March 4th is sure to go down as one of the most surreal evenings in British Prize fighting. Few aside from partisans and speculative punters predicted the outcome, fewer still the manner in which it came about. Every bout prior to the main event had gone unerringly to script. Yet the main event, the dictionary definition of foregone conclusion, produced drama of epic proportions.
The day before on the scales at the weigh in, the writing looked to be on the wall- David Haye looked like a bronze sculpture of Hercules, exuding menace and athleticism, in comical contrast to the amorphous Bellew. Boxing is not a beauty contest but Haye’s physique seemed the epitome ofl fitness. Most would have scoffed at that point had they been told that just over 24 hours later Haye would be tumbling through the ropes having been fighting on one leg for 5 rounds. It would be difficult to conceive of a more absolute reversal of fortunes than this.
Yet that is what happened, and galling as it is for Haye fans to admit, Tony Bellew secured victory against all odds. But just how did he do it, and how much credit do he and his trainer deserve? Up until round 6 Bellew had been making Haye look embarrassingly crude. By not taking the bate and reacting to Haye’s feints, Bellew was making Haye lunge for power shots and fall short. From the defensive point of view it was good strategy. Having said that, Bellew was not exploiting the mistakes he was forcing Haye into, and to cap that, was occasionally getting caught, albeit never quite flush. This meant that though Bellew was surviving and stretching the fight out, he was nevertheless behind on the cards and marked up. Haye was disappointingly primitive, and much slower of foot than in the past. Bellew and Coldwell were right in their reckoning that Haye was a shadow of what he once was.
Haye was nevertheless ahead and landing the more significant punches going into the 6th round when disaster struck. After lunging to land the right hand, Bellew ducked down and pushed Haye back with his shoulder causing him to have to reset. As he bounced on his feet, he landed awkwardly on his right ankle and ruptured his tendon, rendering him both unable to evade or administer punches. Somehow he fought on until the penultimate round, which reflects both on the heroism of Haye and the mediocrity of Bellew. As we now know, Bellew also sustained an injury in the fight, namely a broken hand, but this can’t entirely account for why it took 5 rounds to finally dispatch a one legged opponent. Perhaps it was clemency.
There was no doubt the injury marked an abrupt turning point in the fight. Eddie Hearn and David Coldwell have stressed though, that the possibility of Haye getting injured, to use legal parlance, had been within their contemplation when devising their strategy and deciding to take the fight in the first place. They knew David Haye had become increasingly injury prone as he gotten older, and that implicit in their aim to drag the former heavy weight champion into the later rounds, was the intention to put his aging body to the test and make him uncomfortable. Injuries are part and parcel of combat sport after all.
Whilst this is to an extent true, the exact circumstances in which the injury occurred were not a direct result of Bellew’s strategy. Had he caused Haye to dislocate his shoulder by over reaching repeatedly with the attempted right hand shots that would have been a compelling argument. Had Bellew deliberately targeted his vulnerable shoulder and roughed him up on the inside, again, an injury would not have been purely random then. Had it resulted from a knockdown caused by a punch, that too would have merited praise for Bellew. But as it was, it seemed a bit of a freak accident.
Haye was from that moment on practically incapable of winning the fight. His courageous resolve to continue was no doubt influenced by the criticism he received for blaming his defeat to Klitschko on a broken little toe. He continued in the forlorn hope of potentially landing a knockout punch, which he valiantly tried to deliver, despite barely being able to stand up without the aid of the ropes. His trainer refrained from pulling him out until after the knock down in the 11th round, by which point it had become mathematically impossible for him to secure a points decision.
The fight was a gripping spectacle, though, in terms of boxing craft, it obviously left a lot to be desired. Between Haye’s crudity and Bellew’s apparent inability to dispatch a lame opponent, the purist was left with little to savour. The best that could be said was that Bellew demonstrated some admirable defensive skills. Some say he showed impressive punch resistance given this was his heavy weight debut, and Haye, though have diminished in other departments, still possess exceptional power. But it was more the result of never sustaining a clean blow. He managed to stay out of Haye’s ideal range and even when he took punches, rolled with them or took the sting off by moving backwards. It would be wrong to not acknowledge this aspect of his performance. But the injury was clearly the turning point in proceedings, and it was more the result of chance than strategy. But he deserves credit to have been in a position where he could take advantage of that injury. If he had been less adept and shrewd he wouldn’t have been standing in the 6th round.
History, as they say, is written by the winners. Tony Bellew’s victory has been framed as a triumph of David over Goliath. This is partly due to the fact that Haye played the villain in the build up to the fight, and promised to hospitalise Bellew within the 4 round mark. Furthermore Haye in view of the toe-gate criticism, had to bite his tongue this time and refrain from stating the obvious, namely that he had been critically impaired by the Achilles rupture. And, finally, no one can resist a classic underdog story. So it should come as no surprise that Bellew is being feted and eulogised in the media. He is reaping the rewards of a calculated gamble.
But I would argue that the defining aspect of this fight should be the extraordinary display of grit and resolve demonstrated by Haye. It ranks up there with Joe Frasier’s in the Thriller in Manilla, Vitali Klitschko against Lennox Lewis and Rocky Marciano’s fight against Ezzard Charles. In many ways, it is greater. Leg injuries are especially debilitating. They make you defensively vulnerable and offensively impotent. Haye’s chances of victory were miniscule. Yet he continued. Some have pointed out that Bellew sustained a hand injury in round 2. But hand injuries are fairly routine in boxing, and whilst they can affect the outcome of a fight, they rarely ever bring a halt to proceedings. A leg injury, by contrast, nearly always marks the immediate end of any bout. Haye deserves special credit for boxing on and managing to remain in contention until the 11th round. To me this is what stands out most from the fight. It brings to mind the words of Eddie Futch to Joe Frasier- ‘No one will forget what you did here today’.