Boxing observers often pine for throwback fighters, those boxers who ply their trade for the love the sport, fight often and challenge all comers. David Haye is not one of them.
Haye has only fought four times in the last 29 months. His heavyweight title reign consists of one good win (Nikolay Valuev) and the beatdowns of a washed-up ex champion (John Ruiz), a spoiler (Monte Barrett) and a never-was (Audley Harrison).
How Haye with that body of work negotiated an even split of revenue with Wladimir Klitschko, the unified champion and consensus number one heavyweight, is nothing short of miraculous. However it doesn't appear that Haye will be long for boxing. He has hinted of retirement by the end of the year. In short, he may be cashing out.
In opposition to the English notion of the gentleman sportsman, Haye has perfected the art of trash talking. He has been the only fighter to anger the placid Klitschkos. His rants about them in the media have been vicious and unrelenting.
They have built up a substantial recent history. They have staged angry press conferences and have warred through the media. After protracted and often incendiary public negotiations, Haye pulled out of separate fights with Wladimir and brother Vitali.
As of now, the fight with Wladimir is on...again. The Haye-Klitschko fight is probably the second most anticipated matchup in the sport, behind only the proposed mega-bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. However, if Mayweather and Pacquiao never fight each other, their places in the Boxing Hall of Fame and legacies as all-time greats are secure. Klitschko will be the first truly elite fighter that Haye has ever faced.
Unlike almost all famous boxers, Haye acts as his own promoter. Others may have shell personal promotional entities for tax purposes, but Haye's outfit is the real deal. Haye and his company dictate whom he fights, the venues, the purses -- everything. He has negotiated lucrative deals with Sky TV, the number one English boxing network. He has an American promotional affilation with Golden Boy. That deal was constructed to give him access to American television. He even had the opportunity to select his Klitschko, preferring Wladimir because of the younger brother's past history of chin problems.
He has worked the media masterfully, cultivating a cadre of supportive English scribes who boost his standing in the boxing world and defend his bizarre antics in his dealing with the Klitschkos. His efforts have paid off; Haye and Amir Kahn, his good friend, former Olympian and junior welterweight titleholder, have become the two most popular English boxers.
If Haye defeats Klitschko, or even if he looks good in a loss, untold millions will be on the table for him. Were he to walk away, it would be boxing's loss in that the sport lacks aggressive heavyweights with true knockout power. Haye's style is fan-friendly and unlike the Klitchskos, he oozes personality.
The tragedy of Haye's potential retirement from the sport is his disdain of greatness and professional glory. Haye will be a big underdog against Klitschko. He's not supposed to defeat the Ukrainian behemoth, champion and Olympian. He doesn't have the Hall of Fame trainer. Haye made his bones in the smaller cruiserweight division knocking out mostly obscure fighters on the European circuit. Thus, if Haye fights well against Klitschko, it will be a massive testament to his skill and his aptitude for the sport.
Cruiserweights aren't supposed to beat big heavyweights. There has been Evander Holyfield and then everyone else. Yes, Roy Jones Jr. (coming up from light heavyweight) and James Toney defeated notable heavyweights, but their campaigns in the division were career cappers and occurred at the tail end of their careers.
Essentially, the fact that Haye has convinced many that he would be competitive with Klitschko speaks loudly about his highlight-reel knockouts and considerable promotional abilities.
Haye seems unconcerned about his legacy in the sport. A true throwback fighter would have fought the best heavyweight in the world a year-and-a half ago. A real old-school boxer would immediately look to fight the best and leave no room for critics and skeptics.
Haye is more concerned about his personal reputation. He has endured substantial criticism for his infrequent fights, mediocre opposition and emphasis on money over glory. Haye has often engaged with his critics, defending himself as vigorously as any first-rate attorney could. The detractors bother Haye and he may be finally fighting Klitschko to silence them as much as for any other reason.
Boxers in their primes do not often talk about leaving the sport before they reach the top of their abilities. Haye looks to be following Mayweather's career path in fighting infrequently an optimizing his earning potential. However, Floyd had already defeated great fighters such as Diego Corrales, Juan Luis Castillo and Ricky Hatton before his first retirement. He would then return to defeat future Hall of Famers Juan Manuel Marquez and Shane Mosley. When Floyd initially retired, he was ranked as the number one fighter in the sport.
Haye is still improving. His victories over Ruiz and Valuev show a fighter capable of winning against difficult styles. Haye's ring intelligence seems to grow every fight. Even with a loss to Wladimir, he would have quite a future in the heavyweight division.
Haye could be one of the premier names in boxing for the next half-dozen years. The sport would be less exciting without him around; it would lose one of its remaining bright lights.
Thankfully, Haye is giving himself and the boxing public the opportunity to see how great he really can be. Up until this point, personal quests of greatness don't appear to be his primary motivating factor. To Haye, it seems that his most significant achievement in finalizing the deal with Klitschko is the even financial split, and not the opportunity to defeat the best.