The ‘What if’ factor: Bellew vs Haye 2 preview

Graham Houston
04/05/2018 9:55am

Would the result have been the same if David Haye hadn’t got injured against Tony Bellew? Graham Houston examines a rematch that should supply the answer...

Some fights make themselves. So it is with the rematch between Tony Bellew and David Haye. There was unfinished business due to the unsatisfactory nature of the first meeting, with Haye virtually a one-legged fighter from the sixth round onwards. A return bout was really the only one that made sense for either man.

Needless say, this is a fight that Haye absolutely, positively has to win. Haye is 37, which hardly seems possible. It doesn’t seem all that long ago when he was winning big fights by KO at cruiserweight. Now he’s the same age as Jersey Joe Walcott when Jersey Joe became the oldest heavyweight champion in history (up to that point in time) back in 1951.

Haye has made changes. He’s brought in the excellent Cuban trainer Ismael Salas. One thing he can’t change though, is the ageing process. Haye’s body is feeling the strain. There was the shoulder surgery that caused the cancellation of his fight with Tyson Fury (after a cut over Haye’s eye had caused an earlier postponement). Then we had the Achilles tendon rupture that ruined Haye’s chances of victory in the first fight with Bellew. Worryingly, there was speculation that Haye went into the fight with a compromised Achilles. (Remember the flight to Germany to consult his specialist with the Bellew bout days away?) Then there was the bicep injury which forced Haye out of the original rematch date in December, hence this rescheduled event more than a year after the two men first fought.

It is only reasonable to wonder if Haye’s body will hold up. He seems to be doing things all the right way, with less severe training routines. In a fight, though, it’s different to working out in the gym.

However, it’s not Bellew’s job to ponder whether or not Haye will be physically able to stand the rigours of a 12-round contest. Bellew’s job is to get in there and fight a winning fight, as he did last time.

It’s rare these days to have a big fight without some sort of title involved — especially when it’s a heavyweight fight. Bellew vs Haye II doesn’t need a title add-on. The fight is intriguing and the personalities involved have ensured a lively build-up.

Bellew shocked many with the way he handled himself last time. Although he was national amateur champion at 200lbs, Bellew was seen as a blown-up cruiserweight who wouldn’t be able to withstand Haye’s big punches. Yet Haye never came close to putting a dent in Bellew in the 11 rounds the fight lasted. Bellew was making Haye miss in the early rounds, and after Haye’s Achilles “went” in the sixth it was Bellew all the way.

For a return bout to capture the imagination it helps to have a “What if?” factor. This time it’s: “What would have happened if Haye hadn’t suffered an injury?”

Haye will tell you that he was just getting into the fight and that his timing and accuracy would have improved. Bellew’s position is that everything was going to plan, that he had taken the best Haye could throw at him and that his strategy all along was to pick up the pace and punch-output in the second half of the fight.

So, now they do it all over again. Bellew arguably has the psychological advantage - he won the first fight, against the odds, and no matter what happens this time he has secured a special spot in British ring history.

Last time Bellew came in at his heaviest-ever fighting weight of just under 214lbs but he’s 6ft 3ins and he carried the weight well. While Bellew isn’t a fast fighter as such, he had sufficient movement to throw Haye’s timing out of synch.

That’s one thing we have to consider when looking at the rematch. Haye frankly looked the worst he’s ever looked in the early rounds of the first fight. He didn’t look all that big a puncher in that first fight, either. When Haye landed his right hand in the second round, Bellew made the “Is that all?” gesture. Haye got home with a good left hook in the fourth, and in the same round a right hand moved Bellew sideways. But Bellew was still there.

Haye won four of the first five rounds on the official scorecards. Bellew was starting to come on a bit, though, even before Haye’s right ankle gave way. So it seems plausible for Bellew to state that everything was going according to the script.

Bellew showed in the last fight that he was able to hit Haye, to make Haye miss and to stand up to his opponent’s blows. It is reasonable to assume that Bellew and trainer Dave Coldwell will be feeling confident — and, of course, they were buoyant about Bellew’s chances going into the first fight.

One thing that was overlooked last time — or maybe just not sufficiently taken into account — is that Haye had boxed just three rounds in five years going into the fight. There was the one-round win over Mark de Mori and a second-round KO over Arnold Gjergjaj. These were weak opponents. Each had a respectable record statistically but that was down to careful matching.

To give you an idea, De Mori’s last three opponents before meeting Haye had at time of writing been KO’d 46 times between them while Gjergjaj’s last three opponents before facing Haye now share 24 stoppage defeats between them.*

Haye did what he had to do. He went in there and took care of business in exciting fashion against De Mori and Gjergjaj. Still, when Haye fought Bellew it was his first meaningful fight since the fifth-round victory over Dereck Chisora five years earlier. He was something like a 10-1 betting favourite to win the first fight and 5-1 on to KO Bellew. The oddsmakers got it totally wrong and public perception was way off.

This time, although the odds are closer, Haye is still favourite. The oddsmakers don’t quite believe it when a lopsided favourite loses a fight he was widely expected to win. The assumption is: “He’ll get it right next time.” For instance, Mike Tyson was a massive favourite to beat Evander Holyfield and Shane Mosley was off the charts in the betting odds when he faced Vernon Forrest the first time. Even though Holyfield and Forrest won convincingly, Tyson was nevertheless the favourite for the return fight while Forrest was even money in the Mosley rematch.

There seems universal agreement that Haye is the superior fighter. That is, the Haye who was at his best — the sleek fighting machine who got off the canvas to blast Jean Marc Mormeck into defeat and demolished Enzo Maccarinelli in the cruiserweight division and who, as a heavyweight, used speed and mobility to outpoint the huge Nikolay Valuev. It just wasn’t the same David Haye in the ring with Bellew last March. Even Haye himself admits that.

So, over a year down the road from the first fight, can a repaired and perhaps re-tooled Haye do what he said he was going to do last time and leave Bellew battered and beaten on the ring floor? Or has injury and inactivity and that most feared enemy of all — Father Time — caught up with Haye?

It’s possible that Bellew simply has Haye’s number. Bellew is probably one of Britain’s most under-appreciated fighters in recent years. His crushing loss at light-heavyweight against Adonis Stevenson can be attributed to being weight-drained. Bellew easily avenged his only other loss, against Nathan Cleverly, and he upset the odds to become cruiser champion by blasting out the dangerous Ilunga Makabu. With all the focus on Haye’s Achilles tendon injury, it’s easy to forget that Bellew broke his right hand in the fight.

If Bellew beats Haye again, there’s the possibility of a fight for a heavyweight title. It’s not exactly Cinderella Man stuff but one can see elements of James J. Braddock’s beating-the-odds narrative in the Bellew backstory.

With more intangibles than usual to ponder, picking a winner isn’t straightforward — which is as it should be. The thought here is that Haye should win if for no other reason than he has to win. That’s a simplistic reason for choosing a side in a boxing match, but in a fight such as this, it’s as good a reason as any.

* Figures correct at the time of writing.

NB: This is a re-edited version of the preview Graham Houston wrote ahead of the original Bellew vs Haye 2 fight date of December 2017.