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Ask David Haye when he’s happiest to be training and there’s no hesitation. ‘I like the last three or four days before a fight,’ says the former WBA heavyweight champion when MF meets him a few weeks before his bout with the undefeated Tyson Fury. ‘All that hard graft, when it feels like you’re ready to cough up blood, your legs are just dead and your back’s killing you – that’s all gone. You’re just feeling amazing, feeling recharged and ready for a fight. Everything’s firing, everything’s sharp, everything’s quick, my brain’s acting fast because I’ve had months of just eating clean… every fibre of my body is at its maximum. Those last three days before a fight I feel a million dollars.’
Haye, of course, is supposed to be retired. His plan, he always maintained, was to step out of the game gracefully at 30. And he did it – or at least, he briefly let his boxing licence lapse after a disappointing decision loss to Wladimir Klitschko, in a fight designed to unify the Scrabble board of heavyweight titles. But then there were protracted negotiations to fight Klitschko’s brother Vitali, a press-conference brawl with Dereck Chisora, a new licence from the Luxembourg Boxing Association and a bout with Chisora that ended in a fifth-round victory for Haye. Now Haye is definitively back and planning to end Fury’s unbeaten run.
‘I’d say one of his biggest strengths is his stupidity,’ says Haye of Fury. ‘It sounds crazy, but the guy’s very ignorant, he’s very stupid, but sometimes someone ignorant and stupid can be really effective because he doesn’t realise what he’s doing, so he could throw a curveball at me. I need to be on my A-game.’
Haye’s first 22 fights took place at cruiserweight, so it’s no surprise that he’s been giving up size to opponents since jumping up to boxing’s big-money division. Fury will be no different. ‘I believe he’s technically inferior to me, but he makes up for a lot of that in his sheer size – he’s 6ft 9in [2.06m]. He’s a big old mountain of a man and he’s got arms like an orang-utan. Plus he’s 24 years old, so he’s young, he’s hungry, he wants to prove himself to the world. He really wants to stake his claim as the best heavyweight on the planet.’
With wins over a series of Goliaths including Nikolai ‘The Beast from the East’ Valuev on his CV, you’d expect Haye to be bulking up. Instead, he seems to be relying on his Biblical namesake’s mobility. ‘I try to get as strong as possible because you want to be able to hold your technique for the full 12 rounds,’ he says. ‘But I don’t try to get physically bigger or bulk up, because I believe I’d lose my advantage, which is speed. I’d rather be 95kg and very, very fast than 110kg and kind of fast-ish because I’d lose my timing. I’d be getting hit with more shots and I’d have more chance of losing. I’m a heavy puncher whatever weight I’m at, so as long as I can do all the drills I want to do in training, I don’t really get on the scales too often.’
You get the impression it’s a welcome reprieve from the weight-cutting that lighter fighters suffer through. Haye nods. ‘At cruiserweight I could make the weight, but I wasn’t that comfortable. I’d have three months of real strict dieting, cutting back on my carbs, but still trying to do two or three training sessions a day and then having a little dry-out close to the fight – it’s not ideal but I can do it.
‘At heavyweight it’s the complete opposite. I can eat eight meals a day if I need to. I can do more weight training, stuff that I didn’t really want to do at cruiserweight. I still worry about my food – obviously I still eat clean and healthy – but I try to eat more volume and it feels good. I feel more healthy at heavyweight than I did at cruiserweight.’
Now older and wiser than the fast-hitting youth who took silver in the World Amateur Boxing Championships in 2001, Haye tailors his training accordingly. ‘Yeah, I’ve had to modify things a little,’ says the 32-year-old. ‘There’s certain things I can’t do now that I could do when I was 20. I don’t have the energy I used to have – I’m still quite energised, but in the mornings I’m a little slower, and your knees and your back ache a little bit more as you get older. I’ve been competing for 22 years now and you get a bit of wear and tear – but experience teaches you how to get through the training sessions as best you can and to be economical with your workload. I know what I can do in a day so there’s no need to go way over that – that’s going to smash me for two days.’
Taking things one day at a time is a cliché but, Haye says, one that works for him. ‘The secret is to do enough in one day so you can still hit it hard the next day and then gradually build up. As a youngster you just want to do everything immediately but that leads to your immune system getting a knock so you get a cold and it puts you out. I’ve realised over time how much is needed and to spread out training sessions the right way.’
One thing Haye certainly hasn’t lost is his punching power. He was a knockout machine at cruiserweight, and since moving up a class every one of his victories has come via TKO. ‘Yeah, I bring punching power,’ he says. ‘It might sound obvious, but one of the most important things in boxing is being able to punch hard to get your opponent’s respect and to knock them out. You know, the guys [Fury] fought in the past haven’t had that.’
The risk for Haye at heavyweight is
the bigger punches coming back. ‘I try
not to put myself in positions where I’m gonna get hit clean flush,’ he says. ‘At cruiserweight you could afford to take
risks from time to time. Now you’re
fighting guys who are huge. You don’t want to be swinging punches with these guys because you could end up coming off second best and in boxing that means defeat.’
It‘s not only in competitive bouts that he throws with serious intent. ‘In a fight you’re punching at 100% because you don’t want to get hit back,’ he says. ‘I make sure that I bring that same mentality into my training so I can punch hard and fast for 12 rounds. I had a fight earlier in my career where I didn’t train like that. I wasn’t physically, mentally or spiritually prepared for the battle that I put myself in and I lost that fight [against former WBO cruiserweight champ Carl Thompson]. I was 23 years old and it was a bitter pill to swallow, but I learned that lesson. So experience brings these things, knowing when to push it and when not to push it, knowing what type of training or strategy to employ.’
Getting your training right isn’t just about winning. ‘If you get it wrong you could die. Boxers have died in the ring, boxers have been seriously handicapped in the ring, so you need to make sure you’re at your best because you know the potential consequences of getting it wrong,’ Haye says. ‘A lot of boxers, myself included, draw a lot of strength and motivation from that.’
What happens after Fury? That’s the big question. After his third-place run in jungle reality show I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, it seems more likely that Haye will go after acting roles, something he has alluded to before. But the Klitschko loss still bothers him, and there’s a sense his career won’t see real closure without revenge on one of the brothers.
‘Getting another world title belt around my waist – whichever governing body it comes from – is a must for me,’ he says. ‘The reason I’m fighting Tyson Fury is to stay in the rankings and keep my name out there to let the Klitschkos know I’m still here. You know they’re picking and choosing these guys who have no clue how to fight, knocking them over, earning their money.’
Does he think he’ll get the shot he’s looking for? If anything, he thinks his dominant performance against Chisora hurt his chances. ‘I think I distanced myself from fighting the Klitschkos there,’ he says. ‘If I’d struggled to win on points or got knocked down or been hurt, then they’d think “OK, let’s fight him”, but I dispatched him. Vitali Klitschko beat Derek Chisora over 12 rounds in a close fight. I knocked Chisora out in five rounds. Why would they want to fight me if they can fight more guys like Chisora?’ He shrugs. ‘But the fans don’t really wanna see that – they wanna see them in there with the best possible opposition. I believe that’s me.’
And after that? Maybe the film career will finally kick in. ‘Yeah, you can’t box forever,’ says Haye. ‘I was supposed to get out at 30, that was my plan from the age of ten, but I’m 32 now and still going. Ideally I’ll have two or three more fights, win the heavyweight championship of the world back, and then I’ll put all my energy into becoming the best actor I can be.’
As for how he’d like to be remembered as a boxer, that’s simple. ‘I want to be remembered as a boxer who entertained, who fought bigger guys than himself, who always gave a great account of himself, someone who came from south London and became the best in the world,’ Haye says. ‘I did that at cruiserweight and I’ve won a world heavyweight championship. I want to recapture that and retire as number one. If that’s my legacy I will be very, very happy.’ You wouldn’t bet against him.