By Thomas Gerbasi
It should have been just another night in Las Vegas, with referee Jay Nady bringing two fighters to the middle of the ring for their final instructions on May 15, 2004.
“You have any questions,” Nady asked light heavyweight challenger Antonio Tarver and champion Roy Jones Jr.
“I got a question,” blurted Tarver, not content with the usual shake of the head and touch of the gloves. “You got any excuses tonight, Roy?”
At that point, with Tarver still smarting over his controversial decision loss to Jones six months earlier, Nady should have waved his arms and stopped the fight right there, because it was already over.
“It was spur of the moment,” Tarver recalled earlier this week. “I was just so amped up, I just threw it all out there. It was something that just came to me. It was crazy, ‘You got any questions?’ ‘Yeah, I got a question.’ It was one of those things where I was just ready to fight.”
He pauses, then laughs.
“I’m glad everything turned out right. I could have been the laughingstock of boxing.”
Very true, but bold statements require bold action, and Tarver put his neck on the chopping block, forcing himself to deliver on everything he said.
Saturday in Hamburg, Germany, another precocious talent with a mouth that roars and the fists to back it up - WBA heavyweight champion David Haye – will have his chance to live up to everything he’s said over the last few years about his fellow titleholder Wladimir Klitschko.
It’s THE heavyweight fight of 2011, and quite possibly the most anticipated of the last 10 years outside of Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson in 2002. And besides the obvious stylistic attractions of the bout – Klitschko’s dominant 1-2 and size against Haye’s fight ending power and speed – it’s been the psychological warfare building up month after month and year after year that has fight fans foaming at the mouth for the first bell to sound.
And Haye, not surprisingly was the one firing the first salvos at Klitschko. Even when the Londoner was fighting cruiserweight title fights against Jean-Marc Mormeck and Enzo Maccarinelli in 2007-08, he was shooting barbs at the Ukrainian. When I spoke with him before the Maccarinelli fight, Haye had little nice to say about Klitschko and his sleep-inducing performance against Sultan Ibragimov a couple weeks earlier.
“Ideally, I would have been in there with Klitschko and his scared self,” said Haye at the time. “I was actually embarrassed to be a boxer watching that fight, with so much good fighting going on in other sports. You go to the mixed martial arts world and you get some good competitive fights and they’re getting bonuses for good wins and good, entertaining fights, and here you’ve got a guy out there who’s scared – he was actually trying to leap away from Ibragimov before his jab had landed. It was painful to watch.”
He was just getting started.
“All you need to do is look at a highlight reel of me and one thing you’ll know is that I’m not afraid to throw my right hand,” Haye continued. “I can’t wait to get this fight (with Maccarinelli) out of the way so I can just dart there and breathe some fresh air into this heavyweight division. It’s as worst as it’s ever been in my lifetime and I’ve always been a boxing fan, ever since I was a little kid. People think of big boxers and they think ‘they suck’. That’s the first thing they think, and I want to change that. I want people to think what they should when they think of heavyweight boxing, and that’s big guys who can take each other out with any shot and who are willing to put it on the line. And if you look at my record, the one thing I don’t do is duck opponents or dodge tough fights. I go up against the best fighters all the time, and as soon as I beat this dude Enzo, I’m going straight after Klitschko because people actually regard that chump as the best in the world. Ibragimov didn’t even throw a decent shot at him and he was scared out of his mind. What’s he gonna do if he had me in there? He’d have to buy some running spikes because he’s not gonna stand and fight me, that’s for sure.”
Haye needed just two rounds to stop Maccarinelli, and then he put his WBA, WBC, and WBO cruiserweight title belts into storage and jumped to the heavyweight division with a fifth round TKO of Monte Barrett in November of 2008. And in keeping to form, Haye kept winning and kept needling Klitschko whenever he had the chance. In between various on again / off again scenarios, Haye defeated Nikolay Valuev, John Ruiz, and Audley Harrison while Klitschko remained dominant, piling up title defense after title defense.
But no one wanted to see Haye beat Harrison or Klitschko turn back the likes of Ruslan Chagaev, Eddie Chambers, and Sam Peter. The only fight the world needed outside of the still dormant Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather bout was Klitschko vs. Haye.
And earlier this year, the 30-year old’s taunts and verbal jabs finally paid off as the bout was signed. Haye’s magnificent obsession was about to be fulfilled. It brought to mind Tarver finally getting Jones after years of pursuit. Over seven years removed from his first fight with his nemesis, Tarver’s tone has softened when it comes to his seemingly endless chase.
“The difference with me is that it wasn’t on purpose,” he said. “It was just the fact that when I was coming up through the ranks, Roy Jones just happened to be the champion. It could have been anybody – Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, (Thomas) Hearns. It would have been the same way, because I could never be champion if I didn’t beat Roy. He just happened to be in the way. It’s a beautiful story because we had history at 13, and he inspired me to get back into the ring after I saw him in ’88, but I didn’t pick it that way. If Roy would have moved up to cruiserweight, he wouldn’t have had no problems.”
Tarver laughs, but just when you think the storyline has faded, “The Magic Man”s longtime publicist, Norman Horton, interjects.
“At one time, if they didn’t make that fight (with Jones), Antonio was actually going to go to his house and knock on his door.”
Another laugh, and a confirmation from Tarver that this was true. So it was an obsession, and Haye has had a similar one with Wladimir Klitschko (and to a lesser extent, Wladimir’s brother Vitali). He already has a world heavyweight title belt and is a good draw back in his native England. So why not take the Klitschko route and just fight the contenders lined up for him in one of the worst heavyweight classes of all-time? Because he knows that a win over Klitschko is the only one that will make him the legit number one in the division, and because it irks him that Klitschko is seen as the top dog despite having few, if any, legitimate dance partners to test him.
Even two years ago, Haye had no doubts that he had what it took to beat “Dr. Steelhammer.”
“If you look at the guys who have beaten Wladimir in the past, you’ve got Corrie Sanders who knocked him out – I’m bigger than Corrie Sanders,” said the 6-foot-3 Haye before the Barrett fight. “You’ve got (Lamon) Brewster – I’m bigger than Brewster. And people say I’m too small, but I’m bigger than the guys who’ve knocked him out in the past, so I really don’t take too much notice of that. I know I’m big enough. I’m a heavyweight who’s had to boil down. I’ve had to take off over 30 pounds to get down to 200 pounds and I’ve always had to do that. The only reason I did that was because I had that dream of becoming a cruiserweight champion. So I’ve got the dedication a lot of the other heavyweights haven’t got. I’d say 60-70 percent of the people fighting in the heavyweight division, if they had the discipline I do, could get down to 200 pounds and fight there, but they’re not gonna go on these crazy diets I go on and they’re not gonna put the extra hours in the gym that I do.”
Through it all, as Haye kept the heat on, Klitschko has been his usual stoic self, but in glimpses, you can see that the longtime champion has been scraped the wrong way by the brash Brit. It’s a rare sight, but Klitschko may have found the one opponent who has not only gotten under his skin, but who has crawled in and set up camp there. Tarver thinks that Haye may have outsmarted himself with his Art of War tactics.
“Right now, I think Haye is reaching,” said Tarver, who also doubles as a Showtime commentator when he’s not fighting, which he will on July 20 against Danny Green. “He has the fight now. So focus on what you have to do to win the fight. I think he’s focusing too much on the Klitschko situation, and I gotta admit, Wladimir looks focused. He don’t look shaken over anything that Haye has done, and maybe Haye’s tactics may have backfired a little bit. Haye’s put himself in a position where he has to win this fight. And hopefully he can pull it off. I think it will really set the heavyweight division on fire if he can.”
Have the tactic backfired? Has Haye rattled Klitschko out of a proverbial sleep and into a realm where he becomes a prizefighter and not simply a sportsman? That may actually be the point, because Haye will not likely win the match by sitting at the end of Klitschko’s jab all night. Klitschko perfected this plan of attack long ago, and few are better at it. But in a firefight, there will always be questions about Klitschko’s chin, and Haye has the power and speed to test it. In a fight where Klitschko would like nothing better than to shut up his tormentor in the most painful and embarrassing way possible, Haye has his best chance to win. So maybe he has played his cards perfectly. Tarver isn’t so sure, but like the rest of the boxing world, he can’t wait to find out.
“I think Haye should have just played it cool and being his charismatic self, promote the fight,” said Tarver. “The last thing you want to do is get one of these big guys pissed off. (Laughs) He (Haye) should have just smoothed him over. ‘Thanks for the opportunity champ, I appreciate it.’ And maybe he (Klitschko) would have taken a light training camp, thinking he could just go in there and walk through Haye. I think he could have played it a whole different way. But to get under this guy’s skin, to come out with a shirt with his head and his brother’s head cut off, you’ve pissed this guy off now, so you better be able to do everything that you say you’re gonna do. Because you’re gonna have to do it.”
Just like Tarver did. I can hear it now.
“You got any excuses tonight, Wladimir?”