Last November, at the five-star luxury hotel The Dorchester in Mayfair, David Haye told Tony Bellew that he was looking forward to “standing over your limp body in the ring,” before bounding forward and landing a short left-hook on the Liverpudlian. And so the tone was set for one of the most acrimonious build-ups to a heavyweight fight in British boxing history.
Worse was to come. The recording of an episode of Sky’s amusingly earnest The Gloves Are Off television show had to be halted when Haye reportedly told Bellew to prepare for a post-fight trip to hospital, while in Liverpool the former heavyweight champion of the world decided the best way of responding to an enthusiastic rendition of Who the f****** hell are you? was to describe the braying Merseyside crowd as “f****** retards”. For some reason, it didn’t go down too well.
Eventually, the British Boxing Board of Control decided enough was enough: it was time for a strongly worded statement. General secretary Robert Smith let it be known that Britain’s boxing chiefs were unimpressed with the pair’s “extremely disappointing comments” and, a few months later, Haye was fined £25k for his behaviour. Or 5.95 per cent of his losers cheque.
But the graceless comments weren’t as disappointing as the fight itself. Haye started well but ruptured his Achilles tendon in the sixth, with Bellew eventually felling him in the eleventh. Afterwards, both men hugged in the middle of the ring, exchanging platitudes as Bellew tried unsuccessfully to hold back the tears. “I've never been in a fight like that before, he's the man,” Haye smiled, before hobbling back to his dressing room.
And that, it seemed, was that, until a rematch was confirmed last week and officially announced yesterday at yet another swanky London hotel, this time at the Park Plaza in Westminster. It was a curiously sombre affair, largely devoid of trash-talk and tastelessness, and one that will have left Matchroom head honcho Eddie Hearn scratching his brylcreemed head nervously. After all, how do you sell a hate-fuelled heavyweight rematch when all the hate seems to have dried up?
The first sign that something was amiss came when Haye responded to the first question of the afternoon not by animatedly describing how he was going to sever Bellew’s head from his body, or something similar, but instead praising his rival for his performance in the first fight.
“Going into the first fight his motivation was clear for all to see – he wanted to secure his family and that should be first and foremost in any athlete’s mind,” he began, soon moving on to gush about his newfound respect for a man he once told “you’re not going to be able to chew your food after fighting me.”
“We have both shared the ring together and when you do that with somebody, whatever respect wasn’t there before is there now,” he added. “And now I know that turning up in the condition I arrived in before is not enough, I have learnt to respect what he brings to the table and I have to be bigger, faster and quicker.”
He did finally flick a verbal jab Bellew’s way with a long, rambling analogy about how the his decision to agree to a rematch was akin to trying to rob the same bank twice, but the Scouser sat down at the other end of the table, rolled his eyes and sighed. He had other things on his mind.
Bellew is grieving after the sudden death of his brother-in-law, Ashley Roberts, in August and had little appetite to engage in the fun and games that had characterised the press conferences of their past. “This is all nonsense to me,” he sighed after Haye had finally finished talking. “My life has been put into reflection recently – what I have been through over the last month I would not wish on my worst enemies.”
It became clear that there was going to be no snide short left-hooks or warnings from the BBBofC this time around, and a few of the photographers jockeying for position in the front row lowered their DSLRs.
Not that Bellew could completely ignore Haye’s provocations. “I fight because I enjoy fighting,” he said in response to his rival enquiring into the source of motivation now that he is financially secure after the first fight. “I fight because I love walking into the ring, I love punching you in the face and I love being punched in the face. I don’t know why. I admit that I’ve got a screw loose.”
In truth, it wasn't an entirely satisfactory answer for why Bellew has decided to risk it all against Haye for a second time, on what was a strangely unsatisfactory afternoon. And it is difficult to see how this fight will garner as much interest as the first when, not only has the hate fizzled away, but so too has the allure of watching them go head-to-head for the very first time.
One brief and relatively amicable face-off later, and the pair were bundled away to begin their fight camps ahead of the December 17 contest. With Haye now 36 years of age and Bellew set to turn 35 a fortnight before the contest, they both have a lot of training ahead of them. And on this showing, they may have a fair amount of promotional work to do, too.