Former WBC/WBA/WBO cruiserweight champion and WBA heavyweight title holder David Haye (28-2, 26 KOs) will take on former WBC cruiserweight titlist Tony Bellew (28-2-1, 18 KOs) on April 16, a bout that many fans are branding a mismatch, but one that could yet prove to be anything but. Liverpool-lip Bellew, an arch trash-talker with a real cutting edge to his verbal delivery has clearly gotten under Haye’s skin, much as Dereck Chisora did four years ago.

When Haye and Chisora eventually met in the ring at Upton Park in July 2012, Haye emerged victorious in a thriller, KO’ing Chisora in the fifth. It was Haye’s most impressive performance as a heavyweight, and one that put him back firmly in the world title picture. However, in a combination of bad luck, missed opportunities and questionable career moves, Haye would not fight again for almost four years, and when he did return in 2016, it would be against a pair of opponents that even Shannon Briggs would have rejected. By comparison, during that same time frame, Dereck Chisora would fight 14 times.

McGuigan, Schaefer and Dave TV

In fairness, Haye has had to deal with two injuries in late 2013 and 2014 that kept him out of the ring for months at a time, both suffered just days before scheduled blockbuster matchups with Tyson Fury, the first a badly cut eye and the second a shoulder tear that had seemingly put-paid to his boxing career permanently.

Now, miraculously, his shoulder is seemingly 100% healed, he has a new trainer in McGuigan, a new promoter in the notorious former Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, a TV deal with Dave TV (The Home Of Witty Banter), and no doubt a world title challenge on the horizon should he get past Bellew in April.

In reality it has been hard to gauge Haye in his two comeback fights because a) they were both over so quickly and b) the opposition (Mark de Mori and Arnold Gjergjaj) despite their WBA world rankings was truly awful, but from what we did see its clear that Haye is fighting at around 225 lbs. now, fifteen pounds above his best fighting weight. The result is a slower, more ponderous looking Haye, who may look large by his own standards, yet is small in comparison to the likes of Anthony Joshua, Wladimir Klitschko, Tyson Fury and even Joseph Parker. By gaining the extra poundage – no doubt in an attempt to hit harder and to hold a shot better – Haye has sacrificed the one true trump card he held at heavyweight – blistering speed.

Haye may still talk a great fight, in a manner akin to a latter-day Joe Bugner – on steroids – but the reality is the heavyweight division might just have passed him by. The victory over Chisora briefly made him the hottest fighter in the division, but instead of capitalizing on his new-found notoriety with a world title fight, he chose to take the biggest money bout available – against rising young giant Tyson Fury – a fight he seemingly regretted signing for very quickly.

Cruiserweight Success, Heavyweight Ambition

It all seemed a far cry from the fighter who exploded onto the heavyweight scene in 2009 with limitless potential, the one boxer with the style, speed and power to end the decade of domination of the heavyweight division by those formidable giant brothers from Ukraine,  Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. In his final two fights as a cruiserweight, Haye had climbed off the canvas to blast out Jean-Marc Mormeck in a six-round war to take the Frenchman’s WBC and WBA titles, and then dispatch Enzo Maccarinelli in two clinically brutal rounds to take the Welshman’s WBO belt.

At 6’3” Haye was the same height as heavyweight legends like Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and Ron Lyle, a classic height for a heavyweight – from the 1970s. While still considered tall in most walks of life, 6’3” is little more than average among today’s behemoths. Muscular but shredded as a cruiser, Haye filled out his frame easily at heavyweight, coming in around 210 lbs. if he wanted optimum speed, a few pounds heavier if he wanted more power.  Clearly not the biggest of heavyweights, what Haye possessed was the speed of a middleweight, plus genuine one-punch KO power in either hand. One boxing writer even described him as a “Jack Dempsey for the new millennium.”

The WBA Heavyweight Title Years

However, one of Haye’s biggest problems was that he always wanted to run before he could walk. At that time barely a household name in his own household, Haye nevertheless established his own promotional company – Haymaker Promotions. And no sooner had he defeated shopworn contender Monte Barrett (under the Haymaker Promotions banner) in a slam-bang affair in which he looked far from convincing than Haye was confronting and insulting a bewildered looking Wladimir Klitschko in a shopping mall, complete with a roving camera crew to capture the moment. Klitschko didn’t seem to know who he was, and yet Haye kept demanding “Don’t Hide! Don’t Run! Fight Me!”

Ironically, the tactic worked and Hayed did indeed land a title shot at Wladimir soon after, only – in a taster of things to come – to pull out of the fight days before citing a back injury.

Now compare Haye’s assault on the heavyweight division with the battle plan of the greatest cruiserweight of all time, the legendary Evander Holyfield. The “Real Deal” tested himself six times against heavyweights in the months between vacating the unified cruiserweight title in 1988 to KO’ing Buster Douglas for the undisputed heavyweight title in three rounds in 1990. Those bouts included hard-fought wars against ex-champs Pinklon Thomas and Mike Dokes (pictured), and impressive KO’s over top contenders  Adilson Rodrigues and Alex Stewart. By the time he fought for the title, Holyfield had been the undisputed number one contender for more than a year, and he went on to become an all-time great in that class as well.

By comparison, in only his second consecutive fight as a heavyweight, Haye challenged 7’2”, 320 lb. Nikolai Valuev for the WBA title, and won a highly controversial majority decision over the plodding Russian in a bout that at times resembled a Laurel and Hardy sketch, with Haye running circles around Valuev, who clumsily attempted to hit him.

Haye defended his title twice, and neither was a classic. Ageing former WBA champ John Ruiz was way past whatever could be construed as his “best” when Haye labored to put him away in the tenth, and the least said about Haye’s subsequent third round knockout over a petrified (quite literally) Audley Harrison, the better.

There was always going to be limitations with the way Haye fought, especially at heavyweight when he came up against opponents who were bigger than himself, as talented as he was, and not intimidated by his power. Haye likes to crouch low, right hand cocked, left hand held low, then spring into attack, often leaving himself wide open for a counter. This proved to be the case when he finally got his wish of fighting one of the Klitschko’s in Germany, July 2011. Luckily for Haye it was Wladimir, a classic boxer who throws conventional shots and not Vitali, who has a unique style and seems to launch most of his punches from the ground, making them extremely hard to defend against.

Haye knew that every time he would launch an attack at Wladimir he would leave himself open for that fearsome left hook, and so he barely mounted any kind of offense, and instead spent the entire fight circling away from Klitschko, while all the while maintaining his best serious/angry face. He would claim later that he injured a toe during his ring walk, and that was the real reason for his overtly cautious performance.

Maybe it was, but with hindsight, he probably wished he had kept that bit of info to himself, and spare himself the continued derision he has received for citing his injured toe as the reason he gave a defensive performance that would have embarrassed even Floyd Mayweather.

Retirement No.1, Dereck Chisora

Haye’s bouts against Harrison and Klitschko were such duds, they effectively killed the UK boxing PPV market for years. The main provider, Sky Sports said as much. Incredibly, Haye believed that his performance deserved a shot against big brother Vitali and his WBC belt. When that fight didn’t happen, in what seemed a fit of pique he chose an early retirement, only to resurface at the post fight press conference of Dereck Chisora’s game but unsuccessful challenge for Vitali’s WBC title in February 2012.

Chisora had pushed Klitschko harder than any man since his loss to Lennox Lewis nine years earlier, yet his moment of glory was snatched from him by Haye, who took to taunting both combatants and lured Chisora into one of the most infamous brawls in living memory. Both men were threatened with lengthy bans from the sport, but in true boxing fashion, instead squared off against each other five months later.

That night, in front of a packed crowd at West Ham’s Upton Park football ground would prove to be Haye’s finest as a heavyweight, although there were times he looked on the verge of being swept away by the sheer industry, ferocity and relentlessness of the Chisora attack.  Haye, super confident that his speed and power would be enough, came in at just 210 lbs., 30 lbs. less than Chisora. His resulting quickness allowed him to slip most of the shots delivered by his assailant, but the pace of the fight seemed to be taking its toll on the lighter man, and by the start of the fifth Haye looked visibly gassed. However such is his power that virtually out of nowhere he produced the blows that would first floor then KO an incredibly game Chisora.

The Jungle, Retirement No.2, Keith Lemon and a Comeback 

In yet another odd career move, following his big win over Chisora, Haye chose to go on the UK reality TV show “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” finishing third, and coming across as charming, likeable and a team player in the process. It was great for his profile as a celebrity, but did nothing to advance his boxing career. There then followed the twin debacles involving scheduled fights against Tyson Fury, in late 2013 and 2014, which on both occasions he withdrew during the week of the fight.

The vitriol hurled his way by the Fury camp was nothing compared to the damage the withdrawals did for his reputation. Fury correctly claimed to have lost millions in earnings and had his career set back two years, and Haye was now viewed as a pariah in the sport, someone no major fighter would be willing to take a risk on for fear of him once again withdrawing at the last minute.

He stayed away from the ring, appearing occasionally on TV shows like Through The Keyhole with Keith Lemon, where unlike other celebrities, he had nothing to publicize or promote. Haye always came across as articulate, witty and game for a laugh, often leaving the viewer wondering if he might be better suited to a career in television than the ring.

And then, all of a sudden Haye was back, fighting on Dave TV where he drew 5 million viewers, selling out the O2 Arena even though his opposition was shocking and he looked like a shadow of his former self. Next up is Tony Bellew, and if Haye is only 50% of the fighter who KO’d Dereck Chisora, he should handle Bellew inside five rounds.

And then what? Does anyone think Haye has a serious chance against the unbeaten quartet of Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder or even Joseph Parker? These four represent the future of the division, Haye doesn’t even represent its past.

If Only…

If only David Haye had been humble and not envisioned himself as the very best in the sport, which he never came close to being, and yet had the potential to be. If only he had fought against a variety of opponents when he first moved up to heavyweight, adapted his style to suite bigger, stronger fighters, learned to keep his hands up when launching an attack.

If only he had shown more respect to those who deserved it, instead of crassly insulting men in positions of power and influence like the Klitschko’s and their manager Bernd Boente.  Maybe then he wouldn’t have had his ring walk diverted into the baying throng that night in Hamburg, he wouldn’t have been shoved and heckled by the pro-Klitschko crowd and he wouldn’t have stubbed his toe. Maybe then he would have gotten a crack at Vitali, or even a rematch with Wladimir.

If only Haye hadn’t been so quick to “pull a sicky”, leaving major promotions vs Klistchko and Fury in the lurch just days before the fight.

Summing up, if Haye had been willing to learn his trade instead of thinking he knew it all, he may well have gone on to be a very good heavyweight champion, instead of a footnote in heavyweight history.