“It’s like time slows down for me… I knew I had something special back when I was a five-year-old knocking other five-year-olds spark out with one punch to the jaw.”
David throws quick jabs at the air, idly, warming up, illustrating his point. He stands in the middle of his ring in his gym, a renovated railway arch in South London, his home. It’s large and bright and warm. For a gym, it even smells nice. The bathrooms smell of sweet pea and lavender air freshener. The whole building is filled with music - mid-eighties club classics, disco, a little funk, some Gloria Estefan. Fun stuff. When he dances around the ring, warming up, the whole floor shakes.
“My dad pulled me aside like, ‘You know that ain’t normal…’”
It wasn’t so long ago that David Haye, now thirty-five, was British boxing’s great heavyweight hope. The young “Hayemaker” with knockout power in his fast hands, movie star good looks, and a world heavyweight title around his waist. But after losing his belt in ignominious fashion against Wladimir Klitschko, he disappeared from the sport.
“People said a lot of negative stuff about me and I was just like, yeah, fair enough,” says Haye. “I said I was gonna do things that, in the end, I just didn’t do.”
He always told people he’d retire at 31, but not like this. And now, making his comeback, he risks losing his stellar record - just two losses in twenty-nine professional fights - and, worse, he risks people no longer caring about him. And for what?
Nearly three years ago he was laying in a hospital bed. After five hours of surgery he could barely move. Six pins held together a right shoulder that had to be completely rebuilt. The state of his subscapularis - a crucial part of the rotator cuff - was deemed totally fucked. He couldn’t even wash himself. Maybe he was depressed (a fact he’s fitfully confirmed and denied). A proud man who had been boxing since he was just a kid, steadily sculpting his body into a weapon, had hit rock-bottom. Doctors told him boxing again would take “a medical miracle”. He was told to seriously reconsider his life.
This weekend he will fight the undefeated, unknown Arnold “The Cobra” Gjergjaj in the second match of Haye’s comeback trail. His first was an impressive first-round knockout against the admittedly anonymous Mark de Mori. And next a match in September against the aging badass Shannon “The Cannon” Briggs is on the cards with a potential match against the British fight game’s current heavyweight golden boy Anthony Joshua glistening on the horizon - a fight which’ll probably bring with it one of British boxing’s biggest every paydays... But one loss and it’s all over. It’s done. He’ll be gone again. People won’t let him come back twice. This is his final chance at redemption.
Born in 1980 in Bermondsey, just a year before the Brixton Riots turned the area aflame, Haye grew up in a loving Jamaican-English home. His mum was a librarian - still is - and his dad was a panel beater who moonlighted as a martial arts instructor - now retired at both. His dad was tough and strong. The area he grew up in was tough, Haye said, but manageable. His dad would tell him, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you’re the best.”
As a kid, nobody messed with him. As a kid, he told everyone he’d meet that he was going to be a boxer, the world heavyweight champion. Five years later he started boxing training. Haye was ten and fighting teenagers. Soon the club’s managers had to doctor his cards to get him more fights - he was six-foot-two when he started secondary school and he was so much bigger than everyone else his age that nobody would get in the ring with him.
As he got better, his trainers at the legendary Fitzroy Lodge started putting him in with professionals. And he beat them. Man, he beat them silly. Too fast, too strong. A little cocky, maybe, but he knew what he was doing.
“Amateurs aren’t supposed to do that to the pros,” Haye says now. “That’s just not what happens.”
Soon he turned pro too. He was sixteen and fighting fully-grown men in their twenties and thirties. He learned fast because he had to. Thirteen years later he was a two-weight world champion, having unified the cruiserweight division titles and won the world heavyweight belt from the giant Nikolay Valuev in Germany.
I remember my own excitement around the fight, the buzz. It was a cold November in London. My buddies and me had gone into the city as clueless eighteen-year-olds from the suburbs in search of the big fight. We were just a few guys, some of whom had never been into boxing before - let alone British boxing - let alone British heavyweight boxing - trying bar after bar after bar in search of David Haye. We were out there hours. We tried everywhere.
Our mission was at a loss. Nowhere seemed to be playing it.
As we headed for the long train home, we spotted a flickering light and lots of shouting coming from the foyer of a nearby hotel. We all crammed by the windows, up on tiptoes, stone sober, shouting our lungs out, as Haye’s arm was lifted and the words “...and the NEW…” rang all the way out into the street. Everyone cheered like hell. Haye was champion and we were all champions that night.
“I always dreamed that I’d win the title against this huge, huge man,” said Haye. “Like Rocky in Rocky IV against Ivan Drago - this huge Russian. I had dreams about Valuev and they came true.”
The poet Ellen Wheeler Wilcox once wrote: “There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.”
It’s something that all athletes need to have - that drive - but boxers even more so. Anything less than total focus and you’re dead. Clichés become literal. You start giving 110%. Haye wanted it and Haye made his dream happen. Nobody was gonna stop him.
Haye and his trainer, Shane McGuigan, bust jokes and poke fun at each other as they get ready to train again. Shane’s meticulous wrapping of David’s fists - tape, gauze, knuckle-padding marked “HAYEMAKER” in Sharpie, more tape, more gauze, then some more tape for good measure - is undercut by chatting about the remake of The Jungle Book.
“That film is scary, man!” says David. “But it’s got Christopher Walken as King Louie!”
David gives Shane, his trainer, a little nudge and they laugh and share terrible Christopher Walken impressions. David sings most of I Wanna Be Like You in his best Walken. Shane’s impression mostly involves saying the word “Christopher Walken” again and again and again…
Then the mood suddenly changes. Shane lets him go. Everything goes quiet. The lights seem to dim. One hand-wrapped, David swivels from us and fires off quartets of shadow-punches in the direction of the cabinets that hold the tea-cups. His eyes narrow and focus and his straight rights and lefts cut quickly through the air. Tss-tss-tss-tss. Each one strong enough to knock you out cold. He hits harder and faster against thin air. Nuh-huh-huh-UH! And then just like that, he’s back. “Oi! What year you reckon the original Jungle Book came out? No Googling!”
David Haye knows how to work an audience. His voice is massive and fills the room. He’s funny too with a big, warm laugh - hurgh-ha-ha-ha! He’s what your mum might call “a really nice man”. Smart, witty, and disarmingly cogent. As he speaks I notice that each of his legs is about the width of my waist. He holds eye-contact with you intently. Aren’t boxers supposed to look like gnarled hunks of meat? A ham hock in a head-guard. But he’s all smooth and symmetric and clean. A few light scars around the eyes are the only clues to his profession. He did a little modelling, you know, and he’s quick to tell you. Back in the early Nineties, before he was The Hayemaker, back when he was young and whippet-slim and sported crazy long sideburns shaped like a Soviet sickle.
You want him to like you, and you’re a bit ashamed by it. You think, But isn’t he just the guy off I’m A Celebrity…? You realise it’s because he’s the most charismatic heavyweight of his generation and one of its most naturally talented. People just gravitate towards him.
His sharp mind always feels apparent. He bristles with interest and wants to talk about everything. But as much as Haye talks - and he talks a lot - you feel like you’ll never really know him. As long as he’s fighting, he just won’t let you in.
In his classic book The Fight, Norman Mailer said that Muhammad Ali, Haye’s idol, the man after whom he named his son Cassius, compressed his fear into psychic bricks - “What a wall of ego Ali’s will had erected over the years.” And Haye is no different: His mouth offers protection as well as projection. Introspection is weakness. Questions looking to dig deeper into his psyche are slipped or deflected. He doesn’t want you to know him, he wants you to know The Hayemaker. He knows how to say just enough to keep you on the hook. Even when he’s shouting and pulling soundbites out of thin air, making you laugh, making you hang on every word… He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as he’s trying to convince you. His words are just another part of his defence, as important as the glove that snaps back after every punch to shield him in a fight.
David Haye looks me in the eye and tells me he wants to be an actor when he retires. “You can go on acting until you’re seventy,” he says, relaxing. It seems to make sense - sure, who doesn’t wanna go to Hollywood? - but his dream is to keep playing a role. He just wants someone else to write his dialogue when his fighting days are through. These are the hopes that see him through the pain...
But when he’s around Shane, who likes to talk as much as Haye does but lets his hands go a bit more readily, he starts to open up. They laugh and are happy. Boxing men around other boxing men are a different species. Just like how they won’t let you - a civilian - say a bad word about another boxer, even if they’ve just spent the last twenty minutes talking shit about them. Here they’re totally exposed and at peace with one another. They bounce off each other like they’ve been best mates forever despite the fact they’ve only been working together for less than a year.
Their symbiotic relationship clicks into another gear when they’re finally in the ring. Haye hits the sponged glove to the number and specification whispered by his trainer like a lion tamer and he hits them with precision and speed and noise. So much noise. BANG. They sound like someone knocking down a wall. BANG. A shotgun blast. BANG. A thunderclap. And he switches up whenever Shane flicks his head a certain way. Haye moves through combinations where every punch sounds as hard as the last. Right hand leads. Left jabs with a straight hurtling right behind it. A jab and a straight and a left hook that rings through the gym and makes the cabinets in the kitchenette rattle.
During one session, we were watching him work the pads from the side of the ring. The sound made everyone jump. The noises exploded off the walls and reverberated up into the ceiling. We suddenly found ourselves twenty yards back from where we started, reflexively hiding behind a row of exercise bikes. You can’t help but take a step back, recoil, flinch. You just aren’t used to seeing the power of a world-class athlete from this distance. There’s something too primal about it. Everyone else in the gym is just used to it, even Shane, who shakes his hand out in pain every few combinations.
Perhaps the country’s most revered young trainer and son of beloved ex-world champion Barry McGuigan, Shane took over Haye’s coaching upon his return to the sport last October. He and Haye realised the boxer’s old training regime was putting his body under undue stress, so set about bringing his workouts up to date.
“He doesn’t need to be doing ballistic training anymore - he’s a naturally explosive guy. He’s got his own set of attributes - one of which is just power…” says Shane. “He hurts my hands every time he hits me.”
“People think weights make you slow...” says Steve, the Haye’s strength and conditioning coach. “Well, maybe if you do them wrong. We are only making David even quicker.”
“David’s reflexes make him a different prospect as a heavyweight,” says Shane. “I usually train lighter boxers and heavyweight boxing is so different. There’s less punches so every single one counts.” When you’re that size, the punches you hit are only as important as the ones you make them miss. For all Haye’s headline-making knockouts, his elusive defense skills are what has given him longevity.
David moves in effortless circles around the ring while talking through his gumshield. “If I didn’t have those reflexes I’d be dead. I’m coming up against big boys in here and one punch in the face and you’re gone, you know?”
At 6”3, Haye’s big. He’s already two stone heavier than he was when he won the title but without a single scrap of fat on him. He’s finely tuned and literally fighting fit, but he’s a natural cruiserweight in a division dominated by real giants, with 6”9 unified heavyweight champion Tyson Fury at the top of the pile.
Fury’s a fucking idiot, man. That’s why he says all that stupid shit,” says Haye. “He’s got two braincells.
And when Fury ballooned up to four stone over his fighting weight for a recent press conference ahead of his huge rematch with Wladimir Klitschko, Haye was incredulous. “Sometimes success breeds success. Other times… You know, this is the first time [Fury]’s had this kinda chunk of cash in his account. Maybe he’d just rather be going ‘round Safeway throwing Choc-Ices in his basket instead of training.”
But even besides Fury - who’s promised to never fight Haye - there’s 6”7 WBC champion Deontay Wilder with his thirty-five knockouts in thirty-six fights, and aforementioned division favourite and IBF champion Anthony Joshua at 6”6. And that’s not to mention all the people who are in line to face them before him…
To get where Haye believes he belongs in this division, he’s probably going to have to beat them all.
MASTER OF HIS DOMAIN
Outside the ring, David regularly holds court with the coaches and the younger boxers in the gym. The other fighters present - highly-rated, unbeaten professionals Conrad Cummings (8-0-1) and Josh Taylor (4-0-0) - are relaxed and sociable like Haye, but treat him with a reverence reserved specifically for world heavyweight champions, current or otherwise. The young boxers moan about the shitty digs they’ve found themselves in, some terrible hotel out in Earls Court. It’s cold and dirty, they say, and David Haye laughs and they laugh too. But then Haye tells they have to put you in there because it keeps you hungry and the young boxers nod sagely.
The talk in the gym weaves between marijuana and its medicinal qualities, hallucinations, paracetamol, and pharmaceutical conspiracies. They move quickly between what fighters are “prospects” and who’s just a “body”, a guy hired to get in the ring and take some punishment for a paycheck. Talk moves to David’s boxing mates that had killed people outside the ring with one punch. In this environment, before you start to settle in, you remind yourself that you’re talking to people that could murder you with their bare hands.
Dotted around the gym are two or three two-foot-high crystals that glow orange. There’s one by the kettle and another by the ring and god knows where else.
What’s with the crystals, David? “They’re not crystals, mate,” the boxer quickly corrects me, downing a mug of black coffee. “They’re Himalayan rock salt lamps. They give out healthy negative ions and… I dunno if they work, but I ain’t had a bad night’s sleep since we’ve got ‘em, you know what I mean?”
He grimaces as another of the gym’s coaches hands him a shot of concentrated beetroot or cherry or something, nobody's quite sure.
“Wow...” David says. The drink is a dark, vibrant red and the air crackles with vitamins in its wake, stinging your nostrils.
“It’s great for your blood - it’s the nitric oxide,” says Daryl, his physical preparation coach, as he pops a squat on the ring apron. It’s the deepest squat you’ve ever seen.
“Like I’m a car!” shouts David. They all make the woooosh! noises of NOS canisters from the Fast & Furious films. They all mime driving, spinning-out, screaming, laughing. For a second it’s bedlam. David makes constant references to his hilariously souped-up motor parked at the front of the gym - a brilliant white Mercedes CL55 AMG with ridiculously-flared wheel-arches and massive hubcaps. It looks like a spaceship.
“It cost me so much money, man. They’ve fucked with the engine and the suspension and everything. It’s great. It’s stupid and fun… I can’t sell it,” says Haye, laughing. “Nobody but me would buy it.”
The trainers talk about David giving them lifts home in the pouring rain, scaring them to death with his driving. Daryl calls the car “The Widowmaker”. David tells us all it does 200mph as he holds court in the gym’s kitchenette area, his manor, squeezing out another black coffee from the cafetiere that looks like a toy in his massive hands, and nobody doubts him.
“Oh yeah, it’s done it…” - but then quickly - “Not by me, though…” - David shoots me this look - “I was obviously just in the passenger seat.” He’s serious for a few seconds before a big wide grin spreads across his face again.
The banter that crisscrosses the gym, the laughs that fly back and forth, are like a spiderweb. Nothing gets past it. Nothing negative. Any glimpses of the real Haye are obscured and laughed off. The defence is impregnable. Nothing slips through. Not when he’s training.
FIGHTING THE INEVITABLE
The feeling around the gym is fun and funny and relaxed. Positivity reigns.
This is not the time for pessimism. They know that every fight from now on, Haye will be facing the boxer opposite him and time itself. At thirty-five, his body will start to betray him. His power might hang around but his other natural abilities - speed, reflexes, agility - will be first to leave the party. Has it really been eight years since that brash boy from South London thrashed the highly-rated Enzo Maccarinelli, just as he promised he would, and announced himself on the world stage?
Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn - the man who British boxing seems to revolve around - said that a fight between Haye and Anthony Joshua is “inevitable”. When Joshua is brought up Haye stiffens a little and looks at me.
“He won’t fight me yet,” he says. “He’s a really good boxer… Before the Olympics, he battered Tyson Fury in sparring when Joshua was just an amateur. Knocked him silly. He went to train with everyone except me… He’ll fight Tyson Fury instead of me because he knows he can beat him up. He didn’t want it with me…” The boxer pauses, but only slightly. Maybe his trainer gives him a little look. David checks himself.
“Back then he was young and he didn’t think he was ready. Before he faces me, he’ll have to wait a couple of matches to get his confidence up.”
As Haye loosens up, a few weeks into his training camp, lets his mask slip, and his feelings towards Joshua become clearer. “I like him, you know? He’s a nice guy. I like seeing him do well. He’s doing everything right - how can I knock him for that? He’s not put a single foot wrong so far.
“I don’t get why people always try to bring other people down in this business - like their light won’t shine as bright until they put out the other guys’ flame. You do all that, talk about why so-and-so is no good, and you just devalue your win and your own hard work. It makes no sense...”
It’s a rare moment of honesty, but, of course, in the next breath, Haye is back to in pre-fight press conference mode. “...and everything will go fine for Joshua until he faces me and I knock him the hell out!” He always talks out the corner of his mouth when he says stuff like this.
It’s the duality of boxing: a weird spectrum of arrogance and extreme respect. Fighters can spend months bad-mouthing each other only to hug and kiss at the end of the fight itself. Everything’s a show and everything’s delicately poised. Egos need to be stroked and stretched and cared for like muscles. All boxers idolise Ali - with Haye more vocal than most, campaigning for his honorary knighthood (“Bono has one!”) - and so they let their tongues go a little more than in other sports, but, as they’ve always been taught, they rarely let their guard down.
Boxing’s mostly mental, Haye admits so himself. Unless you’re mentally strong - strong enough to train that bit harder, that bit longer, that much smarter, strong enough to tell yourself and everyone else that you’re the unbeatable best - you’ll never make it in this business. Boxing matches are won inside your head - against your opponent and against yourself.
“When I first started working with David, he was so quiet,” said Shane as our time drew to a close. “I thought maybe he needed some confidence...” He laughs to himself. “Yeah, it definitely ain’t that.”
I’ve always known that I was the best in the world,” said Haye. “As soon as I started boxing, I just knew it. There was nobody who could beat me. Every single loss I’ve had has been down to me getting things slightly wrong tactically. Nobody has been better than me. Nobody.
Boxing is the most arrogant sport there is - where one man stands in front of another man saying “Okay, I’m going to beat you up now”. It’s why so many boxers come back - the money and the ego. Maybe one runs out too quickly and the other one not quickly enough.
And what a time to return to the sport, when it’s so under attack. Nick Blackwell - young middleweight contender - made the news with serious injury and an induced coma after his fight against Chris Eubank Jr. in March. Haye pledged to donate 10% of his earnings from his next fight to Blackwell as the fighter continues his recovery, but such generosity didn’t stop tabloid commentators calling for the barbaric game of boxing to end.
And if it does end, this won’t be what ends it. Many boxing clubs have now closed and general interest in the sport dwindled. Ricky Hatton-mania feels like a long time ago, his career quickly snubbed out by successive losses to Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather - two of the best ever. More and more fights were taken away from the mainstream and shown purely on expensive, pay-per-view television. In the old days of Boxing on ITV, ten million people would tune in to watch a big match - a Eubank/Benn classic, perhaps. But when Anthony Joshua - for all intents and purposes, the people’s champ - won his title versus “King” Charles Martin on Sky Box Office in April, just 400,000 stumped up the £14.95 to watch.
And when David Haye told everyone his comeback fight would be on Dave, Freeview channel and self-proclaimed “Home of Witty Banter”, people balked. Surely this was a sign that Haye was a washed-up has been? But that wasn’t the plan.
Before that fight, he hadn’t boxed on free-to-watch television in nearly a decade. He’d made his money and he wanted to bring boxing back to the people. Of course his own ego was the beefed-up engine driving this plan, but this sporting altruism was at least the carbon-fibre spoiler on the back attempting to keep him grounded.
And of course, “Witty Banter” is Haye’s headguard. The thing that keeps him safe. It keeps you on his side even when he disappoints you (like against Klitschko) or disappoints himself (like the pre-fight run-ins with Derek Chisora that ended up with plenty of broken glass...) and even lets you underestimate him just a tad. Haye’s a world class fighter, even in his 35th year, there’s no doubting that, and there’s no way his patter isn’t all part of the plan. It’s orchestrated and taught, mannered and practiced. And when the gloves are laced and the bell rings, the jokes run out…
Haye always said he’d retire before the brain damage set in and now he’s here.
“It was only a few months after I retired that I started itching for a return,” says Haye. “I wanted to do these things - to unify the belts, to retire having won everything there is - and I hadn’t done them yet.”
“That’s why I’m back,” he says, looking me in the eye. “I couldn’t leave without them.”
(Images: Hamish Brown/ShortList)