David Haye’s Gamble: First Blood or Advantage Klitschko?

By Andrew Harrison: Psychological warfare has long been part of the fight game to one extent or another; battles have been won before the boxers catch sight of the ring lights. The heavyweight division, traditionally a breeding ground for mentally fragile behemoths, coupled with being the sport’s grandest stage of all, has proven a fertile platform for the mind game. Jack Johnson’s opponents would whip themselves into a frenzy in an attempt to wipe the ubiquitous smirk from The Galveston Giant’s mug, Johnson laughing and taunting all the while. The end result was a loss of composure and ragged boxing, meat and drink for a master counter puncher like Jack..

David HayeTyson, Foreman and Liston were champions of intimidation; one glare enough to wither a foe and guarantee an easy night at the office (first beat them mentally then beat them physically). Ali was perhaps the master of fighting psychology though, for him the fight began before the ink had dried on the contract. The Greatest would seek to stamp his authority on the opposition through taunts, publicity stunts, cheap gimmicks, scuffles even; whatever it took to get inside the other man’s head and make them dance to his tune.

What to make of David Haye’s latest attempt to strike the first blow in the psychological stakes then? Flinging a picture of himself holding the severed head of Vitali’s little brother Wladimir (a tacky magazine publicity shot for a UK magazine) into Dr Ironfist’s lap at the conclusion of talks to seal the deal on their meeting next year, may prove serious folly on the part of The Hayemaker.

The top heavyweights have always required an edge in order to pull something extraordinary out of the bag. For many of the best big men from the past, poverty or the limitations society placed on them due to their race proved ample motivation to perform beyond the ability of mere mortals. As we entered the modern era, advances in both purse amounts and politics evened the playing field to a certain extent, meaning the best big men required additional reasons to keep walking through walls.

Larry Holmes was said to have great balance (he had a chip on both shoulders). Forced to live in the shadow of Ali and his celebrated historical predecessors, Holmes felt he’d been overlooked, which provided him with all the drive he needed to keep winning and continue proving himself to the critics year after year. Mike Tyson initially sought solace from his tumultuous personal life in his boxing, whipping himself into peak condition in training camp away from the circus which eventually engulfed him and subsequently wreaking havoc on his unfortunate opponents. Evander Holyfield used faith as his great motivator; that along with the fact he was repeatedly written off due to his size. He liked nothing better than to turn conventional thought inside out and like Holmes, prove the chiders wrong. Evander’s successor Lennox Lewis focussed on the fact that he was frozen out of the big picture for the bulk of his career in order to pour fuel onto his fire. Once opponents started falling at their feet with ease and monotonous regularity, they all needed something else to fight back at in order to stay juiced.

In threatening his brethren, Haye may just have paved the way for Vitali Klitschko to emulate the amazing feats of the best heavyweights from history. Who amongst us with younger siblings would not climb mountains to protect them from harm’s way? If Vitali’s initial reaction to Haye’s opening gambit was anything to go by, we should be in for fireworks in London in 2009.

Haye’s pursuit of the brothers Klitschko is becoming remarkably reminiscent of Ali (then of course Cassius Clay) and his hounding of Sonny Liston, many feeling at the time that Ali was playing with fire and only worsening the inevitable beating Sonny was going to lay on him. In the event however their fears proved unfounded, Liston was bamboozled by the cocky challenger, utterly convinced he was fighting a crazed lunatic. The same bemused look Liston sported then now spreads over Vitali’s face whenever Haye starts running off at the lips, seemingly musing to himself ‘is this guy for real?’.

Psychological warfare is a dangerous game and if played incorrectly can backfire spectacularly as Hasim Rahman’s smack talking did prior to the rematch with Lennox Lewis. The right hand Lewis landed that evening in Vegas repaid all of the jibes, insults and sneers with interest. Vitali Klitschko will be hoping that if he can find something similar when he faces off against a Haye next year, it’ll be game over.

Article posted on 19.12.2008

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