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David Haye – Audley Harrison: How a bout between the ‘Best of Enemies’ has actually exposed the worst of the sport

It’s been billed as another battle of Britain, but the reality is somewhat different. David Haye’s fight with Audley Harrison isn’t a high quality bout worthy of comparison with the greats of history: it’s a soap era that exposes the demise of a once great sport under the particular influences of the modern media:

 

Has the age of genuine boxing stars died under the spotlight of modern sports media, or has modern sports media effectively ended the age of, or need for, genuine boxing stars?

Either way, the relationship between the two has clearly had a negative impact on a sport that has great traditions and once boasted great sportsman. But Saturday’s bout between David Haye and Audley Harrison has already ably shown the depths to which pugalism has currently fallen., without so much as an eyebrow cut being cauterized after a particularly punishing round.

The simple fact is this: boxers in the modern age do not need to be great in order to become famous and, more significantly, rich.

The media can now do that for them.

Perhaps that’s inevitable, though, when the key moment in any fight’s success doesn’t even happen in the ring. It happens in the minutes and hours before, as the punters at home decide whether to click ‘yes’ when asked whether they want to pay £14.95 for the privilege of watching the scheduled 12 rounds of the evening’s main event.

That’s what the months of pre-bout hype is all about. That’s what the next morning’s anxious discussions — in both camps — will hinge on. If enough people pay to view, the bout will be viewed as a success, regardless of the quality of the contest.

In the end, the result will really only decide whether one or both camps will get to go through the whole tired charade again.

That’s why Haye — for all the talk and ill-advised t-shirts — has yet to fight either Klitschko (he was due to fight Wladimir in 2009, but pulled out through injury). Clearly the two top heavyweights around at the minute, financially and in terms of his career it makes no sense for the Hayemaker to fight and lose to either of the imposing Russians — even if they are clearly eager to get their hands on a man who they view as all bark, no bite.

Far better, off the back of a career-defining but hardly emphatic defeat of the lumbering Russian Nikolai Valuev, to fight a few slow-moving punchbags (John Ruiz) and cash in on the wave of interest, rather than take on a genuine challenge and potentially see everything come crashing down with an embarrassing defeat.

Because, as long as his record stays passable, Haye has everything else required of a boxing star the media can mold. He is likeable, charismatic, but most importantly is successful (the WBA belt he took of Valuev ticks that box), and gives the impression of being able to chin someone when called upon. All he really needs is someone to fight — someone who can be made to look like a challenge without really posing one.

And that’s where Harrison comes in, the latest and most convenient of opponents. For a promoter it makes perfect sense: Harrison enjoys a great profile in Haye’s biggest market (Britain) in spite of, rather than because of, his performances.

Instantly, the fight sets up as the new hero of British boxing against its most recent villain.

And, even better, the two have a history together (having been regularly described before the fight was announced as ‘once close friends’), a fact that has unsurprisingly been twisted into a nice pre-bout storyline.

Haye-Harrison has been labelled a fight of the ‘Best of Enemies’, but the reality is the hatred is nothing but engineered. On screen they may be quick to profess their hatred for each other — most notably when Haye, in an ill-advised but publicity gaining comment, suggested the bout would be “as one sided as a gang rape” — but reports of convivial lunches taken together in the canteens of the TV stations they are visiting have still managed to slip out, despite attempts (in themselves a damaging indictment of the propaganda machine) to quash them.

Such PR underlines the opening point about boxing currently: The image is more important than the reality. If Sky Sports and the two camps (who all have a vested interest) can convince the punter that there is genuine animosity between the two fighters, then all will win.

And that’s before the fight even begins. This is modern boxing — the pre-match talk matters far more in real terms than what goes on in the ring.

Take Harrison’s career. As a sportsman, his CV is arguably as impressive than Haye’s, with a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics a permanent reminder of the quality he once had while in the amateur ranks. His pro career, in contrast, has lurched from one disaster to another (although his record, 27(24)-4, isn’t awful), with the lost sums the BBC put in to have the exclusive rights to his bouts (in the region of £4m, or around 33,333 licence fees) effectively ending terrestrial interest in the sport.

Defeats were part of the problem, but equally the BBC understandable lack of time and opportunity to properly promote bouts caused problems. Boxing no longer sells itself, and as the BBC couldn’t take time to shout from their market stall the fights they televised inevitably fell flat.

And so Sky step in. With the time and resources to fully promote any fight they take on (a crucial advantage over the all-encompassing responsibilities of the BBC), with enough effort even the worst mutton can be dressed up to look like lamb.

Or David Haye as Muhammad Ali.

And that basically sums up Haye-Harrison. It isn’t being promoted by Vince McMahon, WWE‘s head honcho, but it might as well be. After all, the difference between the two sports these days isn’t immediately obvious.

Just like wresting, it’s getting people to purchase the event that’s the key. Unlike wrestling, there isn’t really an overriding incentive to put on a great show that will convince the audience to come back again and again. If that happens, great, but due to the reduced number of participants, even if ii does not everyone involved will still get very rich.

Once the fight starts, and the viewing figures begin to come in, the fight itself will almost become the incidental conclusion. Don’t get my wrong, both men had to show a great degree of boxing skill to get to this stage, but now they have arrived they are in the odd situation where it is no longer the be-all-and-end-all.

The result is basically irrelevant (although a Haye defeat won’t do anyone any favours in the long-term), with a close fought victory for Haye perhaps ideal as it will open up the possibility of a (similarly lucrative) rematch.

After all, if Haye still won’t fight a Klitschko (and you imagine he will put that off as long as possible), he won’t exactly have many other money-spinning options (other than a less-than-engrossing mandatory defence against Ruslan Chagaev next year) available to him.

If boxing really was wrestling, that’s the result McMahon would be demanding.

Boxing, by its very nature, experiences peaks and troughs in interest and excitement. We are currently in a trough, whatever Sky Sports News might tell us on the hour, every hour. The last boxing match truly worth of its pre-match coverage was arguably back in 2007, between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Ricky Hatton.

The bout was hyped within an inch of its life — but perhaps with good reason. The tagline was ‘Undefeated’, as to that point neither man (Mayweather: 38 (24KO)-0, Hatton 43 (31)-0) had been beaten in their illustrious careers.

Yet, when the first bell finally rang, such hype was proven to be woefully misplaced.

With the exception of a few mitigating arguments, as a spectator Haye would no doubt have been inclined to make his ‘gang rape’ comment once again.

The American dominated from start to finish, picking off Hatton from distance and brutally exposing the fact the likeable Mancunian had eagerly stepped up a weight class, only to clumsily step into the punches of a man of way better class.

But at least one fighter in that bout had genuine ‘class’. On Saturday, we won’t be getting that from either fight. We’ll be getting mutton dressed as lamb.

Or wrestlers in everything but spandex.

Twitter: @alexdimond

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November 12, 2010 - Posted by | Comment, Sport | , ,

1 Comment »

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