Maybe I’ve gone soft. Maybe it was because I was watching from my armchair rather than a ringside seat (the fog of war is intoxicating). But Tony Bellew versus David Haye didn’t thrill me. It made me feel uneasy. And a little bit sad. Ever seen a wounded bull being peppered with barbs? Bloodied, exhausted, reduced to desperate charges? Haye should have been dragged from the arena by mules.
Matadors are valued for their ability to execute a quick and clean finish. Bellew was like a man attempting to bring down a bull with a butter knife. There were even fleeting moments when you thought the bull might prevail. At which point the bullfighting comparison runs out of steam.
Those fine beasts who are demeaned for sport in Spanish rings end up dead with their ears lopped off. Haye earned the fat end of £7m for his efforts against Bellew. That will make his ruptured Achilles sting a little less. But it didn’t make it any easier to watch. Call me old-fashioned, and maybe it’s not politically correct, but I prefer my boxers to have two legs.
Haye was a fine beast once, but injuries and inactivity no doubt diminished him long before that right leg went twang in the sixth round. You can rehabilitate and practice as much as you like, but nothing can replicate the howling fury of an actual fight. In the first couple of rounds Haye resembled the Tin Man, wildly swinging his axe to loosen rust. Bellew should be applauded for standing up to the few swings that landed, because some thought it might only take one hit. But Haye’s timing was so awry he made Bellew look like the second coming of Pernell Whitaker.
The irony was that when Haye settled down and started boxing, he made Bellew look ordinary. Then there was that twang, after which it was a grim spectacle. While the celebrations in Bellew’s camp were understandable, they seemed wholly out of place. They surely saw what we saw, a beaten opponent who had been dragging his leg for five rounds, as if in chains.
The sight of Haye almost begging for a rematch was a wretched one. But expect him to be back, even if Bellew has hung them up by then. The injury will take a long time to recover from, but it is also a get-out. He will convince himself that everything was as it should have been against Bellew, bar that pesky Achilles. And when he returns he will be 37, a good age for a golfer but not for a man whose job involves having his head scrambled. Who knows, he might still need the money. That lavish lifestyle he leads doesn’t come cheap, and neither do divorces.
Haye wasn’t the only sad sight on Saturday night. First there was Paulie Malignaggi, a two-weight world champion who fought some of the greats of his era, laid low by a man who would have needed a map to find him when he was at his peak. Then there was Derry Mathews, a fine servant of British boxing blasted out by one of its future stars. Mathews’ tears were a reminder of how tightly the sport grips its practitioners, so that they continue fighting long after their gifts have deserted them.
One of the most melancholy things I’ve seen in boxing was Alan Minter on a speedball, in a South London gym. Minter, a former middleweight world champion, was wearing a suit and tie. Sweat poured down his face, which was creased with concentration. Despite his best efforts, that speedball kept grinding to a halt, until eventually he gave up and flounced out. Almost 25 years after hanging them up, the fact that his gifts had deserted him continued to confound and frustrate him.
So when Malignaggi said he would “probably” quit after his loss to Sam Eggington, alarm bells started ringing. After a few months off, he might go searching for those gifts in the gym, having convinced himself that they can’t have strayed too far. I hope not, because he’s given enough.
In bullfighting, on the rare occasion an animal is allowed to live, they are promptly retired from competition and put out to stud. It sounds like a life Haye might like living. But I suspect he’ll be back in the gym in time, swinging like the Tin Man. Only he won’t have to search for a heart.