January 16, 2016
January 16, 2016
David Haye

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If you’re about to read this and expect quotes, please look elsewhere. They won’t be hard to find. David Haye has, of course, said plenty ahead of his comeback fight against Australia’s Mark De Mori this Saturday (January 16) at London’s O2 Arena.

Selfishly, the omission of quotes here can be attributed to two things. One, Haye, following three-and-a-half years out the ring, has to now be all about action, for that carries far greater weight, and two, given my close friendship with the boxer for well over a decade, it would feel somewhat demoralising to settle for soundbites he will have no doubt force-fed anybody in possession of a notepad, dictaphone or video camera in the last two months.

Ultimately, there is very little anybody can tell me about David Haye – David included – that I don’t already know. I’ve been by his side during many of his best and worst days, witnessed tears of joy, tears of frustration and tears of disappointment, and cared for him at a time when few others knew of him, let alone cared. I was the only person David allowed with him on fight day, the only person, he said, who knew nearly as much about him as Adam Booth, and am the only person who this year plans to marry his sister.

David, for his part, has taught me most of what I know about boxing, about straight right hands, about psychological warfare, about North Cyprus, about Jamaica, about Marvin Gaye, about the Marx Brothers and about strip clubs, and has also played the lead role in the vast majority of my favourite moments in the sport (Mormeck, Valuev, Maccarinelli, in that order).

The idea, therefore, of writing a puff piece about ‘The Hayemaker’s comeback fight and asking him the same questions other journalists might ask in order to generate the same answers seems an almighty waste of time. Both of mine and his.

Besides, things are, well, different these days. No longer am I first port of call when David has watched a fight, a film or listened to a new album, no longer is my opinion one he seeks when eyeing up an opponent, and it’s highly unlikely he’ll want to spend fight day with me on January 16. For some reason it’s just not like that anymore.

It’s 2016 and he’s got a new team around him. There are new faces, new ideas, new agendas. Frankly, I have no clue how he feels about his next opponent, Mark De Mori, nor do I know anything about his motivation for even deciding to fight again. I’m not sure I need to know, either.

He’s his own man now, I guess. Thirty-five, a celebrity, a businessman, a fighter. What David doesn’t know about the fight game presumably isn’t worth knowing and what he doesn’t know about himself definitely isn’t worth knowing. Consequently, what surrounds him now are fresh, inquisitive eyes and voices loudly projecting hope and adoration when he needs it most. And that’s another reason why I won’t do quotes. From anyone. Sorry.

How about some Marvin Gaye songs instead?

Trouble Man

Memories, I believe, work best anyway. Here’s one. A little over four years ago David Haye gathered journalists at his gym in Vauxhall, London to formally announce his retirement from the sport of professional boxing. He turned 31 that day and his last fight was a points loss to Wladimir Klitschko in Hamburg, Germany. That the decision to retire was a ruse was perhaps the worst kept secret in boxing at the time, but Haye, stubborn and full of pride, had made a promise to retire on his 31st birthday and therefore any waiving of said deadline would, in his view, represent some sort of failure.

So that afternoon, with a birthday cake made especially for him, he did his utmost to convince sceptical journalists that this truly was The End and that he was more than content with all he had achieved in a glittering professional career which started back in December 2002 and led to WBC, WBA and WBO world cruiserweight titles as well as the WBA version of the heavyweight crown.

Combating wry smiles and sideways glances, he recalled his proudest moments and poured scorn on the very concept of regret. No mention was there of any rematch with Klitschko. Who cared? He was done. Finished. And the fact he was retiring at 31, on his terms, sticking to a plan he and (trainer/manager) Adam Booth constructed at the very start of their journey, surely meant he had won, even if his last fight ended in disappointment.

Few were buying it, though. Few envisaged Haye exiting on a dud note, one punctuated by countless toe-based punch lines, and even fewer believed he would be able to spend prime athletic years sat idly watching others fail to dethrone Klitschko. But what could any of them do? If Haye had brought them to his gym with the sole intention of telling them he had retired, that was all there was to it. Retired. Officially. From the horse’s mouth.

They were all oblivious to the fact there was an entirely different plot unfolding inside the gym’s office, of course, where Haye would emerge every fifteen minutes or so to ask if I thought he was sounding convincing. He’d be grinning from ear-to-ear, too, getting off on the very idea that anything he said at the time, whether truth or nonsense, was to be reported and treated as gospel; the scamp, the troublemaker, even when a plan had gone awry – retirement on his 31st birthday – he somehow ensured he retained control of the situation and secured a moral victory.

It was an abuse of power, sure, and he loved that particular element, but it was also, to me, a sign of how ridiculous the notion of interviewing Haye had become. They’d write what he wanted them to write, when he wanted them to write it, then he’d say one thing and do something completely different. He’d make things up to suit his own preferred narrative. He’d have fun with it. With them.

Granted, this was nothing new, and he’d done it for as long as I’d known him, but with the power attained from being a world heavyweight champion came an even greater desire to pull the strings of so many. To him, it was all a game.

You Can Leave, but It’s Going to Cost You

It took some time, and an unsightly ruckus at a press conference, but Haye did eventually return to the ring nine months later. He needed a redemption fight and, in the form of fellow Londoner Dereck Chisora, was gifted the perfect opponent; similar-sized, light puncher, solid chin, entertaining style and someone Haye disliked enough to find the motivation to train. The only thing more perfect than the opponent, from Haye’s point of view, was the result itself, a scintillating fifth-round knockout victory in front of 35,000 fans at West Ham’s Upton Park stadium.

Save for the biblical downpour that July night, it was as good a note as any on which to bow out. Fully redeemed, heroic Haye could smile again. He cracked a brooding Chisora so clean and so hard he turned him back into a nice guy. They made up and forgot their differences. And Great Britain, that fickle lot, forgot all about his toe.

His popularity continued to soar later that year when he appeared on ITV’s ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here’ and placed third. Over the course of 20 days in the Australian jungle, the watching viewers were treated to a version of David Haye full of charm, kindness and self-deprecation, and he was once again saying all the right things at the right time. By the end of 2012 his stock was as high as it had ever been. He was a mainstream star. King of the jungle. The people’s champ.

But then 2013 happened. A June clash with Manuel Charr in Manchester was canned and a September date with Tyson Fury went the same way due to a cut Haye picked up one week before the bout. Consequently, dark clouds began to circle and renewed cynical scowls greeted his every word. Toe jokes were cruelly rehashed.

Undeterred, Haye sought refuge in the gym and planned for a rescheduled date with Fury in the first quarter of 2014. What he didn’t account for, however, was his body breaking down in training and a potentially career-ending shoulder injury ruling him out for the foreseeable future. A ‘gypsy curse’ he’d jokingly call it. Whatever the reason, he was soon to be gone again. Seemingly for good this time.

I Want You

Another memory. David drives his Range Rover from Chelsea to Vauxhall on the afternoon of his last fight, the aforementioned 2012 destruction of Chisora, and utilises the vehicle’s in-built DVD player and screen to play, volume at full blast, a live performance of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’ from the early eighties. Utterly relaxed, he does some impromptu karaoke, he knows all the words, he laughs at Gaye’s efforts to woo females in the front row, and he marvels at his favourite musician’s ability to perform deranged dance moves and nail every note despite being badly strung out on a cocktail of hard drugs. Marvin must be running on some sort of zombie instinct, he decides, his weary limbs fuelled only by muscle memory, God-given talent and an innate love of music; on stage, of course, he felt comfortable and safe regardless of the poison in his bloodstream.

Shot dead by his father not long after the performance, it was off-stage where Gaye struggled.

I Heard It Through the Grapevine

I was in Dusseldorf, Germany for a Klitschko world heavyweight title fight when I got wind of Haye’s 2016 comeback against Mark De Mori. Poignant, perhaps, it was, in actuality, the worst place possible to receive the news, for many of the British media present in Germany wanted my take on a fight and opponent I knew nothing about. I proclaimed ignorance. I shrugged. I watched the same YouTube videos they did. I too familiarised myself with new names and faces.

I saw other things, too. I saw Haye with an afro, coining it a new look for a new ‘Hayemaker’, and recalled him sporting something similar the night he faced the woeful Valery Semishkur in his first fight back after losing to Carl Thompson in 2004. His excuse for the untamed do that night? He didn’t feel Semishkur, an Eastern European journeyman, warranted going to the trouble of having his hair braided. The irony, therefore, of potentially demolishing De Mori fight with the same look wasn’t lost on me.

In fact, one could argue De Mori is the weakest opponent Haye will have faced since Semishkur or, at the very least, his comeback run of Garry Delaney, Glen Kelly and Vincenzo Rossitto in 2005. Then again, maybe I’m doing ‘The Dominator’ a disservice.

After all, Perth-born De Mori, part Peter McNeeley, part Dog the Bounty Hunter, does have 26 knockouts from 30 wins, which clearly demonstrates he can punch a bit, albeit at a substandard level, and is undefeated for over eleven years, which should mean he’s confident and accustomed to being in the ascendency. Better yet, and likely the sole reason he was chosen in the first place, the 33-year-old somehow finds himself rated at number ten by the WBA.

He’s a hard-nosed trier, if nothing else. The story goes that he suffered chronic asthma attacks throughout his childhood and then defied the odds to learn how to box in his father’s garage. Ostensibly a voyeur, he ogled YouTube footage of fighters and fights and recreated the moves he witnessed. One of his favourites was James ‘Lights Out’ Toney. He liked him because he was a short, bulky guy who showed great defence and refused to run away. Essentially, he made the sweet science look easy.

Yet, it wasn’t. With just a handful of amateur fights to his name, De Mori turned professional in February 2004, only to suffer his first loss seven months later when knocked out by fellow Aussie John Wyborn in the very first round. What now constitutes an unsightly boil on an otherwise handsome set of statistics, De Mori, to his credit, has remained unbeaten ever since and, in recent years, shown a commendable desire to leave the club circuit in Australia and take fights in Germany, USA and Croatia, where he’s been based since 2013. He’s improved. He’s grown. He’s been willing to step up. The opposition, however, has remained ugly.

What’s more, to watch De Mori is to watch a fighter who has unashamedly learnt all he knows from studying others. As such, he’s a one-man compilation tape, an homage to icons of yesteryear. There are moments when he drops his left hand and tries to fight with the fluidity of Toney, there are moments when he aggressively punches in combination and goes to the body, and there are moments when he simply jabs, over and over again, as if having watched a Larry Holmes montage on slow-motion moments before entering the ring. It all shows a great knowledge of the sport and an eagerness to absorb images and information, but none of the moves are performed smoothly, nor look particularly natural, and the overwhelming impression is that he’s often stuck between styles and heroes.

Against an opponent like Haye, an instinctive, natural fighter who has been perfecting his own art since the age of ten, this could lead to De Mori’s downfall, for while he’s thinking and remembering, Haye will likely be doing. And, in heavyweight boxing, that split-second delay usually makes all the difference.

Let’s Get It On

They’re doing that, at least – getting it on. Finally. Whatever the motive, whatever the end goal, Haye is officially back. And, at 35, he has every right to return, too. Who are we to question whether he should or shouldn’t?

What’s Going On

Beyond the inevitability of the De Mori result, all that’s left to assess is the project itself. We know the men backing Haye are Andrew and Simon Salter, masterminds behind an online testicular cancer awareness campaign, and we also know the likes of MC Harvey, James Haskell, Dizzee Rascal, Tamzin Outhwaite and the entire staff of the Lad Bible are so keen to claim ringside tickets they will help promote the fight on social media. Other than that, though, it’s hard to know what to make of it all. There’s vague talk of algorithms and viral videos and it’s being treated very much like a showbiz event, ambitiously titled ‘Haye Day’, but whether this amounts to a lot of tickets being bought by the paying public or instead being gift-wrapped and given to celebrities will only be revealed on Saturday night.

Haye’s refusal to attach himself to a mainstream promoter comes as no surprise. To do so would be a move too humbling, a defeat of sorts, for a man who blazed such a trail promotionally throughout his twenties. What he has done instead is effectively replace Adam Booth with both Shane McGuigan and the Salter Brothers. Yet it’s questionable whether even three men are capable of doing the job of one, so critical was Haye’s close friend during their dual rise to the top.

Booth’s relationship with Haye, you see, was much like McGuigan’s relationship with another of his fighters, Carl Frampton. Organic and water-tight, it was one built on complete trust. They were friends first and foremost; they knew each other inside out and were never afraid to say what was on their mind. One wasn’t in awe of the other. They succeeded together and failed together, a single entity.

McGuigan won’t delude himself into thinking he has that kind of relationship with Haye. It would be impossible at this stage. But he is a young, intelligent, forward-thinking coach based only a stone’s throw from Haye’s latest pad and, for those reasons alone, is probably the ideal choice for this final chapter. Furthermore, his work with Frampton has so far been exemplary.

I happened to meet McGuigan for the first time at a fancy dress party in Hammersmith just before Christmas. He was dressed as The Mask of Zorro (meaning I’m only 90% sure it was actually him) and told me he’d been impressed by David’s form in the gym following a sluggish start to camp. He was now back to knocking out sparring partners, Shane said, one of whom turned over on his ankle and ended up in hospital. Impressive stuff were it not for the fact that the name of the sparring partner matched the name of cricketer Freddie Flintoff’s sparring partner ahead of his one-and-out boxing match in 2012. Still, a sign of form and sharpness, I thought. And power.

Listening to McGuigan was much like listening to your brother’s new girlfriend give chapter and verse about his tendencies. It was funny, a reminder things had changed, but was nevertheless tinged with hope. He spoke of a rejuvenated Haye but did so in a manner which suggested he wasn’t blind to the uphill struggle facing the pair of them. The fear of sycophants running the asylum, therefore, and hyperventilating in Haye’s presence, was pacified somewhat.

It’s a genuine fear, too, because ‘The Hayemaker’, as a product, as a celebrity, remains bright and shiny to all those attracted to such things and now mixes in a world where hollow compliments and PR-managed circle-jerks replace honesty, integrity and good, old-fashioned, solo gratification. And yet, among those helping hands, how many truly care about David’s past or David’s future, let alone have the cojones to say “no”?

Got to Give It Up

For many years Roy Jones, Jr. was the template and Haye, before fights of his own, would ask me to compile DVDs of him in action and then watch them over and over again in his hotel room hours before the first bell. They’d always be one-sided drubbings, at David’s request, and the aim was to get drunk on the dominance of the American legend and gain a similar feeling of invincibility by some sort of osmosis. He’d rewind lead left hooks over and over until the shot was hardwired into his psyche. He studied his stance, movement, even his ring-walks. It was the pursuit of perfection.

More than just the aesthetics, though, David wanted to be every bit as dominant as Roy and to follow the same sort of path. For instance, he displayed genuine pride and satisfaction when winning the same WBA world heavyweight title as Roy in 2009, and then defending it against John Ruiz, the man from whom Roy nabbed his WBA belt in 2003. It meant something to him. It meant their names would always criss-cross. He cared about such matters.

In 2004, when Jones, Jr. was poleaxed by a single Antonio Tarver left cross, David rang me the next day to mourn. Apparently the only person who’d understand his state of melancholy, I joined him in lamenting Roy’s decision to move up in weight to face Ruiz and then back down again to settle his long-running feud with Tarver. It would never have happened that way, we agreed, if Roy had just stayed at heavyweight. Or, you know, retired on top. Pride and potential paydays got the better of him, though.

We assumed there’d be a rubber match, a third meeting between Jones, Jr. and Tarver, and there was. Roy lost that one, too. Worse still, in between two Tarver fights he’d also been knocked cold by Glen Johnson. He was invincible no more.

Needless to say, David, assuming his hero had reached The End, mourned all over again and told me all future Jones, Jr. discs I sent his way must consist purely of pre-Ruiz action; he wanted young Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, not old Al Pacino, Andy Garcia and Sofia Coppola. I agreed to this new set of rules.

Before many of his world cruiserweight and heavyweight title fights, he sat and watched Roy go to work on the likes of Richard Hall, Virgil Hill, David Telesco and Clinton Woods, mixing them in with cameos from ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Then, around 2011, David stopped requesting DVDs altogether. He apparently had no use for them anymore. Instead, prior to facing Klitschko and Chisora, we spent much of the afternoon and early evening simply watching action films and scouring the Internet for opinions on the fight. Fine by me, the choice was his, but I often wondered what his heroes had done wrong to fall so suddenly out of the rotation.

In truth, they were no longer considered heroes per se. They were, he said, now peers; fellow champions who, like him, were human and fallible. Hence, he looked at them differently. To my mind, though, he’d maybe stopped wanting to learn. The thrill had gone.

We haven’t mentioned Roy in conversation for a number of years now, which is hardly surprising. The roles have become distorted in a sense; Roy was most recently seen in Russia being knocked out by former Haye victim Enzo Maccarinelli. But I’m sure, were we to again discuss him, David would be full of sympathy for his one-time hero’s plight. He’d be astonished it ever reached this tragic stage, horrified Roy never had anyone around him brave or compassionate enough to say “no”.

At least that’s the way I know David would have reacted a few years ago. Perhaps it’s different now. Perhaps he is able to relate to Roy more than ever before and appreciate why a man of 46 who has known nothing but fighting all his life continues to risk his health for the reward of a dimming spotlight and a meagre purse. I don’t know, perhaps it’s a fighter thing; they all understand eventually.

Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

At the start of his professional career there were two types of boxers David failed to comprehend. One was the boxer who would fight when injured, if only for the money, and the other was the boxer who refused to retire when all the signs suggested they should do just that.

It’s vivid in my mind the moment he told me of the issues he had with these fighters, as it came shortly after he’d withdrawn from a British and Commonwealth cruiserweight title fight with Mark Hobson circa July 2005. Haye, sat staring at his laptop in the living room of his Clapham flat, digesting the vitriol launched his way on multiple Internet boxing forums, freely condemned the naysayers and the boxing establishment, so convinced was he that, alongside Adam Booth, he was the one doing everything right. He was the one making the right moves. He was the one shrewd enough not to align himself with one particular promoter for any substantial length of time. The rest of them, he said, would see sense in the end. They’d learn it’s not all about being a slave to the promoter or a slave to the pound note. There was more to it than that. Have the balls and the brains to back yourself and you too could plan to retire on your own terms, wealthy, with your faculties intact, at the tender age of 31. Or something like that.

But achieving this was never going to be as easy as he made it sound. A stoppage loss to Carl Thompson in 2004 set him back, shattered his unbeaten record and led to some humbling nights in Sheffield, Brentford, Rotherham and Huddersfield on the way back up, while hard-fought European title fights saw him cut and extended twelve rounds for the first time as a pro.

Even his tremendous world cruiserweight title win against Jean-Marc Mormeck in 2007 wasn’t picked up by a UK television station until the eleventh hour when Setanta swooped in to seal a cut-price deal. But, refreshingly, David, back then, couldn’t have cared less. He wanted only to become world champion.

Then came the million quid to knock out Enzo Maccarinelli and unify the cruiserweight division. Then came the inevitable move to heavyweight. Then ‘The Hayemaker’ was truly born and with it emerged a pay-per-view star, as well as an expanding entourage and countless extracurricular projects, few of which related to boxing, all of which took his focus off the very thing that defined him.

One day he enthusiastically informed me he’d met either Jay-Z or Will Smith – name-dropped superstars are all much of a muchness after a while – at a music event and been told the key to their success was that they spend every single waking moment thinking only of ways to make money. For David, it was a eureka moment. A genuine moment of clarity. For me, however, it was the beginning of the end. Soon enough he’d have no use for me and our inane chats about Roy Jones, Jr. and other boxers. Boxing itself, our common ground, would bore him. He’d outgrow it. Now there were other things, other role models, other opportunities, which piqued his interest, and life after prizefighting – something he tackled from 2014 onwards – was one awash with people oblivious to his ring exploits but aroused by his stardom bending over backwards to inform him of ways to make a lot of money. Making Haye, indeed. It was a natural part of the process, I suppose. We’d always wanted him to be successful, rich and famous. Now he was.

In many ways, then, ‘Haye Day’ is a celebration not of David Haye’s thrilling boxing career but of his rise to celebrity. It’s unapologetically being sold as such, aimed at an audience who’ve watched him more on game shows than in boxing rings, an audience liable to miss the knockout punch because they’ll be preoccupied taking ringside selfies with cast members of Eastenders, and it’s totally understandable. It’s show-business, lest we forget. My only hope is that those busy hashtagging and holding up sheets of A4 paper find the time to explore David Haye’s previous fights. They won’t be disappointed.

As for me, I choose to fondly remember halcyon days, proper ‘Haye Days’, specifically between the summer of 2007 and the spring of 2008, when a friend of mine was one of the finest cruiserweights to ever live and Roy, Marvin and a few others were with him every step of the way.