“The worst place to get hit?” repeats David Haye, rubbing his knuckles. “Probably the temple. That’s a really bad one. But a surprise punch in the solar plexus is no walk in the park either.”
As if to demonstrate, Haye hits me in the sternum. I say ‘hits’ – it must be a tap by the heavyweight’s usual standards – but I’m still almost knocked backwards off the exercise bench we’re using for our interview.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that David Haye is a man who doesn’t know his own strength. In fact, the opposite is true. Haye is all too aware of his own strength – and this self-confidence has often got the 36-year old in trouble, both in and outside the ring.
Just this week, Haye courted controversy by claiming that he wants to ‘hospitalise’ Tony Bellew – his opponent for Saturday’s grudge match at the O2 Arena in London. The comments, now subject to an investigation by the British Boxing Board of Control, are merely the latest jabs in the Haye/Bellew fight – a feud which began when the two came to blows at last November’s announcement press conference.
It was this Haye – the confrontational, brawling and outspoken boxer – that I had expected to meet upon travelling to his private gym, Hayemaker HQ, in Vauxhall. Built into a railway arch, the inconspicuous facility isn’t showy in the least from the outside. But, step inside, walk past Haye’s garage – a Range Rover and Mercedes E-Class proudly sitting up front – and it’s a different matter.
The worst place to get hit? Probably the temple. That’s a really bad one
A private sauna, fully-stocked kitchen, boxing ring and half a gym’s worth of professional equipment make up the boxer’s private training space – wealth worlds away from South London, whose trains rumble noisily overhead.
And then there’s Haye himself. Anyone who has spent time with the multiple World Champion will know that the boxer’s bombast and bravado – as extreme as it may get – comes only as a result of his excitability and passion. Even as we meet, and prepare to undertake a short training session, Haye is talking a mile-a-minute, laughing about how hard he’s going to push me between sips of a protein shake.
“When everyone’s watching you, you give much more effort,” he says, gesturing at the photographer and his own media team. “If there weren’t cameras here, and people to cheer you on, then you wouldn’t be able to do a third of what you’re about to do.
“It’s the potential embarrassment of failure – that’s what gets that little bit more out of you. And I find that extremely helpful. I love getting a little crowd in here when I’m training, because I don’t want to fail. I’m a bit vain – I don’t like to show people that I’m struggling. And, that way, I get more out of myself.”
After a brief warm-up, we move onto bag work – where Haye offers some further advice.
“When I practice my punches, I think solely of my opponent. I think that he’s throwing punches, coming at me. So I’m slipping, moving, throwing punches back. Real full-blooded, hard punches.
“This isn’t an easy workout,” he adds, holding the bag. “A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to ‘explode’ like this. Punching, especially, takes a hell of a lot out of you. It takes a lot of energy – and not just physical. Mental and emotional as well.
“So how you’re feeling now, throwing punches at those bags, that’s how I feel when I’m fighting. Except I’m also being punched in the face at the same time – by guys who have been training and practising punching people in the face since they were 10 years old.
“It’s the getting hit as well as hitting,” continues the heavyweight, as we move across to the exercise bench to continue our interview. “So imagine how tired you were getting there, but all the while taking punches.”
I ask the boxer where the worst place, in his opinion, is to get punched – and immediately regret it. But, even after I’ve steadied myself following the shot to the sternum, he’s still reeling off the body’s tenderest targets.
It’s the potential embarrassment of failure - that’s what gets that little bit more out of you
“Anywhere around the jaw. You get punched across your teeth and that can push your teeth back in. You get punched in your eye socket and that can rupture your eye. You can get smacked in your liver so you’re pissing blood. It’s pretty tough – one of the toughest sports on the planet. But that’s the game we play.”
Haye left the ‘game’ in 2011, seemingly retiring for good. But now, back on the scene – and with a new vegan diet, no less – the boxer says he’s feeling better than ever.
“I know my body. I know what works for me and, more importantly, I know what doesn’t work for me. I’m healthy, I’m feeling good, I’ve got the energy I need, and I’m firing on all cylinders. I feel better now than I’ve ever felt before. And I’m as confident as I’ve ever been for any fight.
“I’ve been training for months, but now I’m winding down,” Haye adds. “During peak training, I’ll punch around five times a week – and that’ll include sparring, pad work, bag work and technical shadow boxing. I’ll also do circuits, running, sprint work, weight training. It’s intense.”
The boxer reveals that going vegan has been a challenge, but he believes it will give him the upper hand – or fist – in the long run.
“I find it a lot more difficult to get the calories I need now I’m a vegan,” says Haye. “But I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got an excellent nutritionist called Aidan Goggins who takes my blood every month, and ensures that any minerals or nutrients that I’m lacking due to not eating meat or animal products are topped up through my diet and meal plan.
“This is the best part for me,” says the boxer, eyeing himself in the mirrored wall. “All the hard work is done. I’m not going to get any fitter between now and the fight. All I’d do now is risk injuring myself – so it’s not the time to go crazy. It’s just about looking forward to the fight.”
Punching, especially, takes a hell of a lot out of you. It takes a lot of energy - and not just physical. Mental and emotional as well
So how sure is The Hayemaker that he’ll come out on top this Saturday?
“I’m incredibly confident. My biggest motivation is simply to prove that I’m the best. It always has been – ever since I was in the playground as a kid. And, even though the other guy wants to kill you – and knows he’s going to get millions if he can beat you – you can’t let that get to you.
“When I was 21, I got to the finals of the World Championships. It was still a massive achievement, but I got a silver – and I was bitterly, bitterly disappointed. I’d lost, I was a loser.
“I want the number one spot. I want the world to recognise me as the best. And that’s it. If you’re happy with second place, boxing is not the sport for you.”
Tickets are sold out, but you can watch David Haye vs Tony Bellew exclusively live on Sky Sports Box Office on 4thMarch from The 02, London