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.

Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss