James Lawton: Is Haye one of the greats? Only if you swallow the heavyweight hype
This was an insult of a fight, a dreg of the dregs. How bad was the hype afterwards?
Tuesday 10 November 2009
Give David Haye his large pot of gold and even throw in an award for superior opportunism. But if you care anything for what the world heavyweight title used to mean, when it was the greatest prize in all of sport and was owned by fighters like Louis and Dempsey, Ali and Frazier and Foreman and yes, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, do not go along with any idea that what happened in Nuremberg at the weekend was other than just about the absolute nadir of pugilism.
Neither must we begin to accept the spurious argument that it is necessary to take the best of today and celebrate it for its own sake. The problem with this is that you are bereft of all values.
You are susceptible to such boxing illiteracies as the one claiming that Haye was delivering a defensive "master-class" rather than plundering a large but almost entirely empty poor box.
You are powerless against the hype which invaded us after Haye was adjudged to have won a contest so lacking in all those qualities which have made prize-fighting so compelling – and over-ridden for so long all the medical and ethical complaints – that to have it tagged on, like some historical flotsam, to the deeds of great heavyweights was to induce something close to physical nausea.
That may sound a little strong, but perhaps less if you ever saw Ali, even when he had passed his zenith, or Frazier or Foreman or Tyson when he was whole in all his menace or Lewis concentrating on the job and calling on his superb technique and power. That was a privilege which simply cannot be put aside when confronted by an insult of a fight, a dreg of the dregs.
How bad was the hype that flowed when Haye's victory was announced?
It went beyond reason and, sadly, involved some who are normally entitled to the highest respect, most notably the fine former world lightweight champion Jim Watt.
As the TV fight analyst, Watt expressed grave reservations about the standard of the fight and even greater ones when he assessed Haye's performance. At the finish he had the ossified Nikolai Valuev – to call his performance lumbering would invest it with a degree of sprightliness it did not possess – a winner by two rounds.
Watt had talked of a missed opportunity against a fighter of vast bulk but imperceptible ability and, when Haye finally went on to a semblance of sustained attack with a right hand that we are told is broken, extremely slender resistance to the force of a man seven stones lighter. But it seemed that the verdict of the judges had changed everything.
This was Watt's post-fight declaration: "I'm delighted. It's the best thing that could happen to the division. Massive time now for heavyweight boxing – thanks to David Haye."
No, Jim, thanks primarily to an almost complete absence of anyone within boxing prepared to commit the sacrilege of interfering with the profit motive.
Promoter Frank Warren, who has no vested interest in Haye's suddenly high-earning capacity, on this occasion found himself able to take a more detached look at a fight situation, and the result was striking in its candour.
He declared, surely indisputably for anyone with working judgement: "No-one can tell me Valuev is a quality heavyweight. He is not even an average heavyweight. People talk about Valuev as though he is something special. He is probably one of the worst heavyweights ever seen.
"Everybody gets carried away. Just because he is a giant of a man doesn't mean he is a good fighter. John Ruiz [Haye's next opponent] was beaten by Roy Jones. It's when you start talking about the Klitschkos [brothers Vladimir and Vitali, who hold three of the four major heavyweight titles], they are totally different fights. They are guys who can box and throw punches. That is when you'll see whether Haye can do it at that level."
The coming Ruiz fight underlines the surreal aftermath of the weekend fight. Ruiz is 37 and one of the heavyweight division's most depressing examples of the collapse in standards. He has lost twice to Valuev. Nine years ago he was beaten, albeit in a close decision, by an Evander Holyfield who at the time was already deep into his mumbling rejection of a crescendo of medical advice that he should quit the ring before the addling of all his senses.
Three years later Ruiz was whipped by Roy Jones on the only occasion the former star of the light-heavyweight division appeared as a heavyweight. Jones made Ruiz look like a time-expired sparring partner who had wandered aimlessly in from the street.
Such wretched realities are unlikely, however, to intrude into the projection of the new hero.
Glenn McCrory, a former world champion who sparred many rounds with Mike Tyson, was more effusive even than his TV colleague Watt, saying: "This is what the world wanted. David is in the right place at the right time, says the right things, looks the right way and there are some big money fights out there for him. All of a sudden the heavyweight division has a star and is lit up."
It is lit up, at least on this side of the Atlantic, by the certainty of big money, so who cares if in boxing terms it will be the wages of something which by anything like classic standards could only be seen as a gigantic fraud? Few did when "Prince" Naseem Hamed and Ricky Hatton rode their own gravy train right up to the moment they were obliged to step into the ring with fighters who had learned properly a trade to which they brought formidable gifts.
Maybe Haye will prove himself in something approximating a real heavyweight fight, one which might be provided by one of the Klitschko boys. In one of the last of such heavyweight contests, the elder brother, Vitali, was leading Lennox Lewis on every scorecard in Los Angeles before he was stopped by a cut eye at the end of the sixth round. That was six years ago.
Vitali was never going to be one of the great champions, he was too stiff, too upright for that, but he knew enough to concentrate his mind on those gifts he had and he fought intelligently and with some power against Lewis, sufficiently so indeed for the reigning champion to decide it was time to go. Even now, at 38, Vitali remains, like his brother, in an altogether different class to the ultimately ponderous Valuev.
It is something that should be weighed against the absurd lionisation of the latest British ring hero. But of course, as we know from embarrassing experience, it never is.
Sympathy for Ferguson, the old devil
It is now a no-brainer that Sir Alex Ferguson will never accept the futility of criticising referees. However, on Sunday at least he remembered not to cross the line that makes prosecution by the FA inevitable. He didn't impugn the integrity of referee Martin Atkinson while lambasting his judgement over decisions which may prove decisive in the title race.
It means that the FA is required only to pass judgement on the Manchester United manager's outrageous attack on Alan Wiley, one which was as palpably unfair as it was damaging.
However, in dealing with Ferguson's flood tide of criticism of match officials the FA will be neglecting its duty if it does not also carefully analyse the performances which provoked the attacks.
As is generally agreed, Wiley went about his work with detachment and excellent judgement on the day an underperforming United were held to a draw by Sunderland at Old Trafford. The jury was split when Ferguson lambasted Andre Marriner for his handling of United's defeat at Anfield and questioned whether he had the experience to deal with the pressure exerted by the home crowd.
Most conceded, though, that if Ferguson was wrong to voice it, he had a point. At Stamford Bridge, few could argue that Ferguson had some legitimate complaints, not least in the gratuitous free-kick that led to Chelsea's decisive goal.
What is the proper reaction to all of this? It is to say that Ferguson cannot expect to get away with the kind of onslaught he inflicted on a referee who did his job well. Equally, the doctrine of refereeing infallibility has perhaps never cried out for greater scrutiny.
Where it can be used effectively, technology must be employed with some urgency. At the very least it would attack the worrisome suspicion that, unlike anyone else in the game, referees will be never be truly accountable, however poorly they do their jobs.
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