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March 7, 2017

David Haye vs. Tony Bellew: Beneath the Bluster

by Matt O'Brien

This article was published by BoxingInsider.com on March 3rd, 2017: http://www.boxinginsider.com/columns/haye-vs-bellew-beneath-bluster/

“Of course, to try to learn from boxers was a quintessentially comic quest. Boxers were liars. Champions were great liars. They had to be. Once you knew what they thought, you could hit them. So their personalities became masterpieces of concealment.” – Norman Mailer, The Fight.

David Haye is a self-confessed play boy from south London who enjoys partying it up in Miami and posing on yachts in his spare time; Tony Bellew is a straight-talking, proud Liverpudlian and consummate family man. It would be an understatement to say they are different characters. What they share is a competitive zeal that has taken them both to professional world title honours and helped set up a meeting inside a 20ft ring on Saturday night at London’s O2 Arena in front of thousands of baying spectators.

It is an acrimonious clash of personalities that has threatened to boil over and breach even the outlandish standards of decency the sport of boxing routinely sets for itself. It is also a curious enough blend of styles and career trajectories to warrant the wider exposure the event has garnered. Whatever else happens prior to the combatants stepping through the ropes, the fight itself is unlikely to disappoint as a fistic spectacle. Both men can punch very hard, both men want to lay hurt on the other, both men have suffered stoppage defeats in their careers, and yet both have gotten off the canvas to come back and score sensational knockout victories in one of their most important fights. Drama is not something likely to be lacking once the talking stops and the trade in leather begins.

In the lead up to the bout, Haye has talked – as so many fighters do – of being rejuvenated, of feeling “better than ever”, and describing the 36-year-old, post-shoulder surgery version of himself that has seen less than nine minutes of ring time in the last five years as “Hayemaker 2.0”.

“You’re gonna see the end of Hayefaker 2 and the beginning of Hayefaker point 3 – it’s like the bleeding Die Hard movies over here, thinks he’s bleeding John McClane, this clown,” quipped Bellew at the final pre-fight press conference on Thursday. “You live in a fairy tale world,” he had said earlier, shaking his head in disdain at the thought of the Londoner’s glamourous lifestyle.

For his part, Haye resorted to the more unseemly remarks that have characterised much of his behaviour in the build up. “I’m legally allowed to do as much damage to him as I can inflict in 36 minutes with 10oz gloves on,” warned the former WBA heavyweight and unified cruiserweight champion. “Make sure your little rat coach doesn’t throw the towel in to try to save you for another day – there’s not gonna be another day for you. This is the last day for you. This is it. Enjoy your last couple of days. That’s it. It’s over.”

Statements of this kind have led to a backlash in some sections of the media, with Haye being viewed as having needlessly crossed the line between engaging in pre-fight psychological warfare and bringing the sport into disrepute. It is unlikely that he will escape the aftermath of the bout without a serious dressing down from the British Boxing Board of Control – although they previously refused to sanction his fight with Dereck Chisora in 2012, only to discover that they had no power to prevent the boxers from competing on UK soil under the auspices of the Luxembourg Boxing Federation. How seriously they will attempt to reprimand him for his comments this time remains to be seen; it is clear from the spite in Haye’s rhetoric though that the straight-talking scouser has succeeded in getting well and truly under his skin.

Is that likely to make a difference to the outcome of the fight? Not really – at least not in Bellew’s favour, anyway. If anything, publicly labelling Haye as “that bitch from Bermondsey” and then persistently questioning his character seems to have provided the former champ with an extra level of motivation. He looked ripped and in fantastic shape on the scales on Friday afternoon, and while Haye has never lacked an impressive physique, more worryingly for Bellew he appeared leaner than in his previous two outings, despite still weighing 224 ½ pounds. Bellew, the former light-heavyweight, predictably came in much lighter at 213 ½, while sporting a far less admirable midsection.

Of course, no one has ever won a boxing match based on looks, but it is nevertheless hard to escape the conclusion that the current WBC cruiserweight champion will be seriously outgunned come fight night. “He’s coming to a gun fight with a floppy dildo in his hand” was one of the more crass descriptions thrown out by the south Londoner regarding his rival in the past week.

And yet, beneath all the bluster and the machismo, both men betrayed the fact that, in their own way, they carry traces of doubt into the contest with them.

For the Hayemaker, this was more about the limitations that his older, more shopworn body poses for him than of the dangers of his opponent. “I’m 36 years of age now. In the past, I could get away with three, four hours sleep a night and still bang out two hard sessions – can’t do that anymore. I need a good nine, ten hours sleep if I’m gonna push two hard sessions out,” admitted Haye.

Later, asked point blank by Sky’s head of boxing Adam Smith whether he was “totally injury free,” it was possible to detect the slightest hesitation before he responded: “Yes. Yes. As much as any other fighter is before they get in the ring… there’s no punches restricted, there’s no movement restricted, I can throw whatever combination I want.” The words sounded suspiciously like he was trying to convince himself that he would be problem-free, despite whatever minor ailments he was carrrying.

As for the Bomber, he was more open about the enormity of the task his adversary presents. “I’ve gotta stick to a gameplan and I’ve gotta be clever in there, because you cannot go in there and give the opportunities to David Haye within them first few rounds. It just can’t be given to him, ‘cause he will take it and the fight will be over instantly.”

The “clever” Bellew gameplan would presumably therefore involve avoiding exchanges early and dragging out the contest for as long as possible in order to take advantage of Haye’s perceived lack of stamina, and then begin to turn things in his favour as the bigger man tires and finally burns out. It’s a strategy that has proven successful before. In 2004, an exhausted Haye was stopped by Carl Thompson, after unleashing a barrage early on but failing to get his more experienced foe out of the fight. Lacking a Plan B or enough energy in reserve to hold off his surging assailant, he was rescued by his corner in the fifth round.

While the strategy may be a sound one, the chance of Bellew being able to pull it off is incredibly slim. The likeable Liverpudlian certainly talks a good game, and his insistence that he is prepared to win “by any means necessary” should be taken at face value. The problem though lies not with his commitment to the task, but rather his ability to avoid presenting David Haye with an opportunity to do damage in those first few rounds. The Hayemaker is not just the bigger man and a seriously heavy hitter – he also happens to be a very accurate, fast puncher, an extremely skilled boxer and a tremendous finisher. My feeling is that he is bound to land something significant at some point within the first three rounds, and once he does, he possesses the killer instinct to let his hands go and get Bellew straight out of the fight.

It might not last long then, but the fans should get what they paid for: two big men engaging in an exciting fight with a conclusive ending. And hopefully, once the battle is over, temperatures have cooled, mutual respect has been earned and the fighters no longer need to conceal their innermost anxieties for fear of weakness, they can again conduct themselves in a manner more becoming of the great sport they represent.

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