I am willing to bet it will be all hugs after the fight between David Haye and Tony Bellew. Whether it is all smiles might be difficult to tell, what with Bellew’s head having ended up in Row Z.
Boxing writers are often asked whether pre-fight animus is real or fake. What they answer in private and what they put down in print, for the benefit of their editors and readers, is often markedly different. It’s not only boxers and promoters who are in the business of spinning hatred.
Haye and Bellew clearly aren’t the best of buddies. But they hate each other about as much as a couple of rival bears circling a carcass in a forest clearing. All that gnashing of teeth and foaming at the mouth is the law of the wild. It has nothing really to do with hate, it's just what they do.
There is no sport wilder than boxing, which is why Haye’s apparently fractious relationship with Bellew is actually mutually beneficial. When that carcass is stripped clean, they’ll both be smacking their lips and rubbing their bellies. For Saturday's combatants, it is pretty much the perfect fight. Haye will think Bellew provides a big reward for little risk, while thrusting him back into the limelight and paving the way for even bigger rewards ahead. Bellew will think Haye provides the biggest reward, full stop – to hell with the risk, get those chips cashed sharpish and let's get out of Dodge.
Perfect fights for combatants are often very far from being perfect fights for fans. Boxers are wise to this phenomenon, which is why Muhammad Ali asked Chuck Wepner to call him a nigger on live TV before their 1975 fight, in an attempt to boost flagging ticket sales. For the record, Wepner refused, only for Ali to claim he called him it anyway. Wepner didn’t mind – Ali had helped earn him a few dollars more, as well a place in history.
Most people expect Haye to finish Bellew early; most people expect it to be a bland pay-per-view on Sky. So, some flavour must be conjured from somewhere. Hence the handbags at the press conference to announce the fight; hence Haye vowing to “cave Bellew’s skull in”; hence Haye calling out Bellew’s fans in Liverpool on Monday. I should add that Bellew didn’t exactly behave like a saint.
It was all a bit grubby. Although it did bring to mind that famous bout of verbal jousting between Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, after 10 Jagerbombs in the Dublin Slug and Lettuce:
Wilde: “Shaw, you are an excellent man - you have no enemies and none of your friends like you.”
Shaw: “Shut up you mug, I’m gonna to smash your fucking head in.”
After which Wilde struck Shaw with a camera tripod and they repaired to WB Yeats's Wine Lodge.
Haye is a slippery customer. He is the type of athlete my mum might see on a panel show and say of him: “I like that David, he comes across well.” That is because she doesn’t know about all the other stuff: the time he said he’d beat Jean Marc Mormeck like LA police beat Rodney King; the time he said his beating of Audley Harrison would be like a “gang rape”; the time he went toe to toe with Dereck Chisora in Munich, and not in a ring. Raised in South London, he's never really left the street.
But working-class Londoners of an older vintage do not appreciate his shtick. Of Haye, my dad is likely to say: “The man’s got no class.” Because being a tough guy and having class never used to be considered mutually exclusive.
Bellew, like Haye, is a smart man, eloquent and personable, at least when there’s no carcass to fight over. But I’ve seen him behave appallingly, as when he was working for the BBC at a recent show, where he removed his cans and started spitting abuse at Haye, who was sitting a couple of rows in front, seemingly minding his own business. There’s a reason Sly Stallone cast Bellew in his most recent Rocky movie, namely because the bristly Scouser is a pretty convincing heel.
Too often in modern boxing, class goes out of the window when there are two men trying to squeeze their very last into a pay-per-view event. Haye wants as much cash as possible, if only to keep himself in the style to which he has become accustomed. Bellew wants as much cash as possible, because he knows this could be his last seriously big pay day. He still holds the WBC cruiserweight title, but it’s slim pickings down there. Meanwhile, promoter Eddie Hearn is rubbing his hands together, probably still wondering how this match-up happened in the first place.
Had Haye stayed down at cruiserweight he could have reigned over the division for years. Quick and able to knock statues off plinths with a flick of his right wrist, he only appeared in two world title fights in the division but is still rated as one of the best 200lbers of all time. Bellew, on the other hand, is a capable cruiserweight who has made the most of his talent. That is to be greatly admired, but if he follows through on his promise and comes out bombing against Haye, it’s goodnight Tony.
Once he’s retrieved his head from Row Z, never mind hugs, Bellew would do well to plant a big kiss on Haye’s lips and offer to buy him dinner. And not a Nando’s chicken dinner. A lack of class can generate a lot of cash in boxing. This pair might even be best friends and they just don’t know it.