(David Haye, via The Daily Mail)
It’s hard to believe we’re coming into David Haye-John Ruiz Saturday and the ultra-aggressive Haye is the one who drew criticism after his last fight for being too ugly and passive, while the famously huggy Ruiz in his last fight bucked his reputation as a grind-it-out mauler. But both heavyweights may benefit against one another by developing those dimensions outside the usual.
The British Haye has been the heavyweight most Americans dream of, a charismatic, attractive power-puncher with speed and a go-for-broke style. Ruiz has been the American heavyweight most boxing fans prefer to forget. Reputations are funny things. A little change in style for Haye against Nicolay Valuev and for Ruiz against Adnan Serin has changed perceptions of both men in some quarters. It might be circumstantial, though. Haye hurt his right hand badly early against Valuev, and even before then it looked like he was trying on a more stick-and-move style for size, so this may have been more about adding a wrinkle while enduring an injury than it was a lackluster outing. Ruiz got himself a new trainer, Miguel Diaz, that Ruiz said has brought a friendlier boxer-puncher style, but Serin was a stay-busy opponent who didn’t pose a risk.
Whatever the reason, that contrast — along with the usual cliffhanger routine of whether Haye’s power or his shaky chin will carry the day — gives spice to a fight that hardly anyone wanted, other than the sanctioning organization that mandated Haye defend his belt against Ruiz.
Haye is the #3 heavyweight in large part because of his last fight, a close, largely action-free and disputed decision win over the plodding Valuev, himself ranked in the top 5ish at the time. Haye was nothing like Haye in that fight. Aside from the right hand injury — and the pictures convinced me it wasn’t a typical boxing excuse — Valuev’s 7′ frame gave Haye trouble as he tried to get on the inside, and his pace, already slow, slowed further as the fight went deeper. He circled and circled and circled and Valuev won some rounds largely by being the one person to do anything. Usually a big puncher, Haye only wobbled Valuev in the 12th with a big left hook, but couldn’t finish the job, and he was lucky to get the decision in Germany.
On the positive side, though, Haye finally demonstrated some good defense, and he fought a controlled fight, something he hadn’t exhibited any tendency toward doing before. As Haye fights top heavyweights, he’ll have to do both to shelter a set of whiskers that hasn’t always proven reliable. But as Andre Dirrell learned from fighting Carl Froch and then Arthur Abraham, keeping safety in mind is important but it’s a fine line to walk between intelligent aggression and being so cautious you put a win at risk. In his heavyweight re-debut following a cruiserweight reign, Haye fought as stupidly as he usually does against faded journeyman Monte Barrett and got the knockout win but also got knocked down whether the ref ruled it that way or not. Against Valuev, he erred too much on the side of staying out of danger, and barely got the win. If he’s to be a good heavyweight — and he quite possibly has the most physical ability of anyone in the division — he’ll need to find a balance between the two approaches.
Ruiz has struggled with a different kind of balance. In 1996, when he was a pretty straightforward heavyweight, David Tua clobbered him in one round. So he adjusted his style, opting for a jab-and-grab style that kept him out of harm’s way but made him unpopular with boxing fans. At times, it has made him unpopular with judges; in the past five years, he has lost fights against Valuev twice and Ruslan Chagaev once that were close and he may have deserved to win. Sometimes when a guy is mauling and wrestling, it’s hard for judges to see him getting much more done than mauling and wrestling. And then, even if he tries not to, he’s got a reputation.
Ruiz looked much more like his old old self against Serin than he did the Ruiz everyone came to know and avoid. He jabbed his way in, and didn’t hold after he did. He boxed smartly. He dropped heavy right hooks on Serin, and uppercuts, too. He credits Diaz for the overhaul. And while the hugging had been on the decline before Diaz arrived, Ruiz fought in an appealing style against Serin — who, it must be noted again, couldn’t present Ruiz with the potential for a Tua-like clobberin’. Even the hated version of Ruiz is a better heavyweight than he’s usually given credit for. He’s a top-10 level talent who’s not in the top 10 of the division now, but a couple scorecards’ difference here and there and he is. Ring magazine ranked him #6 among the division’s top heavyweights in 2010, with wins over Hasim Rahman, Evander Holyfield, Andrew Golota and others to his credit.
While a technically solid, reasonably aggressive boxer-puncher like Ruiz is more than enough to catch and hurt Haye, the prospects of that are diminished by two things. The last time Ruiz fought someone with power equal to or greater than Haye’s, Tua, he got crushed (and he hit the mat against Golota and James Toney, lesser punchers than either opponent). And the last time he fought someone with speed equal to or greater than Haye’s, Roy Jones Jr., he got shellacked (Toney was a speedy heavyweight, too). Ruiz has no significant size advantage, as both men have the same reach and approximately the same height, nor does age work in his favor — at 38, he’s nine years older than Haye.
Being a boxer-puncher type should give Ruiz a better chance of beating Haye than mauling him, because Ruiz couldn’t bully the quicker Jones that way, and it didn’t keep him from getting whomped, either. But by the same token, a savvier-defending Haye gives Haye a better chance of beating a good-punching Ruiz.
Even though I’ve defended Ruiz’ record and style here, I also have to say it’s mystifying that he’s in this position. The WBA will have given Ruiz, by my count, five chances to win its vacant belt or fight against the incumbent titleholder. If he upsets Haye, he’ll prove that it wasn’t so crazy, and Ruiz will become the third man behind Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield to win a heavyweight title thrice. But if Haye becomes the second man to KO Ruiz, and does it in the destructive-but-controlled style I expect, it will be a nice trophy for the Brit who figures as the best opponent for one of the Klitschko brothers, the tandem that owns the division.
[The TQBR Prediction Game is in effect. Remember the rules.]