Manchester is bulging with testosterone.
It’s a huge sporting day in the North West as the region plays host to both a world heavyweight title tussle and a potential English Premier League decider within a few hours of each other. Sharing top billing in the national dailies, the events intertwine themselves as firstly Haye parades his WBA belt before the crowd at Old Trafford, whilst later Chelsea and Manchester United players fill ringside seats at the fight.
We arrive at the M.E.N Arena at around 7 p.m., still chuckling at an inebriated punter who somehow managed to somersault himself down two flights of steps outside (he’s picked up nary a scratch, yet his bewilderment at how he went from a standing position to sitting at the feet of three policemen was accidentally hilarious). They’re selling “Hayemaker” t-shirts around the foyer for the princely sum of £20 and pretty soon a sea of multi-coloured disciples gush into the arena. We’ve plumped for the best positioned £50 tickets in the house and have a perfect view of the ring (there are very few poor seats in Ricky Hatton’s old house to be fair).
They’ve completely mucked up the undercard mind you. The most intriguing support bout, one which sees shooting star George Groves bravely challenging Commonwealth super middleweight boss Charles Adamu in only his ninth outing, is rolled out whilst most fans are still wetting their beaks at the various bars dotted around the complex. The friendly chap along from us thinks it’s a tad too soon for the Hammersmith puncher, although I’m pretty confident it isn’t.
Groves looks amazingly strong and powerful as he overwhelms Adamu in six rounds, the first time the Ghanaian has ever been halted in 22 outings. Showing great poise after scoring knockdowns in the 1st and 4th sessions, George has the crowd pumped throughout, in a scrap which would have served as a far better appetiser to the main course than the eventual four-rounder we’re forced to swallow.
In victory, “Saint” George also manages to pip the man he seems destined to be linked with, from now until the point he hangs up his mitts on a hook somewhere — James DeGale — to a professional title. Haye’s protégé has the big guy’s ambition and penchant for risk, and in between bouts I start to visualise how he’d fare against the current British champ Paul Smith, who must already be scouting warily over his shoulder.
Jamie Moore, rumoured to have been chasing a rematch with Mathew Macklin up at middleweight (the pair fought a classic in 2006) can’t come out for the 7th round against unknown Belarusian Sergey Khomitski in a terribly laboured performance. After back-to-back defeats, we wonder if this could be the end of the line for the menacing Salford bomber.
Clearly influenced by the four Scottish fellas behind us, who are drawing lots before each contest to add a little spice, my compadre offers me a ten pound wager on Peter McDonagh against Christopher Sebire, sneakily choosing the favoured French junior welterweight champ Sebire before I can even move my lips to accept. McDonagh has lost more encounters than he’s won but he gave Frankie Gavin a few problems last time out, is game as hell and is wearing a ridiculous novelty Irish hat, so I’m in. “The Connemara Kid” comes up trumps for me on points over eight and my pal skulks off to find better use of his cash at the bar. Sucker.
Colin Lynes is next up, challenging the unbeaten and talented switch hitter Ajose Olusegun for his Commonwealth strap at 140 lbs. As ashamed as I am to admit it now, my attention (which is tepid to be fair) wanders badly through this one, and I pass the time plotting how (if I should suddenly feel the need to) I could wander over the barrier and into the ringside section Steve McQueen style. I see a five-second window during which it would have been achievable and sit back smirking to myself smugly, only to catch the gaze of a guy in the next block dressed as Hulk Hogan (complete with plastic world title belt) staring back. It’s a bizarre moment between the pair of us, which quickly forces my attention back towards the ring.
Olusegun belts Lynes out with a body shot and the Hornchurch man seems to have at last used up the last of his last chances.
Suddenly, a Mexican wave breaks out and there I am, predictably adding weight to it. Yet after rising for the third revolution, I decide to give up and thankfully it peters out before it reaches me again. I ponder how you would go about starting such a thing in the first place before the huge screen at the other end of the hall whirs into action, informing us that the main event is very nearly upon us. A great roar goes up and the seating fills rapidly. It is, as they say, a crackling atmosphere.
A John Ruiz montage plays out in Technicolor, complete with booming sound effects to accentuate his knockout blows. I’m startled as to how the tech guys ever managed to come up with such a thing without a single hug, when I spot his head in silhouette, bobbing up and down amid a cacophony of boos. “Who are ya? Who are ya?” asks the throng, as the Massachusetts man jogs to the ring undaunted.
Once he’s on stage I’m immediately impressed by his purposeful warm up and holler to my pal that Ruiz means business, who nods back at me sporting an expression which suggests I’m a moron. A Union Jack illuminates the big screen behind the American and the crowd go bananas. Haye’s highlight clip whips the arena into frenzy and the Bermondsey bomber appears, milking the cheers and applause on his way to the ring, admiring his surroundings as if he were a tourist who’d just wandered in through a fire exit.
Once disrobed and shorn of hangers on, I can see that Haye looks too big. His arms resemble the time I dismantled my brother’s toy figurines and made him sob when he discovered He-Man’s massive levers attached to B.A. Baracus’s body. Alarm bells start to ring, however, they are soon to be muffled.
Barely seconds into the fight, Haye lands a beautiful one-two which flattens the American and threatens to blow the roof off the M.E.N. Ruiz rises gallantly, only to be felled again near the ropes, pummelled behind his head this time, blows which cause the third man to dock a point from Haye.
“Easy, Easy” hollers the crowd, and in between waves of adrenaline, I try to reconcile whether the thrill of a blow-out victory would trump the fight somehow extending for a few more rounds, so that this pandemonium could continue a while longer.
Ruiz, doing the best impression of Rocky Balboa I think I’ve ever seen, goes straight back to work, pressing his man and shooting out speedy looking shots which begin to find a home in the face of Haye’s non-existent defence. I give him the 2nd, along with the 4th, yet Haye’s jab is a wonderful if wince-making weapon to behold. On one occasion it smacks into Ruiz’s face and I wonder if I’ve seen teeth, rather than a blob of grease sailing high into the air over ringside.
“The Quiet Man” chugs forward into the fifth, allowing Haye to slip into his favoured role of counter puncher. As the friendly chap, the Scots and ourselves chatter to each other like excitable school children, Haye wallops in another nuclear combination which drops John again just before the bell.
Despite his repeated visits to the canvas, Ruiz remains very much in the contest and is sticking to his tormentor like glue, firing off busy bursts which appear to trouble Haye. It’s at these moments that I envision a telegraph pole-like jab from a Klitschko ramming into Haye’s mush and begin to question the Brit’s chances against either of the brood. That, though, can wait for another time, as Haye unloads again and Ruiz is down once more. Haye lands a body shot which reverberates like a gunshot, leaving us to marvel at the visitor’s courage, guts and determination.
Rounds 7 and 8 follow a similar script and no sooner do spectators latch onto my Rocky riff and begin chuntering that “this one’s gonna go the distance,” Haye uncorks a 9th round combo which prompts Miguel Diaz to scale the ring steps and wave the white towel of surrender. The place erupts and I notice that my palms are sore from clapping.
Haye ascends each corner of the ring in turn, acknowledging the startling support he’s received, whilst Ruiz too is afforded a wonderful wave of applause which is the very least he deserves. Unbelievably, this veteran of over 50 contests has changed an entire country’s perception of him in an evening. The man wouldn’t need to go looking for someone to buy him a beer in Manchester on Sunday, that’s for sure, after a performance which quite frankly shames those we’ve seen of late from his compatriots in this weight class.
Haye’s ability to either avoid or better absorb punches requires maintenance if he’s going to attempt heavyweight domination. In the meantime, he has reignited the wastelands north of 200 lbs. and when measured against the recent performances of Wladimir Klitschko, it was electrifying. One can only hope that the penny (or hryvnia) finally drops for the Ukrainian dreadnought and he realises that being heavyweight champion of the world is about more than just winning fights. History demands performances like this one from the king.
As we stumble out into the night, I find myself purchasing a poster of the winner. It is only after we stroll a couple of miles (in the wrong direction might I add) that I remember I’m no longer 12 years old and it’s probably a tad questionable whether I should be hiking a six foot photo of a dude with his pecs out around town (hopefully the kid in the petrol station will find better use for it on his wall). It was that type of night though, one which made you feel like a young lad again, back when heavyweight boxing was big news and bloody good fun with it.
A version of this post appeared on Safe Side of the Ropes.