Requiem for a heavyweight

Luke G. Williams
07/03/2017 7:40am

As is so often the cruel case in boxing, David Haye probably won more glory and respect in defeat on Saturday night than he would have secured in victory. Luke G. Williams reflects on a dramatic night at the O2 laced with irony and pathos…

Back in the days when I was a boxing fan and not yet a boxing writer, I was a huge David Haye fan.

I was in the adoring crowd the night he iced Enzo Maccarinelli in less than two rounds of viciously controlled violence in 2008 to unify the cruiserweight division and also later that same year when he permanently moved up to heavyweight and slayed Monte Barrett in five.

Wowed by the power in his fists and his natural charisma, as well as swayed by the fact he is from the same area of south London as myself, I was a true believer in the Hayemaker and I eagerly envisaged him making good on his promises to clean out the heavyweight division.

So there was something quite heart-breaking about seeing Haye reduced to hobbling desperation on Saturday night, his ambitions and - quite possibly - his career undone by the combination of a failing and creaking 36-year-old frame, years of almost total pugilistic inactivity, and an almost supernaturally determined foe in Tony Bellew, whose game plan and tactics were - lest we overlook it - spot on.

Haye has always been something of a ‘Marmite’ boxer. His propensity for trash talk, which arguably plunged to new depths in the bitter build-up to this contest, has led many to actively wish ill fortune upon him, as has his perceived ‘arrogance’ and ‘playboy’ reputation. (Truth be told, if outward ‘arrogance’ was a reason to wish ill upon a top-level boxer, then how many boxers would be left for us to cheer on? Not many…)

I have always taken a different view – feeling that Haye’s tongue has frequently been in his cheek and that his outlandish antics and extreme pronouncements have been a consequence of a calculated business strategy to maximise interest and income from his fights, rather than a reflection of a truly unpleasant nature.

When I interviewed Haye by telephone in December in the build-up to the Bellew contest I came away with the impression that he was a decent, polite and charming man who, over the years, has deliberately developed a boxing ‘persona’ quite at odds to the reality of his true character.

My belief is that the ‘real’ Haye is far more like the sporting and gracious man that spoke warm words of tribute to Bellew after the fight than the pantomime villain of the pre-fight press conferences.

Furthermore, in my experience, Haye and the team around him have always been consummately professional in their dealings with the media - unlike the PRs surrounding several other high-profile sportsmen I could mention, some boxers among them.

It is a rather cruel irony that over the years Haye has given many journalists, promoters and even other boxers what they crave – namely effective and eye-catching soundbites, the ability to fill column inches, huge pay-per-view sales and large pay days. He has also given boxing fans what they often crave - namely exciting fights and plenty of controversy and talking points.

In return he has often been greeted with hyperbolic criticism, some of it as distasteful in its savage tone as some of Haye’s own more ill-judged rhetoric.

It is a further irony, of course, that in fighting on so bravely after suffering a serious achilles injury during the sixth round on Saturday night, Haye has succeeded in rehabilitating his reputation in the eyes of many who had previously dismissed or decried him.

Such is boxing, and such, perhaps, is life.

If Haye had blown Bellew out in two or three rounds he would doubtless be shipping criticism, opprobrium and cynicism right now, rather than winning plaudits.

For me, it is a sadness that Haye’s bravery and fighting character were ever questioned in the first place.

Here is a man who often risked it all in the ring and charged from his corner swinging destructive and hurtful bombs. A man with a near 90% KO ratio who travelled to France and climbed off the canvas to dethrone a very good cruiserweight champion in Jean-Marc Mormeck. A man who took on the physically daunting challenge of the freakish behemoth Nicolai Valuev.

Here, also, was a man who, despite being a natural cruiserweight, made a better fist of campaigning at heavyweight than any other previous cruiser, bar the great Evander Holyfield.

You can doubt Haye’s stamina and perhaps, on occasions, his application to training, but his heart should never have been in question.

Against the teak-tough Carl Thompson he went down swinging and it was only the intervention of his corner that terminated the contest. Against Wladimir Klitschko he was out-boxed and out-foxed by a much larger man on an almost unprecedented undefeated run at the top level of heavyweight boxing.

Bellew himself has admitted that he implored Haye to quit during the torrid spell on Saturday night when it became clear that there was no way he could possibly win.

Yet the south Londoner refused to back down.

“He went beyond the call of duty,” was the ever honest Evertonian’s assessment of the man he had vanquished as the two boxers hearteningly swapped invective for mutual admiration in the aftermath to a breathless occasion.

In the end, it was the compassion of Shane McGuigan that saved Haye from himself after a courageous few rounds in which he did everything he could to land a fight altering blow. Haye’s bravery was humbling, inspirational and desperately moving all at the same time.

Where he goes from here, though, is anyone’s guess.

Haye famously once promised that he would quit boxing before his 31st birthday, claiming: "I [don’t] want my speech to become any more slurred than it was when I first entered the ring, and [am] keen not to one day look like an extra from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video.”

That opportunity for 'early retirement' has long gone, of course, and I would hope that the 36-year-old now calls it a day content in the knowledge that his intestinal fortitude can no longer be questioned.

But then Haye has always been a maverick and he may not be able to resist bandaging together his creaking but still magnificently proportioned frame for one last a tilt at glory and a vengeance mission versus Bellew in a rematch.

After all, as faded heavyweight Harlan ‘Mountain’ McClintock muses in the film that gives this article its title: “A guy’s gotta do something.”