Haye Would Have His Hands Full With Chagaev - Who Has Never, Ever Looked That Impressive

chagaevby Matt McGrain - Chagaev has been my favourite HW for some time. He’s mobile, reasonably two-handed, tough with a good variety of punches and, at only 31 years of age, likely three years past his prime. But recent descriptions of him as a “shell” or “shot” may be very wide of the mark indeed. Chagaev is a fighter who has never, ever looked spectacular. In response to the shaking of heads and gnashing of teeth that was the reaction to his near shut out of Kali Meehan in Germany this weekend, I’d pose the question - what else is new?

Going back to April of 2007 and Chagaev’s flagship performance against the giant Valuev, we can see all that is good about Chagaev. We know that Valuev is not a special fighter, but it is also true that he is a special case, and towering one foot above Ruslan and out-weighing him by around 100lbs, he certainly set a very specific and troublesome set of problems. Chagaev’s solution was masterful. After a twitchy first round, he totally dominated the fight in terms of pace and distance, moving Valuev onto him in very small increments.. This was significant because it meant the giant was near incapable of getting set, something Valuev struggles with regardless, whilst Chagaev himself, significantly more nimble, could make regular forays into Valuev territory, pecking with his jab and left hand before escaping unscathed. His judgement of range and his accuracy were absolutely faultless for 12 rounds, a rare and valuable ability for any fighter to have, but especially one like Chagaev. If a boxer isn’t athletic - and Chagaev isn’t - he must be technically proficient. Chagaev is, and his skill is magnified by his control of the distance, nowhere more thoroughly displayed than in this fight. In round three, for example, Valuev landed his first punch with 40 seconds remaining in the round. Ruslan is not a defensive genius, though he is very competent, and Valuev is not entirely without offence, though he is slow. What brought about this total domination of the first two-and-a-half minutes was this brilliant understand of where he is and where his enemy is.

With such great strategy, Chagaev should have won this fight wide - shouldn’t he? In fact, of the three cards (114-114, 117-111, 115-113), I liked Judge Vilchis’s 115-113 card the best. How did this happen? If he is such a dominant general, why the majority decision? Therein lies the mystery of Ruslan Chagaev, and the reason speculation concerning the recent demise of his skills are so thoroughly exaggerated.

Throughout the first half of the fight, Chagaev threw happy left hands over the top, searching jabs to the midsection and a handy double right-jab upstairs that had Valuev showing his best footwork, going directly back in a seeming near-panic. He was having it all his own way. But he was also pecking. Chagaev has a habit of punching “at” rather than “through” his man, and so it was versus Valuev. On the surface his plan was good - he wasn’t going to be hurt by Valuev, staying outside, timing, countering, moving, he was going to take away Valuev’s professional advantages so could afford to box him like an amateur. The plan was to outland the giant, and it was going well. But this is indicative of Ruslan’s inherent conservatism. He boxes within himself. With his advantage complete by the end of the third round, he doesn’t seek to find that higher gear and really try to hurt Valuev - he continues to peck with the left hand, giving up his chance to drive the bigger man back. Chagaev continued to dominate, but he was allowing Valuev to squeeze his way back in.

The second half of a fascinating fight was much, much closer. Every time Valuev had a really, really good round (6, 8) Chagaev would come out much more aggressively, landing hurtful left hands, coming inside to deliver with more torque, damaging his man. But always he left the door ajar for Valuev. These tactical adjustments are extremely impressive, but they beg the question, why not make them in the fourth round? Why wait for Valuev to come back before finding this extra gear? Chagaev is a fighter who fights within himself - he brings his very best only when his very best is called upon, and on two occasions this saw him lose rounds before coming back to dominate with aggression and hard punching. This is what made the fight close - I actually think the 114-114 card is not unreasonable. There are similar stories for the SD victory over Ruiz and the MD over Virchis - although this was an impressive display in the circumstances with Ruslan boxing only 30 hours after emergency heart surgery was performed upon his mother, having apparently not slept at all the previous night. But again, Chagaev, unquestionably in his prime does just enough.

But it is the Valuev fight that is crucial. After that, Chagaev contracted Hepatitis B. Briefly, it looked as though he may have to retire. He returned to action, but still suffering from an infection connected directly with fatigue. Was his inability to put away Skelton connected with his ailment or, more likely, just the usual conservative boxing from a man firmly in control? Certainly Chagaev had Skelton on the brink in round 10 and seemed to take his foot of the gas for no other reason than his being worried that the tank may be empty. Either way, Chagaev failed to put away a man who was stopped one year later by the limited if exciting Martin Rogan. Then a second disaster struck. Chagaev suffered a complete tear of his Achilles tendon - his second potentially career-threatening injury in the space of a year.

Chagaev is likely not what he once was now - but what did we really see in his widely out-pointing Kali Meehan (117-112, 117-111, 118-110) this weekend?

The same high guard. The same small moves. The same competent defence. And still capable of the type of dangerous and explosive rushes we saw against Sprott and Skelton. At the end of round two and after a minute in round three, and many times thereafter, Chagaev showed this crucial ability to suddenly close the distance and fire. It’s necessary for a man who is often out-reached by rangier opponents to be able to bull in and land, and with a reach of only 74”, “White Tyson” fits that bill as well as any man since Iron Mike retired - even if the actual nickname is hellishly wide of the mark.

But am I alone in seeing Haye as being really, really uncomfortable against this type of fighting? Haye is a man of questionable stamina. He’s proven himself to a degree by doing 12 hard rounds against Valuev, but there’s a possibility that he is vulnerable in this department. Men with questionable stamina need to control the pace of the fight. I don’t think that Haye can do this against a man as clever about pacing a fight as Chagaev is. Haye is no Wladimir in this regard. He doesn’t have the younger Klitschko’s range or style, he is not a super-heavyweight. It is also true that Chagaev does not fight at a fast pace, however, and that this may suit David. But what of these explosive rushes Chagaev is still capable of letting loose? David has often looked a little disorganised under pressure, and his defensive issues are there for all to see. Chagaev will be looking to control his placements with small moves, feint, feint again and invite his man onto him. I think that Haye would give way to Chagaev in terms of real-estate and react to the feints by distancing himself before re-setting. When he’s invited on, that’s the key moment - does his pure athleticism overcome Chagaev’s technical superiority and generalship?

The answer to that question lies in unpicking what Ruslan Chagaev has lost since his hepatitis/tendon double whammy. In the Drummond fight he looked rusty, in the Klitschko fight he looked out classed, but in the Meehan fight…maybe not looking quite his old self, Chagaev looked more like him. He has lost a step…and I think his right hand looks a little slower than it did against Valuev or Sprott. But hand speed and foot speed both deteriorated in Bernard Hopkins before his dramatic shut out of Kelly Pavlik, lest we forget. Chagaev doesn’t inhabit anything like the rarefied air that The Executioner haunted, but he is a cerebral fighter with superb determination of the different facets of ring generalship, another fighter whose physical deterioration could perhaps be propped up by his mental strengths for one more tilt at the top.

But Chagaev has also lost his sharpness and quickness in blocking and parrying. Meehan was able to trouble him with the right hand, dropping it straight down the pipe as the fight wore on, a punch it is rare to see Chagaev hit by regardless of the opponent and southpaw or not. Against Haye, shipping this punch would be terminal.

Chagaev will have to get his thinking cap on. He will need it if he is to beat the champion, for whose belt he is now the #1 contender (somehow - if Meehan is a top 30 HW, I am surprised to hear it). Adam Booth, representing David Haye, is quite clear that talks have yet to begin with either Klitschko. Given the promotional issues, Haye-Chagaev may very well be green-lit. For Haye, the desire will be to take Chagaev out more quickly than Wladimir was able. For Chagaev, it will be about throwing a spanner into the works of the only HW super-fight on even the most optimistic of fistic maps, Klitschko-Haye (either one is fine). Can he do it? My final words on the matter are these - Chagaev did on Saturday what he would have done at any point in his career, namely out-box his opponent without taking any unnecessary risks. He’s not what he was, but cries of “shell” and “shot” need to be censored.

Haye would be the favourite. Haye should be concerned.

Article posted on 26.05.2010

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