Friday July 1st, 2011

David Haye is not an American champion.

He's a full-blooded, thick-accented Brit. He watches soccer (sorry, futbol), drinks tea and pledges allegiance to the Queen.

As a boxer, however, Haye is as American as it gets.

Rattle off the most popular fighters in U.S. history: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Roy Jones, Floyd Mayweather. Great fighters, better trash-talkers. Ali nicknamed most of his opponents and once told Englishman Henry Cooper he should quit boxing and join the Beatles. Tyson threatened to eat Lennox Lewis' children. Mayweather turned the platform provided by HBO's 24/7 series into his personal smack-talking mega phone.

Talent only gets a boxer so far with American fans. The likes of Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao are the exceptions, not the rule. A fighter has to spice things up to endear himself to the WWE-raised youth in this country.

Haye has done that. He owns a T-shirt that depicts his likeness holding up the severed heads of Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. He calls Wladimir vulgar names and says his robotic style lulls fans to sleep. He created David Haye's Knockout, an iPhone game similar to Mike Tyson: Punch Out! in which Haye can decapitate an "Eastern European fighter" who looks remarkably like Wladimir.

Haye (23-1) can fight, too. He's a two-division champion with blinding speed and a staggering knockout percentage (88.5 percent). He presses the action from the opening bell and is rarely in a dull fight.

So what if Haye isn't American? Lewis isn't, but he fought 12 of his last 14 fights in front of mostly sold out crowds on U.S. soil. He won those crowds -- and the country -- with his skill, power and palpable air of confidence. Haye, 30, can do the same thing. In order to do so, however, he'll have to manager what no recent American contender has been able to:

He'll have to beat a Klitschko.

Haye will get his first crack at the First Family of the heavyweight division on Saturday, when he defends his WBA heavyweight title in a rare unification fight against Wladimir Klitschko (55-3) in Hamburg, Germany (HBO, 4:45 p.m.). It's being billed as the biggest heavyweight bout since 2003, when Lewis TKO'd Vitali Klitschko in a violent, bloody war. And for good reason: Since getting knocked out by Lamon Brewster in '04, Wladimir has owned the division. When Vitali retired in '04, Wladimir took over. He has won 13 fights in a row with only two going the distance. He owns two alphabet belts (IBF, WBO) while Vitali, who unretired in '08, owns another (WBC).

Worse, the Klitschkos have blitzed through every American challenger. Brewster, Chris Arreola, Tony Thompson, Calvin Brock and Ray Austin were all top-rated contenders, but each failed to muster the slightest semblance of a challenge.

Haye has a shot. He's not flawless: 40-year-old cruiserweight Carl Thompson knocked him out in '04 and Jean Marc Mormeck knocked him down in '07. Haye's heavyweight résumé is paper-thin (sorry, Nicolay Valuev fans) and his chin has never been tested by someone with Wladimir's crushing right hand.

But the fighters who have beaten Wladimir before -- Brewster, Corrie Sanders, Ross Puritty -- have been heavy-handed, uber-aggressive punchers who push forward relentlessly and punish the chin with thudding shots. That's Haye's M.O.

He's got Klitschko a little rattled, too, thanks to two years of trash talk and questioning his head and heart. Klitschko prides himself on being measured, on fighting disciplined fights behind his jab. There's no feeling, no emotion. Fighters aren't men, just candlepins he's determined to knock down.

Haye means more than that. The anger burns in Klitschko's eyes when Haye is in the room and the disgust is palpable in his voice when the subject turns to Haye. Klitschko has chased Haye for years. The prospect of getting Haye in the ring has made Klitschko giddy.

Haye is counting on that. He wants Klitschko off his game. He knows he can't win a fight where a patient Klitschko hides behind that long, stinging jab. But a fight where a flustered Klitschko swings wildly and exposes his chin is another matter.

The truth is, a Haye win would be good for boxing. The Klitschko Era has been impressive, but not always entertaining. Wladimir has tried to endear himself to America. He splits time between Miami and Los Angeles, has dated an American actress (Hayden Panetierre) and isn't averse to enjoying the night life. But his stoic demeanor and consonant-heavy name haven't sold many tickets and don't have casual fans looking for HBO.

Haye could. He claims he will retire at the end of this year, but the potential embarrassment of riches that await him in the U.S. could change that. Haye could reboot the division and storm through the contenders in the States. Haye-Arreola is a good fight. Haye-Tomasz Adamek, the Polish-born ex-cruiserweight champion who fights out of New Jersey, is another. Haye would have the full-throated support of HBO, which would jump at the chance to give another Mayweather-like personality a platform, and of a public starved to anoint someone as Lewis' heir.

Of course, Haye could have us all fooled. He could get into the ring against Klitschko, eat a few jabs, swallow a few right hands and call it a day. Many have before. But in a division needing a regime change, Haye represents the most promising prospect in years. It will be a boon for boxing if his bark matches his bite.

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