It was almost six years ago that David Haye stood in centre ring with his shoe removed, pointing to an injured toe as he attempted to explain what had just happened. What had just happened was another victory for Wladimir Klitschko, who had controlled Haye comfortably for a decision win in front of 45,000 fans in Hamburg, Germany. Many of Haye’s British fans had made the trip that night, desperate to see their flashy and confident Heavyweight hope do what he’d promised and vanquish his towering foe. Not only had he fallen well short, his underwhelming injury excuse certainly didn’t help things but instead just heightened the disappointment. Honestly, the British public was more disappointed in the man David Haye than they were the boxer. He just seemed to lack the fire and passion that he’d shown in such abundance in the pre-fight press conferences.
As he’d publicly planned for quite some time, Haye would next retire, keen to leave the sport before his 31st Birthday. He had provided some moments of genuine excitement along the way but Haye’s highly successful career had ended with a whimper, not a bang. As is clearer now than ever though, Haye’s retirement would be far from permanent and a chaotic night in Munich would lay the groundwork for his return. Desperate to secure a fight with Wladimir’s older brother Vitali Klitschko, Haye attended the post-fight press conference for his fight with fellow Brit Dereck Chisora. Insulted as the cocksure Haye almost ignored his spirited showing, Chisora engaged back verbally and suddenly, a wild brawl ensued. One year since his Klitschko defeat and Haye was back, fighting his now nemesis Chisora.
The fight was a controversial one but had understandably captured the public’s attention, as was shown by the 30,000 fans in attendance. The fight was an exciting one, with Chisora having some success before being finished in round five by a sharp Haye onslaught. ‘The Hayemaker’ was undeniably the fan favourite that night, especially opposing the forever pantomime villain Chisora. The event as a whole had garnered lots of negativity but the fight itself ended up being a positive and engaging one. Haye was still searching for that Vitali fight and eventually planned to return in June 2013 with hopes of climbing the Heayweight ranks in a more traditional fashion. It would be delayed though Haye pulled out of his scheduled bout with Manuel Charr, but the negativity was rather muted as he was quickly booked to fight the polarising Tyson Fury.
Hype and anticipation built greatly for the clash of cocky British Heavyweight contenders and the fight represented a chance for Haye to well and truly get the public back on his side. Definitely the fan’s favourite against the then unproven Fury, many expected and hoped for ‘Hayemaker’ dominance. However, just one week before fight night and Haye would pull out once again, leaving the fight cancelled due to a cut suffered in sparring. A rescheduling would also fall through, with Haye once more. This time a shoulder injury had taken Haye out and the former two-weight champion revealed that he had been advised by doctors to retire. Just like last time though, Haye wasn’t yet done and officially announced his comeback in November 2015. In the next six months, the returning Haye would fight twice, despatching Marc de Mori and Arnold Gjergjag in a combined three rounds.
Though the quite sizeable audience in attendance seemed mostly happy, the fights came across as almost farcical and were heavily criticised by the wider public. Airing on comedy channel Dave didn’t help proceedings either and whilst the two opponents had good records on paper, they were clearly unqualified and outmatched. Nonetheless, Haye was back in the game and needed a big fight before it was too late. The end game for Haye always seemed to be a fight with the man that seemed in many ways to be his spiritual successor: Anthony Joshua. Just like Haye all those years ago, Joshua was being pushed and promoted as the face of British boxing and what ‘AJ’ lacked in out of ring shenanigans he more than made up for with in-ring fireworks. After a pencilled in bout with Shannon Briggs stalled though, Haye was suddenly left in the cold.
On October 15th 2016 though, all that would change. Flying under Haye’s radar all this time had been the WBC Cruiserweight champion Tony Bellew. After taking verbal jabs at Haye and his return regularly, Bellew would fight Haye’s sparring partner and friend BJ Flores in a defence of his Cruiserweight crown. After finishing Flores in three rounds, Bellew rushed over to Haye who stood at ringside, confronting him before calling him out in his post-fight interview. As Bellew listed off his insults, you could almost physically see the wheels spinning in Haye’s head. Out of nowhere, a PPV fight had presented itself to him and one that on paper looked an easy victory. It all just seemed to make far too much sense and so the fight was quickly made for March 4th.
Much of the excitement surrounding the bout was focused on the highly anticipated build-up. As expected, the pair of dynamic personalities certainly clashed to create some entertainment and the fight’s hype only grew. It’s fair to say that neither man covered themselves in absolute glory pre-fight but Haye’s behaviour was particularly off-putting to some. Whether it be ominous threats about Bellew’s long-term health or a perceived smugness in preparation, Haye certainly had some unbecoming moments before fight night, intentional or not. That plus the still lingering memories of fight cancellations and ‘toe-gate’ didn’t make Haye the easiest fighter to cheer. Regardless, the bout itself still seemed somewhat one-sided and Bellew himself had rubbed some viewers the wrong way. As Michael Buffer did his world-famous introductions, the crowd was split and the intensity high.
Haye’s intentions were clear early, he seemed desperate to make a statement and quickly finish his seemingly overmatched foe. Bellew was focused though and defended himself excellently for the most part, forcing Haye to overreach and miss regularly. I’m no expert analyst but I can only write what I saw and in all honesty, my immediate response to the early action was that Haye looked a shot fighter, or at the very least an extremely rusty one. You could visibly see some anxiety setting in on Haye as the rounds went by, the knockout punch just wasn’t coming. Haye was still having success and was definitely up on the scorecards but Bellew was fighting to a plan and had survived the danger rounds. Before we could see the fight’s natural progression though, things would get bizarre and very, very dramatic.
In the days leading up to fight night, speculation surrounding a Haye Achilles injury had arose and in the sixth round, those rumours would come to shocking fruition. Visibly suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the heat of the battle, Haye’s attempts to stay calm were overridden by his physical frailties as he stumbled around the ring wildly. Bellew seized the moment and jumped on him, dropping Haye before the round’s close. As Haye walked back to his corner there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this fight was over. There was clearly an injury and a bad one at that but Haye wasn’t done yet, incredibly answering the bell for the seventh round. Seeing Haye rise from his stool only brought to my mind all of the pre-fight talk, Bellew had reiterated time and time again that he felt Haye didn’t have the hunger or heart and would quit when the going got tough.
It seemed that all of that talk from Bellew had lit a fire under Haye and refusing to quit, the former Heavyweight champion stood with his back to the ropes bravely, trying to land the knockout shot with all his might. Bellew had Haye pinned though and unleashed an assault of shots before tiring himself out. Haye just wouldn’t go down. With both men spent, it was now a matter of heart and the two champions showed it in abundance as they looked to end their opposing rival. For all of Bellew’s tiredness though, Haye’s injury had left him far too limited and in the 11th round it all bottomed out as he was sent through the ropes. Whilst still not particularly rocked, Haye had suffered enough and was saved by his coach Shane McGuigan who threw in the towel as he miraculously made it back to his feet.
In a great show of class and sportsmanship, Bellew delayed his celebration as the two men embraced. Afterwards, Haye was incredibly classy in crediting his conqueror and didn’t have an excuse to mention which suddenly brought me back to Hamburg almost six years earlier. In a bizarre way, for all of the negatives of his performance, Haye had redeemed himself from that disappointing wet and windy night in Germany. Sure some booed but those people aren’t worth worrying about and overall, there seemed to be an overwhelming outpouring of respect and commendation for the fallen ‘Hayemaker’. Bellew deserves an immense amount of credit for his achievement Saturday, injury or not, he dragged Haye late and tested his physical health just as he had promised to so vehemently. However, I couldn’t help but focus on Haye and how bizarre combat sports can be at times.
I have to concede that I didn’t expect to be writing a post-fight article like this as the first bell approached Saturday night, in fact I wasn’t sure I’d be compelled to write about it at all. Watching Haye contrast so greatly with his former self was startling though and really brought his career full circle in an odd way. He looked slower, older and declined but in that same way showed courage, heart and grit that we hadn’t seen from him in quite some time. Though his future is unclear at this time, I’d like to think that those of us that were so disappointed in Haye back in 2011 well and truly forgave him last night. He was valiant in combat and admirable in defeat as in some bizarre way against all odds, last night we witnessed a David Haye redemption story.