going to see that.” 

Harding’s preparations to take on Udofia have taken place at Whyte's long Algarve training camp.

After a brief trip back to England for Whyte's shock defeat to Alexander Povetkin last month, the pair are back in the Portuguese sunshine.

With Whyte preparing for a rematch and Harding having his own business to attend to against Udofia, the hard yards are being put in once more. 

“I’m out in sunny Portugal, baby!” He says at the start of our chat with palm trees visible in the background.

“Dil’s out here as well, we had a session not too long ago and we’re enjoying the sunshine.

“I’ve done a lot of the hard training now. I was in England for a couple of weeks to keep up my preparation then they kept pushing the fight dates back.

“When it got pushed back again I flew back out to put in the final touches and that’s what we’re doing now.

“I’ve learnt to always be prepared. It was quite tough to go through all the gruelling sessions and taking down the weight in just three weeks like I was doing before. 

“This time I’ve had a long camp, I’ve learnt to just be professional, don’t blow up in weight because you don’t know when that opportunity will come.

“Especially now, in COVID times, opportunities can be right around the corner at any turn.

“Right now, I’ve just learnt to be focused and be a professional.” 

Win on October 4 and Harding is right, opportunities will be right around the corner.

And who would've thought that looking at him just a few years ago?

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