Boxing: Early finish on cards as Britain's best collide

Enzo Maccarinelli and David Haye are the finest pair of cruiserweights around but blink and you may well miss their fight early tomorrow morning, writes Steve Bunce

A big fight needs a variety of ingredients, like a tin shed on a hill above Swansea, a 32nd-floor penthouse in Miami's South Beach, a few misunderstandings, a playboy, a family man and about 20,000 fans.

Tonight at the O2 Arena the doors to the fabulous venue will be locked tight at 11pm for the final three hours of build-up to a fight that has taken 18 months to put in place. It is a fight that few people believed would ever take place and it is also a fight that is unlikely to disappoint.

In one corner at about 2am will be Enzo Maccarinelli and opposite him in a ring that will finally empty of people and obstacles will be David Haye.

It is not often that a modern domestic contest is elevated to the same level as the many heroic pairings in British boxing's glorious history. Tonight, however, Haye and Maccarinelli has been referred to simply as "the fight" for a few years and that is the type of recognition that it deserves because the winner or both will undoubtedly add his name to the list of great British fighters.

Haye will enter the ring with his World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council cruiserweight belts and Maccarinelli will have his jewel-encrusted World Boxing Organisation version. It will be a dazzling mixture of gaudy leather and gold but, as is so often the case in big fights, the belts are only fashion accessories to the real thing. It is, unlike too many of the massive all-British fights from the Nineties, a meeting between the best two at their weight in the world.

There have been attempts to conjure up the fistic ghosts left in the memories of boxing fans who witnessed Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn in the double splendour of their vicious encounters. Also it has been compared to the Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno rumble in the swirly wet wind of a Cardiff night when a world title was subterfuge for a bitter personal rivalry. Haye and Maccarinelli is clearly not as big as the knights from the early Nineties but, unlike the Benn, Eubank, Lewis and Bruno fights, it does involve the world's best two fighters at the weight.

Haye has lost just once and stopped or knocked out 19 of his 20 opponents and Maccarinelli has also lost just the once and he has left 21 of his 28 victims in an uncomfortable dreamland under the neon. They are both 6ft 4in, both 27 and they both accept that they are vulnerable under pressure and that simply means that they are at risk of getting knocked out when face to fist with a noted puncher. Tonight they each meet their most feared and avoided opponent and that is what could give this special fight the edge over the long list of glory boys from the Nineties.

"If Haye catches me clean I will go over. I know that, I'm not stupid. He's a tremendous puncher and I just have to make sure that I get to him first," Maccarinelli said. Haye, meanwhile, has said the exact same thing and bookmakers have been drastically slashing their prices on an early stoppage, which is understandable as 31 of their opponents have been left legless inside three rounds. This fight has slowly, as the days pass, started to look better and better.

The fight was officially announced on 28 December last year but it has been revealed that both boxers had, by then, already started to prepare for the inevitable. Maccarinelli had arranged sparring with a few heavyweights and Haye drifted back to his training base in north Cyprus with a secret portfolio of ideal men to hire. Maccarinelli continued to run the hills surrounding his father's ancient gym in Swansea and those that hide the retreat Enzo Calzaghe operates near Newbridge.

Haye quickly discovered that north Cyprus is freezing cold in January and he relocated in secret to Miami, where he found several gyms with dozens of willing and anonymous sparring partners to help him prepare. Haye's trainer, friend and manager, Adam Booth, joined him a few days later and they put in place a programme behind closed doors with a growing sense of paranoia. They both insist that there is nothing wrong but many people inside the boxing business have sensed a weakness in their reclusive behaviour.

Tonight's fight so nearly never happened because Haye had insisted that his days in the cruiserweight division were over, but relentless negotiations finally persuaded him to agree terms. He does, however, insist that it will be his final fight at cruiserweight before a well planned assault on the heavyweight division that includes a six-month sabbatical from fighting to gain a sustainable 2st of muscle.

There is a growing feeling that something truly special will happen once the first bell sounds and events this week have only added to the level of expectation. Haye returned from Miami but has not entered into the full swing of the fight's necessary promotional carnival. The promoter Frank Warren hosted the final head-to-head press conference on Thursday and Haye was at yet another secret location sleeping in an attempt to keep his body clock on American time, which will in theory help with the 2am start. But there was a twist when Haye arrived an hour or so late with smiles and sound bites for the patient media. Warren was not impressed.

Hopefully, both fighters will arrive at the O2 this evening and squabble over who gets Barbra Streisand's old dressing room as the 18-month wait finally turns into minutes and seconds. Once the bell has sounded there is a real chance that it could end very early and the winner will be the man who can best keep his head at a time when very few would manage. In theory Haye is the slight favourite but Maccarinelli appears calmer and that could be the decisive factor. But being calm is one thing and reacting correctly when Haye connects cleanly is another. There was a time in boxing history when fights like this came along all the time but that era has gone and that is why every second tonight should be enjoyed.

From The Mighty Atom to Prince Naseem: The greatest British bouts of all time

*WILDE-CLARKE. 11 March 1917, National Sporting Club, London. World flyweight title

It was Jimmy Wilde's last defence of his world title, the Welshman beating George Clarke with a fourth-round knockout that also gave him the European and British championships. He fought for four more years, and by the time he retired he had 149 fights under his belt, officially, though he claimed to have fought 800 times. Whether that's true or not, "The Mighty Atom" is known to many as the greatest flyweight who ever climbed into a boxing ring.

*EUBANK-WATSON 21 September 1991, White Hart Lane. WBO super-middleweight title

This might be remembered as the greatest all-British fight if not for the tragedy that ensued. After the referee had stopped the fight in the final round with Michael Watson crumpling under an attack from Chris Eubank, Watson slipped into a coma and suffered brain damage.

*LEWIS-BRUNO 1 October 1993, Cardiff Arms Park. WBC heavyweight title

"Nobody cares about Lennox Lewis in Britain," said Frank Bruno. "Uncle Tom," Lewis hissed in reply. Bruno dominated early on before being flattened by a left hook from Lewis, who retained his world title.

*EUBANK-BENN 9 October 1993, Old Trafford. WBO, WBC super-middleweight titles

Eubank had beaten Nigel Benn in a savage confrontation two years before, and there was much bad blood between the pair. The savagery continued unabated in this thrilling draw, which lived up to its "Judgement Day" billing. Benn retained his WBC belt, Eubank his WBO equivalent.

*HAMED-McCULLOUGH 31 October, 1998, Atlantic City. WBO featherweight title

The champion, Naseem Hamed, came in on a run of 18 consecutive knockouts. Although he couldn't do the same to the Ulsterman Wayne McCullough, his unorthodox style was too much to handle, and Hamed earned a unanimous decision.

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