About a year ago, on Vero Beach in Florida shortly after sunrise, a group of elderly people practised chi gong, an ancient Chinese exercise related to tai chi, scarcely aware that they were being closely watched by a huge man out for an early-morning run. Had they seen him and known something of his distant past, which included jail sentences in England for robbery and assault, they might have needed to take deeper, more meditative breaths than normal. The man drifted away, but the next morning he was back, this time asking if he could join in.
He was cheerfully admitted to the group, and in due course began meeting some of them in the evenings for dinner - an even more incongruous spectacle than the beach exercises, for he was yards taller, years younger, and a different colour. They told him their life stories. The man learnt that one of his new friends had recently lost his wife to cancer, that another's husband had drowned, and that the chi gong sessions, led by a likeable Jamaican called John, gave them spiritual nourishment as well as physical satisfaction.
By now they knew that the man's name was Audley Harrison, that he was a British boxer, and that a devastating blow had been administered to his professional reputation following a humiliating defeat in December 2005 at the hands of his compatriot Danny Williams.
Whatever promise Harrison had shown by winning Commonwealth and Olympic gold medals as as an amateur in 1998 and 2000 had wilted in the years since. The lucrative contract he signed with the BBC after turning pro was widely considered to be one of the biggest blemishes on the otherwise impressive CV of Greg Dyke, then the BBC's director- general. Harrison's company, A-Force, was ridiculed, as was his determination to make his own fights. The most powerful man in British boxing, the promoter Frank Warren, habitually called him "Fraudley".
What a difference a year makes. With his former nemesis Warren now in his corner, Harrison goes into the ring against his old sparring partner Michael Sprott tomorrow with more credibility than he has had in years. He cites the chi gong sessions, the inspiration he got from the way his Floridian friends had handled their various tragedies, marriage to a Las Vegas hairdresser called Raychel, the birth last year of their daughter, Ariel-la, and indeed reconciliation with his own mother after decades of estrangement ("we're not lovey-dovey but we've made a connection, and she's met the baby"), as factors in his comprehensive defeat of Williams two months ago, when he did what many pundits thought beyond him, fighting with skill and purpose to achieve a third-round knockout.
As a result, the prospect of Audley Harrison, heavyweight champion of the world, is no longer a laughing matter. Matt Skelton awaits him if he beats Sprott, with the winner of that fight likely to get a crack at the WBO title held by the American Shannon Briggs.
And so to a room in the Wembley Plaza Hotel, overlooking the badlands of north-west London where Harrison grew up brawling and stealing. I have interviewed him once before, and was seduced then by his extraordinary charisma and eloquence. This time I am warier, because his deeds since we last met haven't remotely lived up to the beguiling chat he gave me, and yet I leave an hour later captivated once more. If he could box like he can talk he would already have emulated his heroes Lennox Lewis, Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson.
"Jack Johnson's biography is the quickest book I've ever read," he tells me. "He was a maverick, so ahead of his time, a great technical boxer, but what he did out of the ring, taking on the system... a lot of my own nonconformist attitude came from people like him and Muhammad Ali. I'm controversial too, but I need to match my feats out of the ring with my feats in the ring. Hence the alliance with Warren. He will …