By Shane Thomas
On Saturday evening, Britain's David Haye will take on Ukraine's Wladimir Klitschko in Hamburg for the right to be recognised as the undisputed Heavyweight champion of the world.*
Haye is looking to walk ground previously tread by Evander Holyfield, who unified the cruiserweight division before being regarded as the finest global heavyweight. It was a feat that Haye publicly aspired to as far back as 2002. He has one final obstacle to overcome, and that is defeating Klitschko at the Imtech Stadium.
For the first time since Lennox Lewis smashed Mike Tyson nine years ago has a heavyweight boxing contest been anticipated so eagerly. This has been partly due to Haye's penchant for provocation in the build-up. There is no love lost between the two fighters, ever since Haye - a relative unknown at the time - confronted Klitschko on a London escalator. Often bouts need to contrive animosity to create fervour. This time, the enmity is genuine (if more on Haye's part than Klitschko's).
While not a man that you would want to get on the wrong side of, Haye is a comparatively small guy in the heavyweight division. His size is not conducive to battling in the land of the giants, so he uses whatever (legal) means at his disposal to offset this natural genetic disadvantage; speed, accurate punches, one of the most astute trainers in Adam Booth, not to mention antagonising his opponent to get under their skin.
The main criticism that Haye has levelled at Klitschko is that the Ukrainian is nothing more than a "grab & jab" fighter. A predictable, ponderous robot who has never been truly tested since unifying the heavyweight class in 2008.
There's no doubt that some of Haye's catcalls have merit. Klitschko does rely heavily on his left jab, and has a propensity to grab his opponent at the nearest threat of danger. But to say that Klitschko's jab is the only weapon at his disposal is to ignore his powerful right hand, which is quicker than it's given credit for.
Klitschko's trainer Emanuel Steward has predicted that Haye will come out all guns blazing in the early rounds. Speaking last week, Steward said, "David is not a true heavyweight and he’s aware of it. Against heavyweights, he punches and moves away. He cannot stand up to them physically. Although he has fast hands and a heavy punch, he’s a brawling type who swings himself off balance.”
This may be quite a prescient prognostication. The above sentence is almost an deconstruction of how Haye won his WBA title from Nikolai Valuev. The fact is the Brit doesn't have the brute force to bully Klitschko on Saturday, so he will have to find his way around that left jab, as he won't be able to force his way through it - his chin simply isn't durable enough.
If Haye and Booth's plan gets him on the inside, then we could see fireworks. Klitschko has repeatedly stated that unlike his brother Vitali, he doesn't have the natural mindset of a fighter. He has had to learn to excel in a sport in which savagery is a requisite for success. However, it's a lot easier to do this when you have a jab that can keep rivals at a safe distance. Haye is right when he says that Klitschko is yet to be truly tested. He may have the body of a champion but if Haye connects with his ferocious punches then we'll see if he has the heart & courage to match.
And the same goes for Haye. The discrepancy between height, and more importantly reach, means that it is inevitable that Haye will have to take some hard shots in Hamburg. If his punch resistance isn't up to scratch then Klitschko could make short work of him.
Despite the hype that has been whipped up around Saturday night's contest, it's not the quality of the fighters that has peaked the interest of fight fans. In eras previous, Klitschko would be nothing more than a middling heavyweight, while Haye would never have dreamed of making the step up from cruiserweight. Both men have taken advantage of a paucity of quality in a weight class that used to be the standard bearer for "the toughest man on the planet."
And it's this paucity that makes this bout so intriguing. Saturday night's contest is for all the marbles. To the victor, the title of the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the king of the ring, the man. To the loser, a short paragraph on Wikipedia.
It's what boxing fans love more than anything. Add to that, Haye plans to retire from the sport in October, so he can't exactly hang around in his quest to add the IBF, IBO & WBO belts to his own WBA version of the heavyweight title.
Throw in a partisan crowd in support of Klitschko (who is much beloved by the German public), which could also have an impact on the judges scorecards - which many feel cost Matthew Macklin the WBA super-middleweight crown last weekend - and you can see why many have Klitschko as favourite to prevail.
While the two fighters may not be amongst the best that boxing has to offer, the stakes could not be higher. Saturday night in Germany is the fight that both men have to win, and that neither man can afford to lose.
* - Haye & his team are unhappy with the choice of referee assigned to the contest. At the time of writing, debate was continuing to whether Haye's WBA title will also be on the line on Saturday
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