Haye’s biggest test — in more ways than one
The promoters played up the size difference between Nikolai Valuev and David Haye in the official fight poster.
It was April 2008 and one of those Friday nights on the Las Vegas Strip for which the time-honored catch phrase was invented: What went on here this evening, would most certainly stick around.
A mini-community of those who make their living from the fight game and those who follow it had congregated at their adopted watering hole, the Heart Bar at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino.
The following day, Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins would square off down the road at the Thomas and Mack Center. For now, though, another challenge was afoot for the primarily British band of travelling boxing followers, namely finding out if the two scantily clad females were, as suspected, ladies of the night.
Suddenly, into this raucous mix strode David Haye, the world cruiserweight champion.
“What’s everyone talking about, a bit of brass?” said Haye, using London slang for a woman of dubious reputation. “How much is it?”
When the assembled group expressed surprise that the boxer who once boasted of bedding more than 500 women should need to pay for company, he responded with a cheeky grin.
“I love a bit of a haggle,” he said. “I’ll talk her down to nothing, then tell her to (expletive) off.”
When Haye left the group an hour or so later, a consensus of opinion was reached that the most remarkable aspect of the scene wasn’t his outlandish comments. Instead, it was that for the first time in recent memory, every word that left Haye’s mouth hadn’t been about how he was destined to take the heavyweight division by storm.
It didn’t take Haye long to start talking trash to the world’s best heavyweights again, and 18 months later he is finally ready to embark upon what he feels is the path to superstardom.
Ever since unifying the cruiserweight belts with a victory over Enzo Maccarinelli in March of last year, Haye has targeted the biggest names in the heavyweight division and on Nov. 7 he takes on the biggest of the lot.
Nikolai Valuev stands 7 feet and while the Russian behemoth is far from having the skills of the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, he does hold one of the four belts and poses a mighty challenge for Haye.
Some have been surprised by Haye’s decision to thrust himself straight into the heavyweight mix, taking only one tune-up fight, a fifth-round stoppage of Monte Barrett last November.
Yet Haye argues that the weakened state of today’s heavyweight class has spurred him to move quickly. A bout with Vitali Klitchko scheduled for the summer was scrapped when a deal between the parties proved elusive. Instead, he takes on Valuev in the German city of Nuremberg.
The 28-year-old, with a record of 22-1 (21 knockouts), wastes no opportunity to extol his own virtues and he has already angered Valuev with some of his comments.
“Valuev is the ugliest thing I have ever seen,” said Haye. “I have watched Lord of the Rings and films with strange looking people but for a human being to look like he does is pretty shocking.
“I knew he was going to be big and he was exactly what I was anticipating when we stood next to each other. But he is beatable, he can be knocked down. He is a heavy guy and if he goes down, it will be hard to get his huge frame off the floor.”
Part of the reason Haye has so often crossed into sensationalist waters with his pre-fight comments has been an attempt to beef up the pay-per-view ratings, which will be his primary source of income from a contract that favors Valuev.
Occasionally, just occasionally, Haye has broken off from his hyperbolic pattern to offer some real boxing insight.
“This is an obstacle I've never come close to facing before,” he said. “Valuev can take a shot better than anyone that I've fought. He can punch harder than anyone that I've fought. He's got a better record. He's superior in every way to anyone I've ever fought.
“I'm going to have to fight better than I've fought before. I'm going to have to take a shot better than I've ever done before. I'm going to have to hit harder. My reflexes have got to be faster. I've got to be able to cover more distance, be quicker on my feet than I've ever been.
“I've got to change the whole biomechanics of how I throw a punch. But I don't think this guy will have seen anything like what I'm looking to dish out on him. Once Valuev is out of the way, I can move on to bigger and better things.”
Haye may have taken some spirit from Evander Holyfield’s narrow points defeat to Valuev in Zurich last December. Holyfield, himself a former cruiserweight star, hung tough with the Russian at the age of 46 before losing a contentious decision.
While Haye has more speed than the veteran, his ability to take a shot has been questioned and Holyfield himself feels Valuev may be able to exploit Haye’s low left hand.
“Haye's a very skilful fighter but he's fighting against a giant, a guy who's heavier and has a huge reach advantage,” said Holyfield. “He has hardly boxed as a heavyweight and it will only tell you how good he is by how well he does in the fight against Valuev.”
With Ricky Hatton fading and Joe Calzaghe retired, Haye is seen as something of a poster boy for British boxing. His brash nature is not to the liking of all, but his good looks – he turned down a lucrative career in modeling – has attracted a reasonably broad fan base.
Victory over Valuev would further open the window of opportunity, with a showdown with a Klitschko then surely inevitable.
Haye generally keeps himself tucked away at his home on the island of Cyprus, claiming the warm Mediterranean weather and lack of distractions offer a more suitable training environment.
However, promotional commitments for the Valuev bout have largely kept him in wintry London, and speculation is rife that his preparation has been less than ideal.
While such a move may make financial sense, it is a big risk to take. Defeat to Valuev leaves him in limbo, just another one of myriad unconvincing heavyweight hopefuls.
Such an outcome would be the antithesis of his ambitiously stated claim to become the best boxer in the world.
His path through cruiserweight was solid, a bizarre defeat to Carl Thompson in 2004 notwithstanding, when he pummeled Thompson mercilessly before running out of gas and being knocked out himself.
In winning three of the four major belts he toppled a fading Enzo Maccarinelli and Jean-Marc Mormeck but did not clash with O’Neil Bell, Steve Cunningham or Thomas Adamek, and despite boasting knockout power, is still untested in deep rounds.
His success in Germany may depend on having the strength to repeatedly hold off Valuev, and the nous to get inside his jab and pound away.
On Saturday, Haye will truly find out if size matters, as he faces what is in every way the biggest test of his career.
Martin Rogers is a columnist with Yahoo! Sports