Bunce on Boxing: Rumble in the Jungle was nearly KO’d by a stray elbow

“The 11-month gap between fights robbed me of the title. I know it did”

When Filip Hrgovic’s right elbow sliced through both the epidermis and dermis, leaving David Haye requiring six stitches from a plastic surgeon, the pair joined a list of unfortunate fighters.

The cut happened late on Friday night in the second round of the last day of Haye’s sparring for this Saturday’s fight against Tyson Fury and everybody in the Vauxhall gym knew that the fight was off. Hrgovic, a Croat was not even the most dangerous of Haye’s six or so sparring partners but he was just in the right place at the right time to end the multimillion-pound night.

Haye had six stitches inserted above his left eye and will find out later this week how long he will be out of the ring; there is bold talk of a December fight but next March or even April looks far more likely. Fury, meanwhile, will probably take a contest next month to stay busy, which is the sensible option.

There seemed to be genuine remorse in Haye’s voice when he apologised to Fury and to all the fans who were due to pack the sold-out former MEN Arena in Manchester. I believe he is genuine because the purse, thought to be in excess of £3m, was the sole motivation for the fight and a long break could lead to the bout never happening.

It looked like one of the greatest fights in history would never happen when, in September 1974, George Foreman was cut above the right eye by Bill McMurray’s left elbow. The pair were finishing off a long training camp at their base in Kinshasa, Zaire, when the cut, tiny compared to Haye’s gash, opened up  with just eight days left before the Rumble in the Jungle’s original date of 25 September.

In addition to what has been said about Foreman trying to leave the country – there are lurid tales of armed guards confiscating his passport – it is a little-known fact that Muhammad Ali was even more desperate to flee and return to America. However, Ali, who would be in Zaire for a total of 57 days, sought wise counsel, stayed and exploited Foreman’s desire to run away. “Ali kept telling everybody that ‘George is scared, George doesn’t like Africa, George doesn’t like Africans.’ Ali just put up with it,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s friend and business manager.

Had either boxer left Zaire there is every chance that, for a variety of financial reasons, one of sport’s most iconic events would have simply never taken place. They both had to stay, not exactly prisoners but they were each warned about the consequences of flight by President Mobutu Sese Seko’s  henchmen. He was, after all, a nasty little despot who ran Zaire for 32 years and he was delighted when the pair finally fought on 30 October.

When Ray Webb, a good little fighter from Hackney, landed flush with a right hand on Michael Watson’s nose in November 1989 it was the last day, last round and last few seconds of sparring for Watson’s WBA middleweight title fight against Mike McCallum. “ What could I do? Ray was an old friend,  a good friend,” said Watson.

The nose was broken and the fight at the Alexandra Palace was off. Watson had not fought since May and McCallum, perhaps realising the delay would be longer than expected, took a hard, 12-round defence in February 1990 against Steve Collins. Watson could only look on in despair.

He finally got his chance against McCallum in April 1990 but Watson had been out of the ring for 11 months and the inactivity cruelly ruined his performance; he was stopped in the 11th round and his timing looked off. “The 11-month gap robbed me of the title. I know it did, but I can’t blame Ray,” Watson said.

Nobody is blaming McMurray, Webb or even big Filip for their wayward elbows and well-placed punches but it is, all the same, a dreadful shame when a big fight collapses at such short notice. Fury was probably at a peak mentally and physically, and I hope he can maintain it; Haye thrives on long breaks and, once the cosmetic stuff is over, will be back to normal.

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