“David Haye as savior of the heavyweight division” may always have been a little far-fetched, what with the way he didn’t exactly handle getting punched in the face by smaller men all that well in the cruiserweight division he once ruled. But I saw enough potential there to get somewhat excited. Haye is fast, skilled, powerful, a big talker and handsome (not that I would, um, know personally… he was a model, after all), and most of all, he fights in that kill-or-be-killed fashion people want out of their heavyweights.
But the shine has come off that savior scenario for me and plenty others, since Haye smack-talked both Klitschko brothers before agreeing to fights with each of them this summer, then pulled out each time. In the end, it was probably for the best, even if it made him look like he was all bark, no bite. After all, I only gave him an outside chance of upsetting Wladimir, and I think Vitali would have manhandled the lad from Great Britain.
Saturday offers a chance for Haye to get some of that shine back. Nicolay Valuev is a top heavyweight, unlike Monte Barrett, the man Haye beat in his heavyweight re-debut, and Valuev is a far more beatable opponent than the Klitschkos. If Haye wallops Valuev, I think everybody would have to take him seriously as “a heavyweight to be reckoned with,” because right now, the jury’s still out on even that. “Savior” is a long ways away.
As for Valuev, he’s always been more of a theoretical force in the division where the pecking order goes “1. The Klitschkos” and “2. Everyone else.” There’s no shame in that, since there are only two people who are in the upper tier. But there’s a 2a. and 2b., those being “People who are viable opponents for the Klitschkos” and “People who aren’t viable opponents for the Klitschkos.” Maybe beating Haye gets him to 2a., because right now he’s more 2b., having recently looked terrible against a decrepit Evander Holyfield. Then there’s the money he’ll make off the fight, which should be substantial, and the chance of shutting up Haye, who’s said all kinds of horrid things about the civilized giant, nothing that he looks worse than some of the monsters from “Lord of the Rings.”
Haye looked a tad shaky in his last fight too, it must be noted. Sure, he knocked Barrett down five times before winning by knockout, but Barrett had already been knocked out by, among others, Wladimir Klitschko and Valuev. He also went down himself, although the referee didn’t score it as such. He admitted that Barrett’s jab felt like an orthodox cruiserweight’s right hand. Considering that Haye hit the deck a few times and got rattled plenty as a cruiser, getting stopped once, that’s bad news for the David Haye Project. On the other hand, his punching power and speed, along with his recuperative ability, bailed him out against Barrett just as it bailed him out as a cruiserweight in all cases except that once. Haye routinely plays with fire that way. It’s like he says, “I can’t take a punch, so howsabout I strut around with my hands down and launch sloppy offensive assaults that both leave me wide open to getting knocked out?” It’s also at least a part of why he’s fun to watch. Knockout, or get knocked out; in all of his 23 fights but one he pulled out by decision, there’s been a KO. It’s a high wire act that’s pretty suspenseful.
Valuev will be the biggest, strongest opponent he’s ever faced, and among the most experienced. Haye looks like he’s bulked up some himself. He weighed 215 against Barrett, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at closer than 230 on weigh-in day. It could help him do more damage, and it could keep him from being tossed around in clinches like a rag doll, since that’s what Barrett did and he was only moderately bigger than Haye. But you wonder how much that affects his speed. Haye’s hands are extraordinarily fast, to the point that one sage scribe – I can’t remember whom – said he was the fastest heavyweight since Muhammad Ali. It’s not a stretch. The most important thing Haye will have to do, though – his speed will still be far superior no matter what, and his power will also be pretty fantastic no matter what – is either fight smart or hold up to Valuev’s punches when he fights stupid. Haye kind of knows what he ought to be doing; after Manny Pacquiao upset Oscar De La Hoya, he said that quick in-and-out, angle-working strategy is what he’d try to replicate as a smaller man in a bigger division. Haye’s trainer says that’s what he’ll do this time. We’ll see. He was doing it against Barrett, but it’s like Haye can’t help himself – he gets hit clean once, and he wants to outmachoify the person who dared land a doozy.
Valuev has to be hoping crazystupid Haye shows up at some point. If you look at how easily a slow, old but still significantly more mobile Holyfield outmaneuvered the 7′, 300-pound behemoth, it doesn’t take much to wonder how a fast, young significantly more mobile Haye fares. Holyfield always could take a punch, though. Valuev doesn’t throw humdingers, but he can hit a little. His jab is excellent, certainly harder than Barrett’s. It may not take a whole lot for any given heavyweight to knock Haye out, maybe a nice gust of wind from a missed shot. Valuev’s shots are more than a gust of wind, anyway. And, you know, it has to be noted – Valuev has sometimes been better than he was against Holyfield. He was quite good against Sergey Lyakhovich, for instance. His mere size presents an obstacle; he’s not as good at using it as the Klitschkos, and he’s not got as “more nimble than you think” as the Klitschkos, but he’s got a little of that, too. I suspect there’s a chance even Valuev saw the Holyfield fight as a weird kind of spectacle, and I’m guessing if you’ve been marketed as a spectacle your whole life, it gets kind of old and maybe you’d be set up for a letdown in your spectacley-ist fight, by way of explanation for the sorry performance.
Valuev, as I mentioned, is experienced, but even in some of his best wins, he hasn’t always impressed. Both John Ruiz fights, the Holyfield fight, even the Larry Donald fight – there are people who think he lost all four. He definitely got beat by Ruslan Chagaev, another speedy, mobile type, in his only official loss. Valuev may be accomplished, he may be a top heavyweight, but it’s unclear that he’s all that good a heavyweight. These things are not contradictory, to anyone who’s studied the division in recent years. You can be one of the best heavyweights in the world far more easily if nobody’s very good, just by process of the competition being so inferior.
I go back to Valuev having trouble with Holyfield, and, to a lesser extent, Chagaev. I try not to be dismissive of any fighter’s chances of winning at all, because it’s a good way to get egg on your face. I thought junior bantamweight Cristian Mijares was going to cruise against Vic Darchinyan last year, when quite the opposite occurred. But I size up the way it went for Valuev against Chagaev and Holyfield, how much trouble he had with their speed and movement, and I see better speed and movement still out of Haye, and I go, “Nope. This should be pretty one-sided.” Absolutely, I give Valuev a puncher’s chance, especially since the chance of Haye going crazystupid is better than average. But at minimum, Haye ought to be able to do to Valuev what Holyfield and Chagaev did – outquick him and outfootwork him — only better. I’ll go one more. I think Haye’s going to wreck Valuev pretty definitively. If Chagaev could stun Valuev, Haye surely can go one notch higher and knock him out.