Haye vs Valuev: 10 years on from the night David slayed Goliath to become heavyweight champion of the world
Exclusive interview: Haye ramped up the rhetoric against the Russian 'Frankenstein' but admits he had to overcome his own doubts as well as a broken hand to dethrone Valuev in Nuremberg
It might be stating the bleeding obvious, but 10 years later the most striking thing about David Haye’s world heavyweight title fight with Nikolai Valuev remains their absurd difference in size. Valuev was so big he sat on a barstool between rounds. From certain angles Haye looked a lot like a hobbit punching the midriff of a towering orc. For a sport specifically designed to prevent this kind of mismatch, it had the appearance of one of the most heinous administrative errors of all time, where somehow the WBA had accidentally scheduled an enthusiastic gym-goer against a giant angry tree, and back at headquarters a man was pointing at his TV screen, hand quivering, saying quietly: “Boss, you need to see this.”
It was all a little cruel on Valuev, whose 7ft stature and weathered appearance fitted rather too neatly into some Western stereotype of a Russian monster. Haye used this to his advantage, ramping up the rhetoric beforehand to whip the media and boxing public – who had been starved of any great heavyweight contests for years – into a frenzy. “In between training sessions,” Haye had said in the build-up with a glint in his eye, “I’ll often watch DVDs of King Kong, Godzilla or Frankenstein, just to keep my mind on the task in hand and remind myself of the magnitude of the challenge.”
His portrayal of Valuev as something otherworldly worked, and the David vs Goliath narrative was written. But for all the bravado, the toothy grins and muscles flexing, Haye took the bout incredibly seriously. He did spend the build-up watching videos, but not of King Kong and Godzilla; instead he watched hours of Floyd Mayweather, Roy Jones Jnr and other masters of evasion. His strategy was clear: to land punches, yes, but ultimately he had to avoid getting clubbed by Valuev’s giant right fist if he was to escape that chilly night in Nuremberg as a heavyweight champion.
“My memories of the night are still vivid,” Haye tells The Independent. “Memories of walking to the ring knowing that this is it, I’ve never been in this situation where this is the one thing where you’ve convinced yourself, your family, everyone you know, that this is what it’s all for. I’m going to be heavyweight champion of the world. The doubts creep into the back of your mind. Am I mad? Am I crazy? Is this real? Have I just made all this up in my mind? You have all these doubts but you’ve got to know that it’s not just about what he can do. When you walk to that ring you need to have an air of confidence that isn’t false – I’ve done the work, I’ve paid the price, I’ve sacrificed, and I’ve done everything that’s humanly possible to give my body the best chance to win. I really trained hard for that fight, I was in supreme condition, I was 29, in my prime, I was so fresh for whatever he brought to the table.”
Haye may have brimmed with confidence, but things didn’t start well.
“I broke my hand in round two,” he remembers. “A big overhand right. This guy had a rock solid jaw and I broke my knuckle on his jaw. In boxing that doesn’t normally happen – normally somebody’s jaw breaks before your hand does when you hit it.”
It forced Haye to be even more cautious but perhaps in hindsight that restriction also helped him to preserve his energy. As the fight drew on, Valuev began to tire, and Haye was able to assert some authority to win the latter rounds of a hard-to-judge fight. “In the last round I nearly knocked him down to really solidify my points victory, but to get a victory on foreign soil against a guy that was promoted by Don King, who had a German promotion team, in Germany... any kind of decision that was remotely close would have gone in his favour so I really had to go above and beyond with my tactics, making sure that he didn’t land any significant blows.”
One judge scored the fight even, but the other two gave it to Haye by four points. He had never looked like achieving the knockout he promised beforehand, but Haye had succeeded in making Valuev appear sluggish and inaccurate in comparison to his own sharp movement and more precise punching.
In truth it was an ugly fight. This was a fallow time for heavyweight rivalries and the contest hardly showcased the division’s thrills and spills, but it created a spectacle at a time when there was little to draw fresh eyes to the sport’s blue riband weight class. Haye scooped a huge £2.1m paycheck, and went on to defend the title twice, against the American John Ruiz and fellow Briton Audley Harrison, before returning to Germany two years later when his reign came to an end at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko. And he also carved out a piece of history, as only the second fighter ever, after Evander Holyfield, to step up from cruiserweight world champion to win a heavyweight world title, a dream inspired by a familiar story.
“When I saw Sylvestre Stallone as Rocky Balboa go to Russia in Rocky IV, that moment really resonated with me, and for some weird reason I knew from then I’m going to become heavyweight champion of the world and I’m going to beat a big Russian to do it. I believed that was going to be my destiny. Even when I first turned pro, I was a cruiserweight, 13st, while Lennox Lewis was a heavyweight champion weighing 18st, I believed it. Even when I lost my first fight I somehow knew that was only to toughen me up mentally or physically, or teach me a lesson to then become heavyweight champion of the world. It felt like everything I’d been saying, everything I’d hoped since I was a little kid, all came together on one night.”