Boxing: Legacies at stake as best of enemies do battle

Haye v Harrison tonight could be a British belter because for once two heavyweights really want to fight, writes Steve Bunce

Long ago in a very different boxing world David Haye and Audley Harrison were best friends before petty jealousies, a few wayward punches and the sickening influence of a million or two separated them forever.

They shared the highs and lows of winning and losing on the amateur trail in low-rent hotels all over the world, and they found ice for each other's wounds in defeat and champagne for every international medal they won.

Tonight will be the official end of their friendship when they are left alone in front of 18,000 people at Manchester's MEN Arena to fight for the World Boxing Association heavyweight belt. Sadly, there is not an outcome that ends with an outburst of camaraderie; the bad blood will remain long after the lights go out.

There are so many versions of how their friendship descended into the open hatred that has shocked even some of the sport's most cynical observers. A sparring session in Miami in 2006 is often cited, a refusal by Haye to help promote Harrison in 2008 is another reason, and both claim jealousy is the root of the estrangement. There is an element of truth in every reason and a dozen others that have thankfully not made it into general circulation. Both fighters feel that they have been abused, both feel that they are in the right and they share a desperation to exchange punches that has been missing from British boxing's landscape since Nigel Benn's snarling years in the early Nineties.

Haye will be defending his WBA belt against his old mentor but it is his reputation that is really the prize tonight and that never comes wrapped in cheap jewels. In the two months since the fight was announced, Haye has done his best to talk himself into a corner. He told everybody that Harrison did not deserve the fight, which is true in some ways, he told people that Harrison is scared to do battle, which has elements of truth, and he predicted a savage win. It needs to be pointed out that Harrison is not the worst or least deserving heavyweight title challenger in recent years and there is a strong historical argument that shows there never was a time when the heavyweight champion fought the best of the rest in an endless line of glory nights.

Harrison, meanwhile, has been quick to emphasise his thin credentials and highlight Haye's own fortunate passage to tonight's first bell. The reality is that in the modern business of boxing Haye is a perfectly respectable heavyweight champion and Harrison a fully entitled challenger. There is also the chance that a real heavyweight championship fight might take place, which would lift tonight's proceedings to a position left vacant since 2003 when Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko traded punches and blood in their thriller in Los Angeles that ended with Klitschko's face in need of a surgeon's love and about 100 stitches.

Since that wonderful night the different heavyweight baubles have been bought and sold in a series of mostly forgettable fights involving dull Uzbeks, Ugandans, Costa Ricans, lame Americans, sad South Africans, Russian freaks and other assorted misfits addicted to the tarnished cause. Fans have lost their desire to watch, the Americans have switched off and from this pit of predictable knock-overs emerged Haye, a kid from south London with a big mouth and the swagger of an old-school crank. Harrison claims he taught Haye a lot and he is right.

"Perhaps people have forgotten that David talked himself into the title fight last year," claimed Harrison. "He had done nothing as a heavyweight to deserve that chance but he took it and he won it. He talked himself in just like I've talked myself in. That's not wrong, that's good business."

Harrison is now 39, a winner in 27 of his 31 professional fights and a man with enough injuries, slights and damned bad luck during his career to deserve a break or two the nearer he gets to his slippers. However, boxing and Harrison have seldom seen eye-to-eye and he needs a performance of true grit to become a new Frank Bruno; cherished at public appearances and always game for a national TV laugh. Harrison can even win in defeat if he goes down swinging; it would end the outrageous jeers that have blighted his every move inside the boxing world.

"Big Aud" has been coming back from setbacks and calamities for about 25 years and shrugs off the familiar words from critics with a weary and gentle smile. He failed gloriously as an amateur in his early attempts to win the domestic title, losing once to Haye's minder, Danny Watts. He flopped at the European and the World championships and before the 2000 Olympics had lost as many international contests as he had won. He was a long way shy of being the golden boy of boxing when he travelled to Sydney, but what he achieved there should never be forgotten.

"I was losing and learning," insisted Harrison. "The setbacks made me the fighter I am today – each loss as an amateur prepared me for the Olympics and each loss as a pro has prepared me for winning this title. I can look back and proudly say that I have done it the old-fashioned way."

Haye is 30 and insists that he will quit the ring before the end of next year to try his luck in Hollywood. He wants to fight one of the towering Klitschko brothers before he calls it a day and becomes an action hero. Haye loves the spotlight and has craved the glory that the ring provides since he was a little boy at the Fitzroy Lodge amateur boxing club in Lambeth. He fought inside the club's dripping arches many times and would savour the entrance and the victorious exit even if just 150 people had paid a fiver on the door and he had a bus pass to get home. "He was a star long before he was a star," said Mick Carney from the Lodge.

"OK, this is the absolute truth," Haye said a few weeks ago. "Big Aud won a gold medal and I respected that. I listened when he started to talk bollocks and I respected that. But, people move on – I have, he hasn't. I'm world champion and he's not even close. We are not in 2000 now or 2006 or 2008 talking about one day here and another day here. None of that matters now."

However, it is their shared history that has created the appeal of this fight and it is their ruined friendship that will make it so memorable. When it was announced on 7 September, after months of secret talks between Harrison's manager Eddie Hearn and Haye's business partner Adam Booth, it was ridiculed as a callous, financial mismatch by some in the envious boxing community. "I hope so," said Booth, when the charge was put to him. However, something odd has happened and Harrison, who remains the betting outsider, has been drawn back into the flock after a hard-nosed publicity campaign which featured him as a Best-of-British battler, fighting for the underdogs and the uglies everywhere against tremendous odds. He now insists that the people are on his side and he could, remarkably, be right. We will all find out tonight when he enters the grand hall.

It is the final chance for Harrison because in 10 years of professional fights he has so often failed to deliver on his promises and the brutal truth is that no amount of spin or twist has fully satisfied his critics and former fans. "This is not the last chance, this is the start," Harrison countered.

Haye has far more to lose in defeat and even a deep-pocket pay day will not gloss over the distance between his claims and his potential failings in the ring if he is beaten. Harrison is right when he concludes that Haye's reputation will suffer in defeat far more than his. It is an astute observation which will motivate both; Harrison to crush his rival and Haye to retain the glory and cash he adores.

So when the crowd settles tonight at about 10.15, and the most lucrative all-British fight begins, it could be Harrison's long and accurate southpaw left that opens the show. The punch will need to be a factor in a Harrison win but he will also require Haye to be there in front of him, chin exposed and his balance off to make it work. It could be decided that way, but I don't think it will.

It will be settled through speed, the most neglected element in heavyweight boxing and something that Haye, who will be three stone lighter than Harrison, has used to exploit the static, the slow and the confused. He will do the same tonight and end it when he decides that it is safe – that might be a few more rounds than people think.

Tale Of The Tape

David Haye / Audley Harrison

Champion (WBA) / Status / Challenger

30 / Age / 39

Hayemaker / Nickname / A-Force

25 / Fights / 31

24 (22) / Wins (KO) / 27 (20)

1 (1) / Defeats (KO) 4 (1)

Bermondsey, London / Home Town / Harlesden, London

Orthodox / Stance / Southpaw

2002 / Turned Pro / 2001

2004 / Last Defeat / 2008

6ft 3in (1.91m) / Height / 6ft 5in (1.97m)

15st 0.5lbs / Weight / 18st 1.5lbs

78 inches / Reach / 86 inches

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