Wladimir Klitschko Vs. David Haye: Keys To The Fight, Part I

So continues our marathon coverage of one of the biggest fights of 2011, Wladimir Klitschko-David Haye on July 2. Previously: the stakes of the bout. Next: the keys to the fight, part II.

Mind. Matter. How do Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye stack up in those categories? In the first of two parts, we compare their physical attributes.

(The John Key[ne]s to the fight.)

Speed. Haye has been described as the quickest heavyweight since Muhammad Ali, and it’s no stretch. He gets around on his feet really well, and his hands arrive at the target almost instantly. As a former cruiserweight, Haye has maintained the asset of a smaller man. And it’s no small asset in this fight. Klitschko has never faced anyone with the explosive speed of Haye, and it’s not 100 percent clear if he can compensate for it. For those picking Haye in this fight, “speed” is one of the major reasons.

That’s not to say Klitschko is slow. In fact, in 11 fights since 2005, arguably only Eddie Chambers — and maybe Chris Byrd — were faster of hand than him. For such a gigantic fellow, Klitschko is a pure athlete. Chambers had faster hands than Klitschko, but, seemingly, not faster feet, although some of that might have had to do with Klitschko’s size allowing him to get out of range easily. And Klitschko’s speed is enhanced by masterful timing and reflexes. Haye is going to be faster than Klitschko, and maybe by a lot, but it’s only because Haye is SO fast, not because Klitschko isn’t fast himself. Edge: Haye

Size. There isn’t any active fighter who uses his size so effectively as Klitschko, and there are few in my recent recall who come close. He starts off as a massive specimen, standing nearly 6’7″. His reach is slightly below what it should be at 81″ (compared to the smaller Haye’s 78″), but he will go whole rounds just using his jab to steady his opponent for eventual right hands. When he’s not keeping his opponent at bay with the jab, he’s sticking it out illegally and using his arm to blunt attempts to punch him back. And in the event someone gets past the jab/illegal pawing, he gives himself time to step or lean backward, then immediately lean in and tie up his opponent. The Klitschko package is more than just his size, but it starts with that weapon.

Haye stands 6’3″, which makes him a smallish heavyweight in this day and age. In his four heavyweight fights, he’s been roughly the same height as two of his opponents and was signficantly smaller than the other two, particularly 7′ Nikolay Valuev. Per the “speed” evaluation above, Haye uses his size to his speed advantage. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that he really struggled against the tall Valuev, winning a majority decision and not looking really good doing it, even before he injured his right hand in that bout. If “speed” is one of the major reasons some people are picking Haye, “size” is one of the major reasons other people are picking Klitschko. Edge: Klitschko

Power. This one’s a bit hard to figure, because, despite comparable knockout ratios — 92 percent for Haye in his wins, 89 percent for Klitschko — Haye has only four fights at heavyweight. His power has apparently carried up. He knocked down Monte Barrett five times, John Ruiz four times and he stopped Audley Harrison and became the first to truly wobble Valuev. But these aren’t one-punch KOs or near it, the way he often did ’em back at cruiser. This is him chopping people down, mostly.

Klitschko, meanwhile, doesn’t score the kind of early knockouts Haye does, but that’s as much a matter of style as anything. As I mentioned, Klitschko will go multiple rounds in a row without throwing any punch other than his jab. It’s a good, hard, damaging jab, one of the best in the business, but a jab usually doesn’t knock anyone out. After he softens them up for a while with the jab, Klitschko then starts dropping his straight right hand and left hook to the head, and when he connects on it with any reliability, a knockout is going to come. And it’s often the one-punch variety. Based on one-punch knockouts at heavyweight — Eddie Chambers, Ray Austin, Calvin Brock, the list goes on — I have to give Klitschko the slight advantage here. Edge: Klitschko

Chin. As good as both of them are in the power category, they’re both as bad in the ability-to-receive-power category. Neither of them have been hurt in a while, but both of their chins are ongoing worries. You have to go back to 2008 for the last time Haye was hurt, when he got dropped by Barrett while getting overaggressive gunning for the knockout, even though the referee didn’t count it as a knockdown. (He said afterward that a heavyweight’s jab feels like a cruiserweight’s right hand.) There’s a chance his chin has improved since then — he looks to me like he’s adjusted to the weight a bit, gotten a bit thicker, and he and his team blamed previous chin woes on his struggles to get below 200 pounds. It still warrants mention that he’d been dropped or wobbled by far smaller and less talented men than Klitschko, like Barrett, Jean-Marc Mormeck, or, in his one loss, a knockout to the less-than-stelllar Carl Thompson. It’s also worth noting that he recovered every time except against Thompson, so he’s got a bit of that Felix Trinidad thing going for him, where his bad chin doesn’t necessarily mean the be-all, end-all.

Klitschko hasn’t really been hurt badly since 2005, when he got dropped three times by heavy-hitting Samuel Peter. Before that, from 2004 to 1998, he was knocked out three times, albeit by heavyweights who packed a considerable punch: Lamon Brewster, Corrie Sanders and Ross Purrity. Since the Peter fight, owing to adaptations to his style by trainer Manny Steward, he has hardly been hit cleanly at all. There are two other things that might have improved his ability to take a punch, other than taking fewer of them: 1. He used to go pretty hard in fights, but now he conserves energy, and he’s always in terrific shape to be as efficient as possible; 2. As time has elapsed since 2004, he has grown more confident and isn’t so panicky, something that saps energy and makes a knockout loss more likely. So here’s what this one comes down to, for me — is Haye more vulnerable than ever at heavyweight and just hasn’t been hit hard enough by someone who hits very hard, or is Klitschko’s china chin still there and worse than Haye’s, just waiting to get tagged by someone who can get to it? This is a “tallest leprechaun” contest, but the fact that Klitschko has been KO’d more times and has shown less resilience than Haye when wobbled makes me more worried about Klitschko’s chin than Haye’s. Edge: Haye

Condition. We’re talking about two prime athletes who stay in remarkable condition among today’s era of heavyweights, these two. Klitschko is older, at 35, than Haye, 30. But that’s not the problem it might seem; many heavyweights don’t reach their physical primes until their early to mid 30s. Neither of them have shown much ill effect from their knockouts or wobbles. And Klitschko might have more than double the number of fights Haye has had, but it’s not like either man appears substantially fresher than the other.

With what’s left, this is another case of apples and oranges. I think that if they both fought at the same pace, Haye would be the superior-conditioned athlete. But I think he’s going to a more physically exhausting pace for him than usual, because Klitschko’s jab is going to stay in his face as long as he’s upright, something that will take a lot of energy to avoid, and when it connects, it wears you down. Meanwhile, Klitschko’s shown he can fight in his efficient style all night long, but he hasn’t fought much of anyone who had the potential Haye does to force him out of his comfort zone. I’m tempted to call this one even, but give me the younger fighter who’s fought fewer times and is probably the better pure athlete. Edge: Haye

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.