Nobody really knows what David Haye thought when he was led into the Fitzroy Lodge amateur boxing club gym as a 10-year old and left in the company of men and brawlers for the first time.
Haye, now 30, insists that he felt like he had come home, reached the place where he was meant to be. "I'd been talking about winning the world heavyweight title since I was three and at 10 I was there. I know that is what went through my head," says Haye.
The Fitzroy Lodge has been taking in waifs, strays, street lunatics – I was one of them in the '70s – and world-class fighters since 1908 and moulding, shaping and creating every type of boxer. Since 1946 it has been located in a railway arch between the Imperial War museum and Lambeth Bridge, its sign nearly hidden by trucks and filth and its door seldom closed.
In February of this year one of the Lodge's trainers, Billy Webster, died. He was 85 and with Mick Carney, who still runs the place, the pair shared a unique partnership of nearly 120 years at the club. Haye was at Webster's wake in early March, head down, just a boy from the gym.
"No boy is bigger than the club," Carney insists. "We had to remind David about that a few times! He was a handful at times, hard to get out of bed at times, impossible to beat in the ring at other times. He was special from very, very early on. He could really whack."
The boy is now in his prime as the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion and is still referred to in the old gym in the same way he was when he was fighting there. He is seldom called David Haye; it's "Silly Bollocks", "Him" or the "Crank". If somebody says: "Did you see him, cranky bollocks last night?" It means Haye was on TV and people just nod.
"I talk to some people and hear others talking about him and I just have to shake my head," continues Carney. "Complete bollocks is the only way to describe what some people say and write about him. I've heard one fella tell me that he will freeze when he gets in the ring with Klitschko.
"Freeze? Forget it, it's what he has been dreaming and talking about since he was a little boy. It's what he really goes to bed dreaming about. He has wanted to be up in that ring in front of 60,000 people and against the odds all his life. That's what he lives for.
"A normal man might think about being in bed with three or four supermodels for the night, but not him. No, when he gets to the edge of the ring and looks out at everything and everybody he will be smiling because that to him is all that he has ever wanted. That doesn't mean that he wasn't a pain in the arse to deal with at times," added Carney, who finally after nearly 50 years of service received his MBE a couple of years ago.
Haye was forced to take a year out from the Fitzroy Lodge when he was 13 after pains in his joints were diagnosed as growing pains. The year's rest worked and he came back stronger, more determined and more importantly, free of aches. It is possibly about this time he would arrive at the gym on a different bike most nights and Carney and Webster started to hear stories from the street.
"People have always made the mistake that he is some type of pussycat because he smiles, shakes hands and has always scrubbed up well," continues Carney. "He's fearless and nasty in the ring and he has pulled out some great wins when he was on the verge of losing. He loves to knock people out. He always has; it's just his way and was his way from an early age."
Carney is right, I saw a show once inside the archway gym in 1996 when Haye, who seemed to have packed the place, was just 15, stood about 6ft 3in and weighed just over 12st. He stopped a kid from Rugeley, Staffordshire, and inside the sweaty gym it was like a big fight at the O2 Arena, with Haye taking about 10 minutes to get in and out of the ring. Ringside guest Frank Maloney, who managed Lennox Lewis at the time, was told to keep his hands off.
"He can fight, Babe," was how Webster summed him up to me once and he certainly could fight. He liked to fight and he could also lose his way, not an unusual problem for a south London boy.
Many years later, just under 13 to be precise, when Haye was in Miami preparing for his showdown with Enzo Maccarinelli, there was an incident that reminded me just how much Haye likes to fight. He was staying with his best friend, trainer and business partner Adam Booth in a nice apartment block. I was there to film for the BBC and we had a late meet and arranged an early piece of filming for the morning. However, during the night four neighbours in the block, most probably college boys on holiday, got a bit lively on the landing. There was a suggestion that somebody was called "a nigger"; they were all white. Anyway, Haye was furious but Booth got him back in the room and after about 30 minutes they went to bed; a few minutes later Booth could hear somebody moving about. He left it for 10 minutes before getting up just in time to watch Haye open the front door on his way to knock on the door where the "four steroid bullies" were staying. The noise that Booth had heard was Haye putting his bandages on and searching for his gumshield in the dark! Booth dragged him back inside, they moved early in the morning and missed our filming rendezvous. Hence the name Crank, see?
In 1999 he entered the senior amateur championships and beat the Commonwealth Games gold medal winner Courtney Fry in an unforgettable night at York Hall; a night when there was a danger the venue would be closed down because of the crowd's size. A month later he lost at the same venue, caught cold by a kid from Coventry and guilty of taking a win for granted. The loss still haunts him and is used to explain away his talent by all of his critics. At the end of the summer he went to the World Amateur Championships in Houston where he won and then lost a tight decision to the eventual winner. Haye was just 18 and nobody talks about the Houston experience, which seems odd.
He missed out on the Sydney Olympics when his old rival Fry was given the final qualification tournament. "That really hurt and that is why I went up in weight – I was never going to get selected in front of Fry," said Haye. In 2001 he became the first British boxer to reach the final of the World Amateur Championships and in 2002 at the Commonwealth Games, where he was officially a poster boy, he was nailed on for gold before a shoulder injury forced him out after just one fight. He was no longer a member at the Fitzroy Lodge at the end of his amateur career. No boy, remember, is bigger than the club and Haye and Carney and Webster fell out. It remains a bit feisty, but is not nasty.
"He is an exciting bastard, there is no denying that. I hope he beats Klitschko. We all do down here. He's a crank, but he's still a Lodge boy, never forget that," says Carney.Reuse content