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James Lawton: Shadow-boxing stops here. It's now time for Haye to punch his weight

Sometimes it is necessary to give a man, any man, however crass, however borderline moronic, his due and surely this will be so when David Haye steps into the ring with Wladimir Klitschko in Hamburg tonight.

It is, after all, the most fundamentally courageous act in all of sport and, though it comes in various degrees, it is right that we now acknowledge that by facing the bigger, stronger man from Ukraine, Haye has come to the moment of a new and extremely testing challenge.

For the first time he is fighting a heavyweight who does not make a mockery of all that we used to associate with the men inhabiting the division which, down the years, has given us the likes of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis.

Neither Wladimir nor his older brother, Vitali, the third member of the triumvirate of reigning world champions who eight years ago hastened Lewis's wise decision to retire in a punishing fight in Los Angeles, represents much more than a remnant of the old glories. But, by sharing the ring with one and not dismissing the possibility of also engaging the other, Haye has avoided an extremely harsh judgement.

It would have been that no one had profited so hugely, both in terms of money and dubious celebrity, from the dog days of a discredited trade.

As it was before his making of the fight, Haye aggrandised himself, often in the most sickening fashion, on the backs of four of the saddest representatives of top-flight heavyweight boxing in the history of the ring: Monte Barrett, the wreckage of a deeply mediocre career; Nikolai Valuev, a misplaced giant unable to throw a coordinated punch; John Ruiz, a burnt-out journeyman who struggled against the tragically diminished Evander Holyfield a decade earlier; and Audley Harrison, an affront to the paying public.

As it is, Haye, the accomplished, swaggering cruiserweight world champion with a hurtful punch, has set himself a mark on which to be judged as an authentic heavyweight performer.

While the suspicion has to be that Klitschko, who has a record of 55 wins, 49 knockouts and three defeats which persuaded him that his career priority was to protect a less than durable chin, will prove too big, too strong and too knowing, the intrigue lies in Haye's willingness to do infinitely more than has been previously required of him in the top division.

It means that for the first time in so long we can put down for a little while the trowel required to scoop away all the mounds of trash talk, the horrendous reference to gang rape, the jokey sneer at Germany's E. coli outbreak, the twittering recommendation of a Nazi movie spoof and one particularly risible justification of it all this week when he declared, "No man can withstand the kind of tricks I've been up to this week."

A preposterous claim, no doubt, but it was a reminder of a time when the greatest fighter on earth realised there was a limit on how far you could test the gullibility of the public.

Muhammad Ali did it because of an irresistible impulse that damaged fatally the chance of one of the easiest paydays of his career.

The proposal was for him to fight the basketball icon Wilt Chamberlain, who stood seven feet, one inch. On the day of the fight announcement Ali was urged to show maximum respect. "Wilt the Stilt" was a man of vast pride and Ali's routine chiding of an opponent – which in the light of Haye's performance in Hamburg is made to seem like a source of unending wit and tolerance – might easily sabotage the project.

So Ali was told that it was imperative to be respectful. The problem was that Chamberlain was the last to walk up on to the stage and took so much time about it there was created for Ali an ordeal of restraint, under which he inevitably failed his promoters. With each stride of the giant, Ali's torment became more visible. Finally, he could restrain himself no longer. He shouted, "Timber."

Ali was no doubt cruel at times, not least in his baiting of Frazier, but maybe his psychological masterclass came in Zaire when he prepared to undermine the formidable George Foreman before the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974, as he once did Sonny Liston. As the plane made its approach to Kinshasa, Ali asked his friend and business manager Gene Kilroy, "Who do my kinfolk in Zaire hate most in the world?" Kilroy reflected for a moment before saying, "Probably the Belgians – they were hard colonisers."

Duly armed, Ali stepped from the plane to see the great crowd awaiting him. He announced, "George Foreman is a Belgian."

Meanwhile, back in the world of Haye, we are assailed by the subtlety of his strategy to reduce the highly educated Klitschko to a gibbering state of dysfunction.

This was one of his last offerings before yesterday's final push to drum up pay-per-view sales at the weigh in, "Myself and trainer Adam Booth agreed [before the last public workout] we would do very little in the ring. But the presence of our enemies curtailed our desire to entertain even further. I taped and wrapped my hands for around 20 minutes, shadow-boxed for five minutes, then hit one punch pad.

"The sole punch – a left hand from my new southpaw stance – was greeted by cheers from Team Hayemaker and, after taking the acclaim and performing a bow, I stepped out of the ring and left. A stunned Wladimir screamed at me to stick around and watch him work out but I already knew the game had been won.

"This week has been all about control. Wladimir has tried to keep me on a leash and I have done everything in my power to break free and stand my ground. This represents the calm before the storm and the battle before the war. As things stand right now, I feel right on course to win both the battle and the war."

Will the first sound of the bell ever have come as sweetly as it does tonight?

No doubt Haye knows, as all the men who have gone before him, including Ali, it is only then can we get close to the enduring truth of the ring, the one that says all the posturing and the mouthing in the world mean nothing when the fighting starts. Someone put a count on the number of times Frank Bruno crossed himself when he went down to the ring for his second encounter with Tyson. It was said to be 17 times.

Klitschko is unlikely to inspire such dread in Haye tonight but there is one certainty. There will be a degree of concern that was probably impossible to create in his previous heavyweight collisions.

Plainly, Haye is obliged to use his superior movement and, certainly for a cruiserweight, his hard hands. Of course, he cannot stand and fight such an imposing figure, but then nor can he indefinitely back-pedal, which would be the recipe for a tedious points decision, almost certainly in favour of the Ukrainian.

Klitschko says he is weary of the Haye performance, the prattling abuse, the presumption, the grotesque imagery, and that he will be relieved to get the job done. It is a position that is perhaps not entirely absent among those who would normally extend, quite naturally, patriotic support to a talented and, in this instance, undoubtedly courageous fighter.

The expectation here is that Klitschko will win, somewhere around the middle of the fight. However, it is certainly no hardship anticipating the possibility that, as a heavyweight, David Haye will tonight finally give us some reason to respond to him not with distaste but a measure of respect.