Tony Bellew vs. David Haye II: A (re)match without a spark?
Even in England, the Tony Bellew-David Haye fight (Saturday on the AWE network, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT) is looked upon as a second-tier heavyweight fight but the winner of that rematch may be a more marketable opponent than WBC titlist Deontay Wilder. The reasoning is as simple as name recognition, which heavyweights have traded upon since James Jeffries’ comeback in 1910. Wilder is not a household name in America and has even less brand recognition in Europe, where IBF/WBA/WBO champion Anthony Joshua casts a shadow over every heavyweight not named Tyson Fury. Still, this event is a pay-per-view in the U.K. David Haye is a recognizable name who Eddie Hearn can sell to the public, given his years in the spotlight and the gift of gab he brings to a promotion. Like it or not, if Haye beats Tony Bellew, he may be in line to fight Joshua late this year, instead of an American foe or Alexander Povetkin.
The same reasoning does not hold true for Tony Bellew, 29-1-2 (19), who was a failed light heavyweight challenger and surprise cruiserweight titleholder. The British public does not view Bellew as a viable contender to Joshua’s crown, despite Bellew stopping Haye in their first meeting 14 months ago. That is reflected in a poll of boxing fans, by England’s venerable Boxing News magazine, whom voted Haye to win their rematch by a margin of 71% to 29%. They cannot see Bellew surprising (or believe the injury Haye suffered was the main reason he lost) a seemingly superior and larger athlete a second time, which is fine by Bellew, who has thrived in the role of underdog his entire career.
Their first fight was a passionate affair even before the opening bell, as the preening pair exchanged punches in a scuffle at the opening press conference. The animus was real but seems to have subsided this time around, since Haye has chosen to remain conspicuously silent. Haye sustained an injury to his Achilles tendon in the sixth round but, even before that, was not able to impose himself on Bellew or create a cushion on the scorecards. To his credit, once Haye was hobbled, Bellew turned up the heat and did not allow escape routes for his larger opponent. Haye, 28-3 (26), was beaten down and succumbed to the pressure. Off-balance and unable to get leverage on punches, Haye was stopped in the 11th round, when trainer Shane McGuigan threw in the towel.
Recognized for his impressive combination of athleticism, speed and explosive power, it appeared Haye was a spent force that night. Widely-respected Cuban trainer Ismael Salas (who mentored legendary Felix Savon and Guillermo Rigondeaux) has been brought in to revitalize Haye. The enthused student is convinced Salas is the right hire, “I know I have a lot more to give. I feel he is getting the best out of me. He is a teacher. I’m looking forward to the technical sides of things, fine-tuning my boxing abilities, making sure that, when that bell rings, you are going to see the best of me. He has helped bring out stuff that I know how to do but I have forgotten to do. I have been able to get away with just my hard jab and right hand. So the body shots, the punch evasion, counterpunches, I haven’t really had to do that. I am going back to basics what made me successful in the first place.”
The verbose Haye appears humbled; there has been no war of words from Haye for the rematch. Trash talk has been dumped in favor of tactical analysis because Haye believes it adversely affected him by creating a negative energy, “The last fight was a cracker – everyone enjoyed it, apart from me,” Haye said. “I’m going to do what I tried to do last time but failed miserably. Last time around, I was a bit angry, this time around not so much.” Haye knows he must do more than simply win but look good doing it. “I’m 37 years of age now, pushing 38. If I don’t win this fight in spectacular form, it will be my last fight, for sure. Fighting Joshua or Wilder solely depends on how I look. It’s look good or goodnight, 100%. A win isn’t good enough.”
This is Haye’s final chance at another title shot, as on and off retirements and injury problems have frustrated his fans. Even this rematch was scheduled for last December but a freak arm injury (Haye slipped on stairs, injuring his bicep by reaching out for support on a rail), which required surgery, pushed the date back. This has been a flawless camp, with Haye Instagramming updates, ad nauseum, and the two-division champion says he has never been in better physical condition, “There are no worries because I’ve tested everything in they gym and sparring. Everything is fine. It’s eerily nice. It’s going very well and I just need to keep it this way. It’s like a car having a major service – new tires, new clutch, oil change. I’ve had everything revamped.”
Importantly Haye says he has recovered from the setback mentally, which he says accounts for the calmer demeanor this time around. “That defeat haunted me for a while and, although I’ve forgotten about it now, I couldn’t retire with that being my last effort. While the first chapter of the Haye-Bellew saga didn’t go my way, fans were left on the edge of their seats throughout the thrilling 11-round battle. The rematch in May will no doubt eclipse this.” Haye ventured a glimpse into the future beyond this fight, talking objectively about Anthony Joshua, “You know, Joshua is up here, three stone (242 pounds) bigger, 10 years younger. If I can’t dispatch of a Tony Bellew in good form, I’ve got no business even thinking about fighting for the heavyweight title.”
Promoter Eddie Hearn does not believe Haye needs to talk the fight up or insult Bellew to perform his best, though it would help tepid PPV sales so far. “I’ve heard a few things Tony has said about the real David and whether the real David is going to come out. I can assure you David certainly doesn’t listen to me or anyone else. He does what he wants to do and he’s not faking it. He is who he is. And he’s not inspired by animosity. He doesn’t need animosity or another guy to wind him up or get him going.”
On the other end of the confidence scale is Tony Bellew, who has been making the rounds at all the English sport talk shows. Bellew believes he will stop Haye in the eighth round, noting that the last fight was the first time he fought at heavyweight. “I’m faster than anyone he’s ever faced. I’m someone who can dictate. I’m someone who can make him miss. I’m someone who’s got enough pop in his punch to make him think twice about engaging.” Bellew’s self-assurance does have limits, “I’m not saying I’m better than any fighter he’s faced because he’s faced much better fighters than me – Wladimir Klitschko is far better than me – but he can’t do the things that I can do.”
The 35-year-old Bellew stated he won their first encounter because boxing is not only a physical game and that he holds other advantages, “I’ve got a good boxing brain and I can adapt and adjust to any situation. If I use my brain and I make the right adjustments at the right times, I’ll have rid of David Haye before the eighth round. Quite simply it’s styles make fights. My style is just wrong for David Haye and he should have stayed well clear of me.” Bellew has a valid point and there is historical precedence of seemingly inferior boxers like Ken Norton and Iran Barkley besting legends like Muhammad Ali and Thomas Hearns.
There is a goal even beyond Anthony Joshua for Bellew. The Scouser spoke in realistic terms about facing Tyson Fury, who is engaging in a comeback this summer. Bellew told BBC Sport, “Tyson Fury wants to dance and I’m game but first I have to come through probably the biggest single punching heavyweight in the world in David Haye. My plan is to get rid of Haye and then deal with Fury. He’s huge but he’s not the same as Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder – he hasn’t got concussive power. I actually believe I punch harder than Tyson Fury. He hasn’t got the best chin. If (former cruiserweight champion) Steve Cunningham can put him flat on his back, I can put him fast asleep. Styles make fights and I’ll happily face Tyson Fury.”
A tough mindset and winning mentality are why Bellew believes he bested Haye and are his keys to emerging with a victory in the rematch, “He might bring a few slightly different things but ultimately when it gets hot, sweaty and the rounds go on, he will revert to type. Boxing is violent chess. How good is your brain when you’re put under pressure?” The rematch intrigues me but, in all honesty, I cannot see the winner having done enough to earn a shot at the world heavyweight title. Then again, given the list of world title challengers, since the turn of the century, marketing has as much to do with the heavyweight title as merit.