James Lawton: Heavyweights of hype: Haye and Harrison are no greats

The all-British bout will draw huge crowds, but for our writer it marks the tipping point where a noble sport becomes all talk

David Haye, who is arguably the least substantial world heavyweight champion in the history of boxing, is in trouble this week for making a sickening allusion to "gang rape". He did so, it has been widely reported, to the likely benefit of ticket sales which really should be accompanied by a fraud warning, while measuring the ease with which he will replicate the 2008 achievement of an ageing Belfast taxi driver named Martin Rogan when he defeats the long discredited Audley Harrison in something which is shamelessly being billed as a world title fight in Manchester on 13 November.

The charge against Haye is that he is guilty of trash talk, which is fight-speak for the crude and tasteless vilification of opponents while hyping a forthcoming contest.

Even by these often guttersnipe standards, which some thought had reached rock bottom when one of Mike Tyson's team warned Evander Holyfield that he would be leaving Las Vegas in a box, Haye is guilty of an appalling lack of taste.

However, in the long run he will surely face wider criticism from all those who happen to remember when a heavyweight title fight was something rather more than a larcenous assault on a gullible public.

The indictment must say that in plucking Harrison out of the wreckage of his career while running away from the Klitschko brothers – who represent the only legitimate test of his absurdly inflated status as a serious champion of what used to be boxing's most prestigious division – he has not only gone back on the hubris he displayed after the embarrassingly acclaimed victories over the inept Nikolay Valuev and the shot-through never-had-been John Ruiz.

He has also displayed a fighting heart that by the best standards of his rough trade is currently looming about as large as an apple pip.

It is not, of course, a position that has been much aired in the British boxing industry over the last few days. Indeed, yesterday Clinton McKenzie, former British light welterweight champion, was given the platform to declare: "I really don't understand why people are knocking a fight that has the potential to re-invigorate Britain's affinity with heavyweight boxing. This has the potential to bring life back into the old fight game. The only sad thing about a night like this is that Harry Carpenter won't be there to call it."

The truth is that the great fight character, who did such a manful job of trying to persuade the British public that his friend Frank Bruno had a ghost of a chance when he went in with men like Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, would have wisely passed the mic on this one.

Re-invigorate Britain's affinity with heavyweight boxing? Haye-Harrison, in terms of anything like appreciation of what properly constitutes a genuine heavyweight title fight, is so risible it should confound Abraham Lincoln's theory that it is possible to fool some of the people some of the time. But, no, it won't do that. It will probably fill the hall and drum up impressive TV profits on what we are being told – for want of anything more credible – is the "intrigue" factor.

If there is intrigue, it is only in the ability of Harrison, years after he had been written off as a rather forlorn laughing stock in the American market, to win himself another significant pay day at the age of 38.

Of course Harrison had his promising dawn – 10 years ago. As Olympic champion, he received a ludicrous million-pound deposit on his professional career from the BBC, a contract for fights so undemanding that the captive licence payers groaned their disgust – and promoter Frank Warren poured out his ridicule.

When Harrison won his gold medal – at the Sydney Olympics which threw up a new age of amateur boxing so lacking in allure for the movers and shakers of the American fight game they almost universally decided not to waste the price of a ticket to Australia – he was asked if he had done much work in professional gyms.

He confided that he had done a little, but it was not really to his liking. Why? He reported, glumly, that he had suffered a headache for weeks afterwards.

Haye, we were told after he beat the lumbering Valuev, who threw no more than a handful of ponderous punches, was going to do more than "re-invigorate" British heavyweight boxing. He was going to light up the world. He had glamour and style, give or take some stomach-crawling dismissals of his clueless giant opponent, and he had just produced a "defensive masterpiece". He was going to wage war against the Klitschko boys, a promise that so far has reached only the negotiation stage, twice – and then marked on both occasions by Haye's withdrawal, once with an injury which still inspires deep scepticism in the Ukrainian camp.

Instead of the Klitschkos, he fought Ruiz, who one saw lose to a 37-year-old Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas 10 years earlier. It's true that Ruiz quickly fought a draw and achieved a points victory within a year, but by then Holyfield's appearances in the ring were causing much more alarm to his friends than his opponents.

One aspect of the Haye-Harrison promotion should be most offensive to a British fight public which is entitled to feel pride at fighters within living memory who have performed with the distinction of such as Kenny Buchanan, Howard Winstone, John Conteh, Barry McGuigan, Jim Watt, Lennox Lewis and – albeit with a certain reluctance to meet men like Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Junior while at the peak of their powers – the undefeated Joe Calzaghe. It is the idea that British fans can be thrown a scrap with confidence that they will be "intrigued" by a fight which beyond these shores will carry zero appeal.

Warren, while talking about its potential to absorb British fans, agrees that in the wider world the fight will have no more value than a "row of beans".

So what must we conclude, apart from the fact that it is ludicrous to compare, as some have, the collision between Haye and Harrison with mis-matches of the past involving such great fighters as Marciano and Ali against men like Don Cockell, Brian London and Richard Dunn?

It is that while those old fights at least involved a great champion who was claiming the rights of conquest over serious opposition, Haye, who presents himself as a serious champion, chooses as his third heavyweight opponent someone he is first to agree lacks the credentials of even his past opposition in the division.

In fact, Harrison might have been Haye's fourth heavyweight opponent if the obscure Pole Tomasz Bonin had not scaled light for the fight that was supposed to mark the champion's debut in the division.

Bonin, Valuev and Ruiz, these are victims from the dregs of boxing. If you put together all of their best qualities, you would still have a parody of what a world champion should be.

Now there is Harrison, who according to Haye will provide a victory as one-sided as a gang rape. It is a disgusting way to sell a fight. But then it is also a disgusting fight, one that will remain so however it is dressed.

When they were Kings: Five greatest heavyweight fights I have witnessed

Lennox Lewis v Mike Tyson

Memphis, 8 June 2002

It was late in the careers of both men, but Tyson finally got into the ring with Lewis, unlike the gifted Riddick Bowe, and when the champion's big shots began to land on the man who once claimed, legitimately enough, to be the "Baddest on the Planet", there could only be one outcome. Tyson, however, fought to the end, mouthing his anger, yelling, it seemed, at the gods.

Evander Holyfield v Tyson

Las Vegas, 9 November 1996

The greatest night of Holyfield's career. He was supposed to be washed up – even then – but when he backed Tyson up in the early rounds, when he said, "You're mine, Baby", you knew a sensation was at hand. Tyson's frustration spilled over in the second fight, when he acknowledged Holyfield was the better man by attempting to eat his ear.

Holyfield v Riddick Bowe

Las Vegas, 13 March 1992

There wasn't the drama of a motorised birdman flying on to the apron of the ring – that came in the second fight of a superb trilogy – but this first fight was one of the greatest heavyweight collisions of all time. Holyfield lost the decision to the bigger, younger man – but not before fighting back with unforgettable nerve and guts.

Tyson v James Douglas

Tokyo, 11 February 1990

Tyson was running hard off the rails but Buster Douglas was still given little chance. Yet the underdog fought with a stunning confidence, growing a little stronger, it seemed, in every collision and when Tyson reached, pathetically, for his gum-shield after being sent to the canvas, there was no doubt that he had encountered a man fighting better than he could expect to do again.

Muhammad Ali v Earnie Shavers

Madison Square Garden, 29 Sept 1977

It was the beginning of the end for the greatest heavyweight of them all. Afterwards, Ali screamed for the dressing room lights to be turned off. They were too bright in his eyes. He said every part of his body hurt. Shavers, one of the heaviest hitters of his time, landed some tremendous shots but Ali boxed his way to a unanimous decision with some of the last of his brilliance.

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