Over hyped or over matched? Who has more to lose in Saturday’s crossroads fights?

david haye14.11.08 - By Alex McMillan, photo by Tom Casino: Of the fights taking place this coming weekend two stand out immediately as the most intriguing and, for the winners and losers, ultimately career defining. On one side of the Atlantic David Haye takes his first real step into heavyweight reckoning against Monte Barrett, whilst on the other side Jermain Taylor challenges Jeff Lacy in a fight surely neither can conceive of losing. For two of these fighters, one supposes, this weekend will be the final meaningful contests of careers which, at one time or another (never more so than now in the case of Haye) have promised the entire boxing world and everything in it.

Haye’s is a particularly mouth-watering bout, given the style of his fighting and the potential for some really huge fights to follow should he win with a degree of flair.. And if he wins at all, as a fighter who boasts KO victories from over 90% of his contests, it’s hard to see him not impressing. Of the four fighters involved in this pair of bouts, Haye has by far the most to lose. Not to mention the greatest to immediately gain. The heavyweight division might not yet need him quite as badly as he suggests it does (and as many others suppose) but come Sunday morning his might just be the name across the lips of every big time heavyweight promoter.

His choice of opponent for the step up is particularly interesting. Credit, indeed, must go to Haye for resisting the temptation to take a far easier option, of which there were many. Domestic fights with the likes of Matt Skelton, Audley Harrison or Danny Williams would have likely posed him far less problems, and would have been marketable in the UK at least, but Haye is serious about being serious at the higher weight. He wants to win and to win big. He wants titles and he wants them very quickly. Saturday night’s contest will provide a genuine gauge as to just how serious a heavyweight proposition he poses. If he is realistically going to shake up the division as many feel he can, Barrett should be disposed of fairly easily. If he fails, as the likes of Dominick Guinn and Joe Mesi failed, it can be assumed that, like those two previous saviours of the division, he too will fail to ignite when potential meets real possibility. It’s no overstatement to say that the division certainly needs someone who can provide that spark. Disposing of Barrett in the early rounds will go some way to justifying what has been a great deal of perhaps not altogether yet justified hype of ‘the haymaker.’

But let’s not pose Haye as the only fighter in this contest with something to lose. Towards the end of a stop-start, often frustrating career Barrett has given himself a chance again. With the current state of the division of course, everyone has a chance; the aforementioned Harrison, Skelton and - until his latest defeat last Saturday - Williams, all classed themselves as being at least on the fringes of world title reckoning. In the single most talent-impoverished weight class of boxing Barrett is now one huge performance away from a real stab at world class. Is he capable of that performance? He’s certainly shown the ability to raise his game before, particularly when entering the fight as underdog. Equally, he has that most annoying habit of creating real problems for fighters in that ‘one big performance away’ category. Against both Mesi and Guinn he was to be the justification of their hype; the underpinning of their world class status. While Baby Joe got the decision, he got little else. And Guinn got even less than that of course.

In his last outing Haye scored a spectacular 2nd round KO of hard-hitting Enzo Maccarinelli in a domestic UK contest as big as any of recent years. Truth be told though the Welshman looked fairly over matched, and on close viewing his record gave little evidence of what problems he would conceivably pose Haye. That said there’s little else could be asked of Haye but to dispose of his opponent in such a clinical manner. Perhaps a better insight into the Londoner’s potential - not to mention his deficiencies - can be seen in his prior contest. Against Jean Marc Mormeck for the cruiserweight title Haye was down and the 4th and clinging on. That he did cling on and force the stoppage is testament to his power and desire, neither of which are in question. But what of his ability to take punches? And if such a problem exists, how will it withstand the heavier hitting heavyweights? Haye’s conditioning is beyond reproach and by all accounts he seems to have handled the increased body mass effortlessly but, as all and sundry insisted on paraphrasing in the days and weeks after his compatriot Amir Khan’s shock stoppage defeat to Breidis Prescottt, ’you can’t put muscles on your chin!’

Clearly Barrett fancies his chances as much as Haye does, which makes for an interesting bout. It’s a couple of years now since Monte boxed at world class level (granted a loose term given the current state of the division) when suffering an 11th round stoppage against Nikolay Valuev. He’s game, if not spectacular. As mentioned he beat the much-hyped Guinn, effectively spelled the end of (yet another) Great white hope when exposing Mesi in the latter half of their fight when, having been down himself early on, Barrett floored the crowd favourite and came close to forcing the stoppage. In a career of ups and downs he also took Hasim Rahman the distance, while Wladimir Klitschko floored him 5 times en route to a comprehensive stoppage.

But where does Haye rank by comparison to the likes of Mesi, Guinn, Rahman, Valuev and Klitschko? Therein lies the hub of intrigue in this contest. If Haye is a real contender, Barrett will be dealt with in the manner achieved by Klitschko, or at worst Valuev. If he suffers defeat like Guinn, or comes close like Mesi, then equally enough will be known. And if he wins but fails to force the explosive stoppage he promises, a la Rahman? Then what?

A point perhaps overlooked is the potential that Haye might not actually hit so hard at heavyweight as he unquestionably did at cruiser. Barrett might be tough enough to take most of his shots. He might have the desire to do whatever it takes to see this one through, in classic ‘last chance saloon’ fashion. Haye has only boxed 73 rounds in his career. Will this be a factor come Saturday? Speed and power are key components but what of experience? Whatever else can be said of Barrett he’s certainly a genuine operator at a weight effectively brand new to the Englishman.

I wonder too if it’s merely coincidental that Barrett reminds me in some ways of Haye’s only thus far conqueror Carl Thompson? Both are frustrating fighters, both have that habit of producing their best when it’s least expected, both enter or entered the ring as probable fodder for Haye’s meteoric rise. Coincidences of course, go out the window come the bell for round one, but perhaps come Sunday morning we’ll wonder how much Haye has really had the chance to learn in his ten largely-emphatic wins since the stoppage loss to Thompson?

Hardly fight of the year then, but this is an exciting contest. Let’s celebrate that, if nothing else, in this division where recent unification bouts have failed to capture the imagination of even the most ardent heavyweight enthusiast. Should Barrett upset the odds he’ll cause quite a stir; if Haye wins in style then the big time really does beckon. It should be quite a journey. In a week when Evander Holyfield reportedly signed up to yet another world title tilt, let’s hope something of note happens at least.

By comparison the Taylor-Lacy clash seems immediately rather tame. Two fighters who suffered that hefty mantle ‘hype’ (admittedly justified in the case of Taylor) and were expected to go on to far greater things but ultimately saw promise flow to stagnation. In the far more competitive Super middleweight division this is a fight neither boxer can afford to lose, but one which offers a realistic degree of promise for the victor in terms of future paydays and world class reckoning.

Jermain Taylor is a difficult fighter to appreciate. His 2005 brace of wins over the previously ultra-dominant Bernard Hopkins heralded a genuine changing of the guards, yet look at the standing of each fighter today. Hopkins just goes on and on, while Taylor? Any prolonging of his career should he lose to Lacy seems unthinkable, yet it’s not altogether improbable that he may indeed suffer his third defeat. Perhaps it was the weight of expectation those two wins over Hopkins brought that caused him to struggle as he has. A draw with Winky Wright is a creditable result for any fighter, such is Ronald’s class and often avoidance by some of the fight game’s leading lights, but the writing of Jermain’s decline really was on the wall in routine defences turned to agonising, clinging-to-his-titles affairs with Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks. In the latter bout in particular Taylor seemed lacking the heart for the contest. A worrying sign. At 30, he has everything left to gain. And he has already done much to justify whatever hype has surrounded his career. Prior to the Hopkins bouts his KO of Raul Marquez impressed, as did his shutout of an albeit declining William Joppy. Of the four fighters involved in Saturday’s crossroads bouts, Taylor boasts clearly the most likely pedigree to return to world class and remain there. Those early rounds dominating Kelly Pavlik in their first fight may seem a long time ago, far longer than the 19 months since passed, but an impressive win against Lacy - crucially, I feel, a win by KO - can propel him straight back into the path of the Wright’s, Sturm’s and Abraham’s, and perhaps beyond. The lingering question with Taylor remains how much he really wants it?

On the subject of hype there are little more interesting studies than the career of Jeff ‘Left Hook’ Lacy, whose left hook we have seen precious little of since he was comprehensively beaten by Joe Calzaghe in 2006. While Lacy showed tremendous heart in withstanding the Welshman’s punishment as many ringside roared for the bout to be stopped, he has undoubtedly had the look of a shot fighter since. Perhaps shot is rather harsh, but gun-shy at least. Having traded on his explosiveness in the pre-Calzaghe days, Lacy has since failed to stop three opponents, not one of whom could be said to be truly top class. If Jermain Taylor, as previously posed, really has rediscovered his hunger for a fight, I see little in Lacy to deter him from bouncing back. The most intriguing question of Lacy’s career now, particularly assessing the hype surrounding upcoming fighters and the detrimental effects it can often lead to, is just how good Lacy really was prior to the Manchester fight with Calzaghe?

Lacy’s biggest claims to potential dominance of the division revolved mainly around a spate of exciting KO wins over decent fighters not quite managing the step up to real world class. His 2005 destruction of Robin Reid, who had caused Calzaghe genuine problems six years earlier, was much heralded, as was his KO of Scott Pemberton. Yet Reid had dropped 2 more contests since the Calzaghe defeat (albeit one a routinely-controversial decision in Germany against Sven Ottke) while Pemberton was subsequently KO’d three months later by the likeable but lacking Peter Manfredo Jnr. Considering he had also been taken the distance by Omar Sheika, who’d gone four defeats and three wins in his 7 prior contests, it’s hard to look back and see why so many tipped Lacy to defeat Calzaghe. But retrospect, in boxing as in life, is a wonderful benefit to have. Whatever the might have been’s or never were’s of Left Hook’s career, he’s failed to force a stoppage in his 30 most recent rounds of boxing. In his last bout he decisioned Epifanio Mendoza, a typically game Colombian, but one who has generally come up short against anyone approaching top class.

All in all, it’s hard to expect anything other than wins for Haye and Taylor, with a few scares along the way for the Englishman and sloppiness the greatest risk to the former middleweight king. Defeat for either seems unthinkable. Yet both fights are intriguing. The uncertain element of Barrett, coupled with Haye’s eagerness to please, ensures that whatever happens, something will happen for as long as it lasts. As for Lacy-Taylor, I’m looking to be impressed by a return to form Jermain, who can then look ahead, like Haye, to some very big fights. When’s all said and done however, the manner of the victories may well be the only meaningful barometer of their future careers. It’s another good Saturday night’s pugilism.

Article posted on 14.11.2008

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