Boxing: Best of enemies ready for battle
Long ago in a very different boxing world David Haye and Audley Harrison were best friends before petty jealousies, a few wayward punches and the sickening influence of a million or two separated them forever.
They shared the highs and lows of winning and losing on the amateur trail in low-rent hotels all over the world, and they found ice for each other's wounds in defeat and champagne for every international medal they won.
Tonight will be the official end of their friendship when they are left alone in front of 18,000 people at Manchester's MEN Arena to fight for the World Boxing Association heavyweight belt. Sadly, there is not an outcome that ends with an outburst of camaraderie; the bad blood will remain long after the lights go out.
There are so many versions of how their friendship descended into the open hatred that has shocked even some of the sport's most cynical observers. A sparring session in Miami in 2006 is often cited, a refusal by Haye to help promote Harrison in 2008 is another reason. Both claim jealousy to be at the root of the estrangement.
There is an element of truth in every reason and a dozen others that have thankfully not made it into general circulation.
Both fighters feel they have been abused, both feel they are in the right and they share a desperation to exchange punches that has been missing from British boxing's landscape since Nigel Benn's snarling years in the early 90s.
Haye will be defending his WBA belt against his old mentor, but it is his reputation that is really the prize tonight and that never comes wrapped in cheap jewels.
In the two months since the fight was announced, Haye has done his best to talk himself into a corner. He told everybody that Harrison did not deserve the fight, which is true in some ways, he told people that Harrison is scared to do battle, which has elements of truth, and he predicted a savage win.
It needs to be pointed out that Harrison is not the worst or least deserving heavyweight title challenger in recent years and there is a strong historical argument that shows there never was a time when the heavyweight champion fought the best of the rest in an endless line of glory nights.
Harrison, meanwhile, has been quick to emphasise his thin credentials and highlight Haye's own fortunate passage to tonight's first bell. The reality is that in the modern business of boxing Haye is a perfectly respectable heavyweight champion and Harrison a fully entitled challenger.
There is also the chance that a real heavyweight championship fight might take place, which would lift tonight's proceedings to a position left vacant since 2003 when Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko traded punches and blood in their thriller in Los Angeles that ended with Klitschko's face in need of a surgeon's love and about 100 stitches.
Since that wonderful night the different heavyweight baubles have been bought and sold in a series of mostly forgettable fights involving dull Uzbeks, Ugandans, Costa Ricans, lame Americans, sad South Africans, Russian freaks and other assorted misfits addicted to the tarnished cause.
Fans have lost their desire to watch, the Americans have switched off and from this pit of predictable knock-overs emerged Haye, a kid from south London with a big mouth and the swagger of an old-school crank. Harrison claims he taught Haye a lot and he is right.
"Perhaps people have forgotten that David talked himself into the title fight last year," claimed Harrison. "He had done nothing as a heavyweight to deserve that chance, but he took it and he won it. He talked himself in just like I've talked myself in. That's not wrong, that's good business."
Harrison is now 39, a winner in 27 of his 31 professional fights and a man with enough injuries, slights and damned bad luck during his career to deserve a break or two the nearer he gets to his slippers.
However, boxing and Harrison have seldom seen eye-to-eye and he needs a performance of true grit to become a new Frank Bruno.
Haye is 30 and insists that he will quit the ring before the end of next year to try his luck in Hollywood. He wants to fight one of the towering Klitschko brothers before he calls it a day and becomes an action hero.
Haye loves the spotlight and has craved the glory that the ring provides since he was a little boy at the Fitzroy Lodge amateur boxing club in Lambeth. He fought inside the club's dripping arches many times and would savour the entrance and the victorious exit even if just 150 people had paid a fiver on the door and he had a bus pass to get home.
When the crowd settles tonight at about 10.15, and the lucrative all-British fight begins, it could be Harrison's long and accurate southpaw left that opens the show. The punch will need to be a factor in a Harrison win but he will also require Haye to be there in front of him, chin exposed and his balance off to make it work. It could be decided that way, but probably not.
It will be settled through speed, the most neglected element in heavyweight boxing and something that Haye, who will be three stone lighter than Harrison, has used to exploit the static, the slow and the confused. He will do the same tonight and end it when he decides that it is safe -- that might be a few more rounds than people think. (© Independent News Service)
David Haye v Audley Harrison
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