By Johnny Walker
Modern boxing, of course, often contains an aspect of theatre. It was a young Cassius Clay who introduced the notion of “trash-talking” to boxing fans on the mass level, with his memorable and sometimes tasteless taunting of Sonny Liston, and then later (as Muhammad Ali), of his lifetime rival, Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
In the latter case, however, Ali went far enough with his taunts that for Frazier, the joke wasn’t funny anymore. What started out as typical Ali trash-talking to sell tickets and create interest devolved into something deeply personal between the two men, with Ali’s unfair contention that Frazier was an “Uncle Tom” especially causing much pain for Smokin’ Joe and his family. To this day, there exists much hard feeling between the two men; even though they have both tried to get past the deep hatred at various times, fragments of the hostility and resentment remains.
There is a parallel with the Ali-Frazier situation seen today in the relationship between Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye. Ever since Haye confronted Klitschko on an escalator in London a couple of years ago, when Wladimir barely knew who he was, the tension between the two has been building. While Haye’s often tasteless and sensational remarks have no doubt done the job he intended, getting him a very lucrative title shot that he arguably hasn’t earned, the theatre has finally bled over into reality and created some very real hard feelings between the two men.
Interestingly, it is the more gentlemanly and laid-back Klitschko brother who has ended up in this situation with David Haye. Wlad’s brother Vitali is far more temperamentally inclined toward the kind of hostility that Haye cultivates: after all, Vitali is a man who will brawl in the halls of the Ukraine parliament against pro-Putin factions in the government. According to Haye’s manager Adam Booth, Vitali once grabbed Haye by the throat and choked him in a German restaurant when the Brit threw a copy of the famous “beheaded Klitschko brothers” magazine illustration in Klitschko’s lap. You don’t mess with Vitali Klitschko unless you have a lot of your own people around to protect you, as Haye did when he threw a couple of weak taunts Vitali’s way at this week’s presser.
Unlike his bad-ass older brother, Wladimir Klitschko really is a nice guy, a gentleman. Ironically, this fact seems to count against him with a lot of American boxing fans who have been raised in the Mike Tyson era and expect the heavyweight champ to be a thug (an expectation David Haye has picked up on and is only too happy to try to fulfill). Perhaps this (along with the fact that Wlad lacks his brother’s granite chin and nasty disposition in the ring) is the reason Haye decided to zero in on Wladimir rather than Vitali: it makes for a better contrast. Better a good guy versus a bad guy than two nasty guys going against each other. Wlad has been forced out of his temperamental comfort zone by Haye, and has become enmeshed in a good, old-fashioned, Hatfields and McCoys type feud.
At first, the Wlad-Haye feud seemed to be just more boxing theatre, but the antagonism and taunts, so familiar by now that they need not be recounted here, have been going on for two years running and just keep getting nastier. As seen at this week’s presser, and in the recent HBO “face-off” between the two men, mediated by a nervous-looking Max Kellerman, the tension between Haye and Wladimir is now so thick you could cut it with a knife. If this thing started out as a way to get some attention for the heavyweight division, it has gone beyond that now. As with Ali and Frazier, there is no question of these two ever ending up as bosom buddies, or even lukewarm friends. There is far too much water under the bridge now.
The theatre/reality line was further crossed this week when the Haye camp decided send out a stooge to accuse respected Klitschko trainer Emmanuel Steward of wrapping Wlad’s hands illegally before his first fight with Lamon Brewster, causing a livid Steward to curse and even physically threaten the offending party. The antagonism is now so rife that one can anticipate some real fireworks at the weigh-in later this week. By fight-time, the pressure gauge will have spilled over into the red.
What started out on an escalator in London will end in a ring in Hamburg. Along the way, what was once hype has turned into hate. Stay tuned.