By Graham Houston
In a fight where more than the usual number of possible outcomes dance in one’s imagination, Russia’s huge Nikolai Valuev defends his WBA heavyweight title against Britain’s colourful David Haye in Nuremberg on Saturday. One can see Haye coming out with big punches and destroying the much bigger but much slower champion in a few rounds, a bit like Jack Dempsey wrecking Jess Willard, or perhaps chopping him down slowly and cruelly, as Max Baer did to Primo Carnera, in boxing’s most famous heavyweight-versus-giant fights.
It is possible to envisage Haye boxing a smart, speedy fight, making Valuev look clumsy and amateurish, and winning an easy points decision.
Valuev could, however, use his left jab to keep Haye from getting settled and perhaps catch him with a heavy right hand as the British boxer either surges forward or gets clipped on the end of the punch. Perhaps Valuev might be able to outlast Haye after surviving some early storms.
Then there is the least-attractive scenario for fans, one in which neither man wants to take a chance and one or the other ekes out a debatable decision.
The fight should show whether Valuev is a fighter of merit or one who was able to overcome better boxers simply due to his immense size.
It should also reveal whether Haye is indeed the exciting puncher who will revitalise the division — which is how he views himself.
What is undeniable is that the fight has captured the interest of boxing fans, and opinions are divided on who will win.
Haye is the favourite, for good reason. Valuev looked dreadful in his last fight when he barely outpointed a 46-year-old Evander Holyfield.
If Valuev was almost beaten by Holyfield, then how can he overcome the 29-year-old Haye, who brings speed, skill, power and soaring self-confidence into the fight?
Haye, as he himself has pointed out, has an amateur pedigree — world championships silver medallist — while Valuev learned on the job as a professional.
There is no question that Haye is by far the more gifted and explosive of the two fighters, and of, course, far faster.
So, logically, Haye should win.
There are doubts about Haye, though, the main one being his ability to take a punch. As an amateur he was knocked out by a southpaw named Jim Twite, and Odlanier Solis stopped him in the world championships final — but only after the Cuban got wobbled himself to be given a standing eight count.
When Haye was stopped by Carl Thompson in his only professional loss, it was his stamina and not his chin that let him down. Haye almost stopped the much older but more seasoned Thompson with a big opening onslaught but wore himself out and was overwhelmed in the fifth round.
However, Haye was floored by the much smaller Lolenga Mock in his seventh professional bout, and he had a very shaky fourth round when Jean-Marc Mormeck dropped him in their world cruiserweight title fight.
Haye showed his grit and an authentic fighter’s instinct to rally and win each of these fights inside the distance.
It could be said that he got caught by a punch he didn’t see against Mock, and that he was weight-drained at 200 pounds for the fight with Mormeck, but, still, the fact is that he was down and in trouble in those fights.
In his last fight, against Monte Barrett, Haye was on the floor again, and although the referee ruled a slip it did seem that the veteran New Yorker had connected with a left hook.
Again, Haye came back to demolish his opponent, but the fight reinforced the impression that Haye’s punch-resistance is questionable.
Valuev is not what one could call a really hard hitter, despite his great bulk, but his right hand isn’t a love tap, either. If he can catch Haye, there is a chance that he can hurt or even drop him.
This is only Haye’s third bout as a heavyweight, and he wasn’t tested in an 89-second blowout of Tomasz Bonin while he was catching Barrett at the end of the New York boxer’s career: Barrett’s subsequent collapse against Odlanier Solis somewhat diminishes Haye’s victory of a year ago.
How, one wonders, will Haye keep body and spirit together if the fight with Valuev turns out to be a long, gruelling slog?
One thing about Valuev is that he is well accustomed to boxing over the championship distance: 11 of his fights have gone the full 12 rounds, including the last five.
Valuev is steady and methodical. He relies on the left jab to score points and keep his opponent at the range where Valuev wants him to be, and every so often, when he thinks he has a clear opening, he will try a right hand, or maybe an uppercut if his opponent is coming to him.
This fundamental, rather mechanical, mode of boxing has worked well for Valuev because of his size. It simply isn’t easy for his opponents to get around the jab in a consistent way, and simply being in the ring with a 7ft, 310-pound man can be tiring.
John Ruiz twice had success against Valuev by launching fast attacks and diving in close, but on the outside he too often found himself on the end of Valuev’s left hand. Larry Donald scored well with jabs and right hands in an unpopular and narrow loss against Valuev, but that was four years ago and the competent but unreliable Cincinnati heavyweight had one of his better nights in that fight: I think that the Larry Donald that showed up against Valuev would have given Haye a spot of bother, too.
Valuev’s two most impressive performances were his stoppage win over Paolo Vidoz and a surprisingly skilled showing when he outclassed Sergei Liakhovich. He knocked down Vidoz in the ninth round and broke the Italian fighter’s jaw, and he showed an impressive range of punches against Liakhovich although it must be noted that his opponent didn’t show much zest at a career-high weight of 251 pounds.
In other fights, though, Valuev has looked distinctly ordinary. He struggled with the Quebec southpaw Jean-Francois Bergeron and of course he was uninspired against Holyfield.
Valuev does seem to have an excellent chin, but not an impregnable one: Vidoz, Donald, Barrett, even Bergeron, all seemed to rattle him, and I thought that Ruiz had him touching down from a right-hander in their rematch although the referee waved it off as a slip. Haye is the most dangerous puncher that Valuev has faced, and I believe he can do heavy damage. The big risk for Haye if he goes for the knockout, though, is that he will get caught himself, or that he will burn up energy without finishing the job and find himself succumbing to fatigue down the home straight.
Haye’s best strategy might be to use the hit and move, in-and-away style that Ruslan Chagaev employed to hand Valuev his only loss — and which nearly paid off for Holyfield — but if this becomes a set-piece boxing match there is a good possibility that Valuev’s jabs can keep the rounds close, perhaps leading to a photo-finish decision.
I thought that Valuev boxed as if his heart wasn’t in it against Holyfield, but his motivation will be high against Haye, especially in view of the challenger’s sometimes offensive verbal barrage. Haye has obviously tried to undermine Valuev’s confidence and perhaps, also, the unflattering remarks were aimed at getting the champion to discard his usual disciplined approach to a contest. Valuev will, I think, be seeking to hurt Haye rather than simply outpoint him but I don’t see him lunging with chin exposed — indeed, the British boxer’s barbed comments just might prove counter productive.
This, to me, is one of those fights that fit into the “anything can happen” category. My guess is that Valuev will be able to stand up to Haye’s shelling, stay in the fight by means of steady jabbing and then start to bring the right hand into play in the later rounds. Haye is the better fighter, but the better fighter doesn’t always win. I’m going to go with Valuev, possibly by stoppage some time after the start of round 10.
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