The true size of the task facing David Haye in his attempts to revive his career was revealed this week when the TV rights for his comeback were snapped up by an obscure British cable channel.
The 35-year-old former WBA world heavyweight champion will end a near four-year hiatus when he takes on Australian Mark de Mori in London this Saturday.
Haye hasn’t boxed since an impressive five-round demolition of Dereck Chisora in July 2012, while a year earlier he had challenged to unify the division against then undisputed champion Wladimir Klitschko.
His win over Chisora was a major event in the UK and screened live by Sky Sports, while his chastening pay-per-view defeat to Klitschko was deemed the biggest heavyweight bout in years and reached a global television audience of more than 500 million viewers in 150 countries.
This weekend, his comeback will be shown on the free-to-air Dave, the self-proclaimed ‘home of witty banter’, and a channel where you’d usually find round the clock repeats of old comedy shows. Haye will hope that doesn’t prove a cruel metaphor for this final chapter in his career.
The Londoner was once arguably Britain’s most popular boxer, but the capricious nature of the sports fan should never be underestimated and Haye has little credit left in his account. He failed miserably in backing up the big talk when he eventually snared a showdown with Klitschko (subsequently blaming an injured toe), twice withdrew from bouts with Tyson Fury late in the day, while his endless reality television appearances eroded his credibility further.
Indeed, it seems an age since his terrific ability inside the ring defined him.
Haye was a sensation at cruiserweight, cleaning up the division and knocking out champion Jean-Marc Mormeck in his Paris stronghold in an underrated away victory for a British fighter.
He stepped up to heavyweight, and in spite of the harsh truth being that he is probably a little too small for the division, he beat the biggest man in world boxing with a memorable hit and run mission against Russian ogre Nikolai Valuev.
Haye is a two-weight world title holder and one of the most exciting fighters Britain has ever produced. He has 26 wins in his 28 fights and 24 knockouts. You daren’t take your eyes off the action because the end could arrive at any moment – the very essence of heavyweight boxing. It shouldn’t be the case that Haye has anything to prove, but it really feels like he does.
He’s right to say he has “unfinished business”. So here he finds himself, exchanging leather with an Aussie journeyman on a network familiar with few bar insomniacs. Now it’s up to Haye to change perceptions, and he’ll know he is perhaps only a couple of devastating performances away from being back on the road to mainstream appreciation.
People love entertaining, big-punching heavyweights and Haye is just that. De Mori, however, is nowhere near the level a prime Hayemaker operated at, so a brutal, crushing KO victory this weekend is the minimum requirement if he is to assuage the tide of scepticism.
And assuming surgery and a long respite has cured the shoulder problem which put the brakes on his career then there are plenty of reasons to believe he can be the force of old.
Haye isn’t a fighter who has been in wars. In fact, the vast majority of his fights have ended in his favour, and well within the distance. He has only really taken punishment twice – once as a novice against the wily Carl Thompson, and then in eating a feast of jabs against Klitschko.
Seemingly reinvigorated and enjoying work with new trainer Shane McGuigan, Haye insists he feels in tremendous shape. Let’s hope so, as heavyweight boxing is much better for his presence.
With Fury having dethroned Klitschko and the emergence of fighters like Deontay Wilder, Luis Ortiz, Joseph Parker and, of course, fellow Brit Anthony Joshua, a fit and firing Haye would further enhance a resurgent division.
Too often derided these days, Haye needs a serious statement of intent this Saturday and all that ‘witty banter’ will soon go away.
Myanmar fight fans swarmed to a Yangon hotel on Thursday for a glimpse of a mixed martial arts specialist dubbed the “Burmese Python” as he returned home after over a decade in the United States.
Aung La N Sang, who has caused a stir in the kickboxing-mad Southeast Asian nation since his arrival earlier this week, made his first public appearance at the press conference to promote a fight planned for March.
The 30-year-old told AFP on Wednesday that coming back to Myanmar “felt like a dream, but at the same time it felt like home”.
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He also told reporters that he wanted to help Myanmar fighters, trained on the bone-crunching local kickboxing style lethwei, to diversify their techniques in order to compete internationally in mixed martial arts.
Aung La N Sang was born in Myanmar when the country was still under junta rule, but left when he was 18 to study agriculture in the US state of Indiana.
He had planned to return to his homeland to start a farm in the northern state of Kachin — a war-torn area bordering China where he was born. But after discovering a love for jiu jitsu his “dreams have changed” and he stayed on to train in mixed martial arts in America, where he now runs a gym.
The 6’1” middleweight fighter now has 16 wins and 9 losses under his belt, and a keen following in the mixed martial arts community. But he is especially beloved by boxing fans in Myanmar, who have battled the country’s lacklustre Internet speeds to follow his progress online and laud his visit on social media.
“We are very proud of him,” said Saw Lwin, one of several dozen fans who packed Thursday’s event. “He makes the world know about Myanmar and we can believe one of our fighters is famous in the US.”
Lethwei is hugely popular in Myanmar and local pugilists say it is the toughest member of Southeast Asia’s kickboxing family — even more brutal than Thailand’s better known Muay Thai. Head-butts are allowed and competitors have their hands wrapped but do not wear gloves as they attempt to batter their opponent into submission.
— ONE Championship (@ONEFCMMA) January 7, 2016
Spectators in front row seats are close enough to hear bones shatter and expect a sporadic showering of blood and sweat. A win is by knock-out only, but if no one gets knocked out in five three-minute rounds, the match ends in a draw.
Aung La N Sang predicted a bright future for the sport to rival Muay Thai, if its “primitive” rules could be modernised. He had no formal training in lethwei growing up, but said it is “as normal as eating and sleeping here”.
“All the boys want to fight,” he said.
He added changes in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party won landmark November elections, meant he would likely return more frequently to the nation.
After this week’s visit he will return for his ONE Championship match in mid-March against an undisclosed opponent at a stadium in Yangon near where he lived as a child. The match will be broadcast across Asia, where the sport commands an avid fanbase.
“It’s going to be a homecoming and I am going to sell that place out,” he told AFP.
Holding court at the Gandhi Hall in Manchester, Vijender Singh tries to highlight the art of the jab, combinations and conditioning.
His audience at the city’s Indian Association are clearly not boxing enthusiasts, but nevertheless interested and intrigued by a man barely known in his current base, but a sporting and movie hero back in their homeland, honoured with the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Padma Shri awards.
Vijender is India’s boxing pioneer, winning an historic first Olympic medal in the sport for his country with bronze at the 2008 Games and then the same at the World Amateur Boxing Championships a year later.
“It changed my life,” he recalls of the Beijing showpiece as lucrative commercial and television appearances followed. So too a Bollywood film when he starred in Akshay Kumar’s Fugly last year.
— BoxNation (@boxnationtv) January 5, 2016
The 30-year-old middleweight has now been approached to do a movie of his life, just like boxing compatriot Mary Kom – the mother-of-three who won bronze in the flyweight division at the London Olympics.
But Vijender, friends with screen idol Salman Khan, has embarked on a new journey in England with a professional career as part of the famed Frank Warren and Queensberry Promotions stable.
“I have offers, people saying why don’t you do a movie of your life, but I say this is just the beginning,” he tells Sport360. “I don’t want to just do a movie of my life now and finish. There is still more to do, more to achieve.
“When I get to 60, 70, that’s a time to make a movie. I came to England for boxing. My focus is on my pro career now and it’s time to grow. It might be too late at 30, but I will give it my best shot. I gave my best years to my country, to my amateur career, went to three Olympics, but this is all for me now.
“I had to do this. I knew I would regret not trying to turn professional. If I get to 50, 60, I would look back and think why didn’t you do this? It’s a big platform.
“Maybe I will become No1, or maybe I will go out with nothing, but at least I will have no regrets. I believe if you are good in your work, everything will follow. Performance matters for me. I don’t fight for awards.”
Three fights and three wins in three months, including December’s impressive second-round stoppage of Bulgarian Samet Hyuseinov on the Andy Lee-Billy Joe Saunders title bill in Manchester, offers hope of more success.
Trainer Lee Beard, who has worked with former world champion Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather Snr, admires Vijender’s attitude and desire. He likens his style to that of Mexican former multi-weight world champion Erik Morales and adds: “Vijender’s progressing at a rapid rate and is tailor-made for the professional game. Look at the win over Hyuseinov.
“He ticks most of the boxes and, with the right training and preparation, I feel he could win a world title in 12-18 months. Everything depends on him. He’s very strong and the bigger the test, the better he will perform.”
But Vijender will not get over-excited, nor over-confident.
“I don’t believe in fairy tales, I’m realistic and I’m quiet,” he says. “I come from a small village, Kaluwas, in the Bhiwani district, and am proud to be a villager. My father worked as a bus driver and my mother was a housewife.
“You have to stay humble and just do your best. You can have dreams, but don’t float on air, and don’t forget your roots. Salman always told me when I was in Mumbai, when I got the name and fame in 2008, he said never go for the parties and just do your work and go back home and sleep.
“It’s a crazy place and he said just do your shoot and go home and train hard. Whenever I go to those parties I have seen what it’s like and you have to stay focused on what you want to achieve. Of course I would love to fight for a world title, but I go step-by-step. This is one last shot, 100 per cent. Every fight is a final fight for me.”
One of Vijender’s biggest fights, though, came out of the ring in 2013 when he was caught up in a drugs scandal. The drama began when his name cropped up after Punjab police recovered heroin, worth around Rs.130 million (Dh7.1m), from NRI Anoop Singh Kahlon’s house in Zirakpur.
— Vijender Singh (@boxervijender) December 27, 2015
A car registered in the name of Vijender’s wife Archana was also recovered near the house and it was alleged that he had bought the drug for personal consumption on 12 different occasions from Kahlon. Sparring partner Ram Singh was also arrested and accused.
Vijender denied the claims and, following a request by the Indian Sports Ministry, he underwent a National Anti-Doping Agency test. The blood and urine samples proved negative and there was undoubted relief when he was cleared.
“You know, it happens, it’s part of life,” he says of the experience in hushed tones. “It taught me a lot, especially to be careful and don’t trust so many people.
“There are lots of people jealous and need attention and publicity. People knew me in India and they were happy to get on the camera, get pictures. It was like we are targeting Vijender Singh, but that’s fine.
“During that time, for one month, I switched off the TV, switched off my phone and ate and slept, that’s it. I tried to ignore all what was happening. I knew 100 per cent I’m innocent and everything will be OK.”
The ring is where Vijender finds solace. Through his amateur exploits, he has a position as a deputy superintendent with the Haryana Police department, but “I don’t go out and chase criminals”.
“This is what I enjoy the most, training, boxing,” he says. “You are scared sometimes, but sometimes that is good for performance.
“Fear helps you in the ring, pushes you to deliver. In India, everyone likes cricket and football and other team sports, but I love individual sports. In the ring you are on your own. If you are not fighting good, it’s on you. I think that’s why I chose boxing.”
Vijender will return for a planned fight on February 13 in Liverpool. With Commonwealth and Asian titles the target in 2016, a bout in India and the UAE is on the cards.
“Maybe we will get a fight in Mumbai or Delhi,” he reveals. “But Dubai is also on the list, for an Asian title. I have been many times and there is a large Asian community in Dubai. I have friends there who have five-star hotels and malls. Maybe we could hold a show at a hotel.”
And the Bhiwani bruiser will aim to show he can be a box-office hit, even without Bollywood.