Harry Simon is still unbeaten but he’s no longer the man he was. Everything changed when the car he was driving in 2002 killed a baby and two other passengers. He talks to John Evans
“ONE thing you should know,” there is a weight to Harry Simon’s voice. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘How are you, Champ?’ and I think to myself, ‘Champ? Where is that boy? I want to see that boy again.’ I have to remind myself that it’s me. I want to know what happened to him. I tell my children this and I always break down when I tell them what happened. When people say they want to see the champ I look at myself in the mirror and tell myself ‘Harry, come on. This is still you, man’.”
Simon will always be ‘Champ.’ It is a title fighters proudly carry into old age, long after a-ny belts are consigned to the trophy cabinet. Whether uttered by a friend or stranger in the street, that one simple phrase is an instant reminder of the person they once were. But the word haunts Simon. Allowing himself to remember the man he once was means confronting the reasons why that confident, brash character no longer exists.
Thursday, November 21, 2002. The events of that autumn day will be forever burned into Simon’s mind. He spent the day showing a documentary film crew around his hometown of Walvis Bay in Namibia. He worked out for the cameras, took them to the bank to film him counting his money and drove them over some nearby sand dunes in his new Mercedes. Later that evening, that same Mercedes was involved in a head-on collision with another vehicle. Three Belgian tourists – including a baby girl – died. In 2005 Simon was found guilty of culpable homicide. Two years later, he went to prison. These days, he is known for more than being ‘Champ’.
“I lost everything. It’s hard to talk about. It is too painful. I remember it very well. You try to forget but now and then you remember it,” Simon told Boxing News. “Life was great. I used to travel a lot. My children were small, life was good. The only thing I regret is that after the car accident I had, my life immediately changed. I have washed my hands of it. I have forgiven myself. I moved on. When I speak about it it hurts me to think about that day but I’m clean. I have made peace with myself and I have made peace with everybody else. When I speak about it I can’t help thinking about what happened to the Harry Simon I used to be? His life was crushed in 2002 and it was never the same again.
“I didn’t take any alcohol. I was driving from Walvis Bay to Swakopmund along a long beach. I could see a car ahead. I could see the lights. I was relaxing talking to my friend and then boom. I didn’t even have time to brake. I didn’t overtake.”
Simon uses the word ‘I’ a lot. But he wasn’t the victim. He may have lost his career but others lost far more. Thankfully, there is a subtle but telling change to his tone. Suddenly, he is back behind the wheel of his Mercedes. “He is stationary and looking to turn. I just have to pass and then he can turn. And then I’m on the ground.”
It isn’t the type of incident you can wash your hands of. If you try, they will quickly get dirty again. Namibia is a stunning but barren country. Walvis Bay sits out on the west coast where the desert runs into the ocean. To the south lie the towering sand dunes and salt flats of Sossusvlei. To the north is arid Kaokoland, home to the beautiful red Himba women. The roads which separate the scattered towns and cities are long, straight, empty and tempting. In April 2001 – 17 months before the crash which would destroy his career – two Namibians died when Simon’s car hit them from behind at high speed. Eventually, after a haphazard investigation involving vanishing blood samples and conflicting witness statements, his chauffeur admitted to having been behind the wheel.
Already the WBO super-welterweight champion, Simon walked away from the wreckage physically, mentally and legally unscathed and easily defeated the world class Hassan Cherifi just three months later. The following year he beat Armand Kranjc for the WBO middleweight belt. Simon was 27, an unbeaten two-weight titlist and he and his entourage seemingly had the run of Walvis Bay. He must have felt invincible.
“Namibia is such a small country. Almost every second person knows me. I always say that even an unknown baby knows me. They do have big respect for me,” he said. “There are lots of people like soccer players and all that but there are only two heroes here. They don’t get the attention me and Frankie Fredericks [the Olympic medal- winning sprinter] get. There are a lot of soccer and netball stars but if we talk about people who have raised Namibia up internationally it is only me and Frankie. I am proud to say that.
“I never liked speed, my whole life. There was a time when I didn’t have a car. If I had to go to Windhoek [Namibia’s capital city], I would have to jump into a minibus. Most of those guys didn’t like to take me because I used to tell them ‘Only 120km/hr or 130. If it isn’t like that, I will jump off.’
“Lots of guys wanted to be seen with me so they would go by my rules. Sometimes they would see me coming and say I couldn’t go with them because they were rushing. I would let them go and find somebody driving slower.
“I don’t know how fast I was driving [during the second crash] and I don’t even think I was speeding. It was just an accident. People talk about witchcraft but I don’t believe in that. I believe the accident just happened and it was maybe meant to be.”
It’s said that in the midst of a near-death experience your life flashes before your eyes but from the moment his Mercedes came to a juddering halt, Simon’s has replayed over and over on an agonising loop. If he could focus on his formative years and recall the mental strength and resilience it required to achieve what he did in the sport, he may have been better placed to deal with the consequences of that terrible day. Instead, he spent years dwelling on what he had lost.
Simon’s father was never a factor in his life and he lost his mother when he was four years old. He grew up in poverty and did what he could to make money. He discovered a talent for fighting when he was “a naughty kid” on the street. “I’m not naturally talented. I’m gifted. It is a gift from God. Why do I say I’m gifted? Look at the way I went through my whole career,” Simon said. “If you could see all the championship that we had, I won them all. The only championship I lost is the Olympic Games in Barcelona where they used computer scoring.
“I was 10 or 11 when I had my first fight. I remember I fought an older man and I won. They gave me an orange as a trophy. I had 275 fights.
“In the years of apartheid, Namibia was known as South West Africa. There was no way you can be a South West African champion at that time but I was champion since I was 13 years old. Imagine that? I was 15 years old and in the national team. When I turned pro I was 21. Every one of those years I was in the national team.”
A streak of knockouts bought him to the attention of Sports Network and he spent 18 months boxing in the UK and Ireland, appearing on Naseem Hamed undercards and spending much of his time training at the Peacock Gym in East London. The brilliant Ronald “Winky” Wright was 38-1 when Simon came from nowhere to take his WBO super-welterweight title and dangerous punchers Kevin Lueshing and Wayne Alexander were swept aside in ruthless fashion before Simon cruised past Cherifi. By the time he outpointed Kranjc to win his second WBO belt, the boy who grew up with nothing in a remote outpost of the boxing world was being linked with the biggest names in the sport. He began to feel and act as though he had made it.
“Especially when I beat Kranjc. I wanted to grow big,” he remembers. “In 2002 we went to the WBO Convention in Panama and they gave me an award. We were talking about me maybe fighting William Joppy. If not Joppy, maybe Bernard Hopkins. My target was ‘Tito’, Felix Trinidad. Why Trinidad? I fought Cherifi in Puerto Rico and I challenged Trinidad the same night. Trinidad was getting ready to fight Hopkins. When he lost to Hopkins he was supposed to fight me but changed his mind and fought Cherifi. He knocked him out.
“I was demanding Trinidad. Even when we went to Panama I was telling everybody at Sports Network that I wanted him. They said they were going to try and make it happen. Unfortunately it didn’t happen.
“I think Hopkins was ducking [me]. When he heard the name Harry Simon he started to make excuses. That’s what they were telling me. I didn’t speak to Hopkins and when I didn’t hear from Joppy I just thought that those guys didn’t want to do anything with me.”
Any feeling of invincibility Simon felt would soon be shattered forever. Less than a month after the convention, Simon found himself lying in the sand outside Walvis Bay, his arm and leg broken and numerous lives in pieces around him. Used to being the centre of attention and protected by his celebrity and standing, suddenly Simon was vulnerable. His phone quickly stopped ringing and, unable to fight due to the injuries he suffered in the crash, his middleweight title was stripped from him and he found himself opening bills rather than cheques. The change to his circumstances were made even more difficult to accept by his insistence that he wasn’t to blame.
“Everybody hated me. I couldn’t understand it. This was an accident. I didn’t do it intentionally. It wasn’t in my will. I had everything I needed. I had my own house and car. I had a little bit of money in the bank. I didn’t owe anybody. Why should I try to kill myself or kill other people?”
It took three years for the case to reach court but when the facts were heard, Simon was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to two years in prison. His appeal was rejected, as was a bid by the prosecution to have his sentence increased and on July 9 2007, almost five years after the incident which destroyed so many lives, Simon heard a prison door close behind him.
“When high profile people get sentenced they don’t mix them with other people so I had to stay in a single cell,” he said. “I had my own TV and a DVD player to watch mine and my opponents fights. I didn’t eat prison food. I would buy my own chicken or whatever and pay the chef with cigarettes or washing powder.
“I was sentenced in Windhoek and stayed there maybe a week. Then they had to transfer me to my birthplace, which is Walvis Bay. I had problems because of the person that I am but it wasn’t dangerous like Windhoek. That’s where the most dangerous criminals are and they all knew me. When I was there they called me to their room to see the boss. They called him ‘Ninja.’
“Ninja’s room was covered in my pictures. Me against Wayne Alexander. Me against Armand Kranjc. Me versus Winky. He had my videos. He had his own television and a fridge. I wondered what was going on.
“Most of those guys wanted to be associated with me. I didn’t know but their plan was that they wanted me to be their friend so that if the cops or the guards came then maybe we can overpower them.
“I was clever. I saw that this was very dangerous. This man [officer] said they could send me to Walvis Bay. I said, ‘Hold on.’ They [the prison gang] had a meeting the next day and I wanted to attend. Something told me to leave and go to Walvis. I did one year something and I was out. If I had gone to that meeting, I would still be in prison as we speak.”
Simon was released in 2009. He is now 45 but is still active and holds the world record for the longest unbeaten run in professional boxing. He has dreams of training five world champions and has hopes that his son, Harry Simon Jnr, can replicate his success. He is friendly and open but there is a sadness underpinning his words. During his reign, Simon lived in the moment. For the past 18 years he has been longing for the past.
Walvis Bay lies at the southern tip of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. It is known as The Ship’s Graveyard. Once formidable vessels lie beached on the sand, derelict and forgotten. There were plenty of victims that autumn evening just outside Walvis Bay. Simon wasn’t one of them. Three people lost their lives, Simon lost his way of life. The repercussions on November 21st 2002 will stay with him forever but unless he begins to focus his energy on building a new legacy, he is at risk of crumbling away like the rusting hulls that jut out of the desert whilst the sea air slowly erodes them to nothing.
“Yes, but who’s going to help me with that?” he says sadly before quickly catching himself. “I have to do it myself. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.”