50 Shades of Haye

The recurring playlist of eighties disco and soul music had run its course and stopped. He'd been training for nearly three hours and pools of sweat by his feet were a testament to the intensity. So too were the grunts and cries heard each time he sent a left or right fist in the direction of the helpless heavy bag in front of him, stark sounds replacing those previously made by Motown greats.

Yet it's never good enough. At least not in the eyes of his trainer, the man armed with the task of ensuring this boxer is well-revised ahead of his big examination in a matter of weeks. And, as a lull in work rate creeped up on the pair, trainer Adam Booth swiftly approached student David Haye and spoke, almost whispered, in his ear.

"He thinks you're a joke," said Booth. "Dereck doesn't think you've got any fight in you. He doesn't think you want this. A joke, David. That's what he thinks of you."

Too tired to respond, Haye shut his eyes and grimaced, an increase in work-rate saying more than a thousand words ever could. Meanwhile, Booth, perhaps at the point he was starting to enjoy himself, edged away and smiled, satisfied with sudden improvement.

"That's all I've needed to do this camp," he explained to me. "Every now and again, when David gets tired, all that's needed is a quick word in his ear, a reminder of why we're all down here on a Friday night. Then, just like that, his work picks up again. Tiredness goes out the window and he finds his focus again. To be honest, his focus has been as good as it's ever been for this fight."

On Saturday night (July 14) in East London, Booth leads Haye into battle against fellow Londoner Dereck Chisora, a moody, temperamental former British heavyweight champion, and the primary voice inside Haye's head each time he steps through the doors to his Vauxhall gymnasium.

The former world cruiserweight champion and WBA heavyweight titleholder starts the fight as favourite, but has been absent from the ring for a year and, furthermore, has dragged himself out of retirement to settle this particular feud. Never a great believer in the concept of ring rust, Haye nevertheless has had to switch his mindset from that of a retired achiever to one of a hungry, hateful contender again. Thankfully, a long-time love of vanity training ensured he remained in shape during his time away, but, on nights like these, the returning drifter remembers what it means to be a boxer, a champion, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

"Chisora can't do anything but try and make this fight ugly for me," said Haye while shadowboxing, his deep beard symbolising his own training camp ugliness. "He can't box with me and he can't try and out-think or out-punch me. The more openings he gives me, the more shots he's going to take to the head and body. I've seen him hurt before, to body and head, and I know he'll be getting numbed by my jab alone in the very first round."

I've never known Haye to be anything but confident heading into a crucial fight, but, admittedly, he seems even more confident than usual this time around. Only past collisions with Audley Harrison and Enzo Maccarinelli gave him a greater sense of belief, and one can safely assume it's purely the agricultural style of Chisora that places even the slightest element of doubt in the heavyweight's mind.

"He's a plodder who moves his head because he's been told to and jabs to the body because he's been told to," added Haye. "It's all very predictable. I also don't think he throws as many quality punches as people think. He likes to be busy, but it's mostly with pointless movement and cuffing shots inside, most of which he smothers through stupidity.

"Don't get me wrong, he'll make it ugly. For as long as I'm bouncing shots off his chin, Dereck will try and make it ugly. But, remember, he hasn't fought anybody like me before. He hasn't fought somebody quicker and more powerful than him, somebody the same size as him. While his recent opponents were punching down and over him, the tip of my straight punches will be detonating on his jaw."

Earlier that evening, Haye sparred with a number of heavyweight sparring partners, all of whom were charged with the mission of emulating Chisora and applying constant pressure. They spent one round in his presence and then promptly stepped out, allowing the next man to shimmy into the firing line and attempt to improve on the work of his predecessor. The owner of the gym, of course, remained present and switched on and at all times, denied both a round's rest or, indeed, moment's rest, should the sparring partners successfully act upon the orders of coach Booth.

This communion, usually scheduled for around eight o'clock in the evening, had been a regular occurrence during this particular camp. In fact, such is the need to familiarise himself with a style he hasn't encountered for a while, Haye has never sparred as frequently as he has for this fight. Moreover, in addition to perfecting strategy, sparring also offers its participants the chance to be hit, both hard and often. Whether he liked it or not, the returning fighter needed to remember what that felt like.

Interestingly enough, after week one of sparring, I met with the Londoner and noticed a slight black eye, which immediately caught my attention. As I pointed it out to him, he rubbed his hand along it and shrugged, insisting his face felt "like a little baby's" at the moment and that scuffs and sparring souvenirs were habitual. "When you haven't boxed for a while, or haven't even sparred, it can take a little while for your skin to toughen up and get back to normal," he reassured. "Mine is a little fragile at the moment, that's all."

While his skin gradually got used to the feeling of leather, Haye too was trying to solve a style he'd not encountered since taking on former world cruiserweight champion Jean-Marc Mormeck back in 2007. Alas, since that night in Paris, Haye had been treated to an array of tall, upright six-foot-four plus boxers or punchers, save for John Ruiz, who he met in 2010 and for which he had next to no sparring.

"It took some getting used to," admitted Haye. "To begin with, I was finding my feet, almost trying to remember how to do certain things against that kind of style. These guys were coming in doing what they are trained to do, whereas I was trying to adapt. It was hard to begin with. I had to learn a few lessons, make a few mistakes in order to move on and improve.

"It didn't take me long to suss it all out, though, and get those instincts back. Now I'm finding it easy. These guys can't land a glove on me."

By the time I watched him spar, Haye was on cruise control against sparring partners boasting a fraction of his hand speed and ring nous. He boxed primarily on the back foot behind a frighteningly fast jab, but occasionally stood in range, too, tucking up behind his shoulder, and using superior footwork to steal positions in the pocket.

When he did this, I was reminded of just what solid foundations he possesses, forgetful of the fact this was a man many deem to be a mere one-dimensional, crash-bang-wallop power-puncher. That day in Vauxhall, he was nothing of the sort. Cute and clever on the back foot, Haye was also seasoned and tricky on the inside, quicker to the draw and blessed with a fatter arsenal from which to pluck weapons and throw. His sparring partners remained feisty and gallant in the face of the fire, but were, ultimately, out of their depth, asked to survive in the deep end minus floats.

When watching him on chat shows or at the top table of a press conference, it's easy to forget how experienced and gifted Haye is in his office, his true calling. In light of the excessive self-promotion and celebrity persona, his days as world cruiserweight champion and, before that, world-class amateur, seem a lifetime ago, yet, when in the ring, he returns to being that guy. And, in an era where Britain boasts an unsightly sub-culture of paper 'world' champions, Haye stands in an exclusive club as a genuine former division number one.

On nights like this, we all start to remember. He controls his sparring partners like a ventriloquist, doing just enough to stun them, control them, but stopping just short of knocking them out. Yes, there have been knockdowns, and moments where his punch power has done a little too much damage, but, on the whole, the wise man knows when to call a ceasefire. It's then that you start to think, though an improved model of late, the 28-year-old Chisora would have been nothing more than just another sparring partner for Haye to go easy on a few years ago, such is the disparity in ability and experience, both amateur and pro. Yet, come July 14, past triumphs may count for little.

And for that very reason Haye, though dominant in the ring that day in sparring, cussed his performance at its conclusion. "I felt like shit in there," he said, upon running circles around three sparring partners. "My arms felt heavy, my legs were dead. I just couldn't get any snap in my punches."

"You've done a lot this week," suggested Booth.

"Yeah, that's probably it," agreed the fighter. "It felt like fatigue."

Eavesdropping on this kind of conversation, I was shocked on two fronts. Firstly, Haye's damning assessment of his own performance was harsh in the extreme, but, furthermore, the revelation of his body breaking down through excess hard work was equally surprising. Haye was, after all, a man blessed with an Adonis physique, but was also a walking, flexing contradiction, as he openly disliked trips to the gym and, once upon a time, would do all he could to limit sessions or avoid them altogether. This time around, however, it seemed the penny had dropped and it was now Haye, not Booth, who was eagerly leading the dash towards the gym on a nightly basis.

"He's been wanting to spar pretty much every single day," said Booth, "to the point where we're having to hold him back a bit. He can't get enough of training. In fact, today was an average session -- probably a six out of ten -- but still one that would normally satisfy me at this stage in preparation. It wasn't that bad. However, because his form has been so, so good for this fight, we both consider a session like tonight's to be something of a disappointment."

Now, hearing such sentiments from most trainers would be greeted with a cynical roll of the eyes, yet Booth is a man I've learnt to trust and, not only that, is one of the most eternally -- read refreshingly -- pessimistic men I know in boxing. As some of his peers get carried away with massaging shoulders, both literally and metaphorically, Booth chooses to instead remain a grumpy, paranoid and aloof conundrum for those outside his inner circle, to the point where foreigners -- okay, admittedly, insiders too -- now label him 'The Dark Lord'.

Therefore, if Booth emanates rare light and assures me something is good, I believe it to be good. No further questions, your honour. This is, after all, a man who has, on more than one occasion, been driven to the point of distraction and despair by his most famous student and, moreover, has many times relayed to me his deepest concerns and fears ahead of fights. Shit is never Shinola in the eyes of Booth -- it's just, simply, shit.

Haye too, ever the realist, wasn't content to settle for second best and condescending backslaps that evening, despite pitching a perfectly serviceable session. Instead, he responded to being 'shit' by following strength and conditioning coach Bobby Rich towards the nearest punch bag and promptly swinging away. Meanwhile, Rich, a former British judo champion, tied a skipping rope between two chairs, secured them with dumbbells, and proceeded to time minute bursts of Haye punching the bag and jumping over the rope. One action would follow the other -- over and over and over again -- until the boxer was left a mess of unsteady limbs and heavy breaths. It was a sight to behold, as he never once offered any indication of letting up, nor any desire to cut short the drill in favour of an excuse or get-out clause. No, this was a new Haye, a man scorned, on seek-and-destroy mode, the words of Booth, if not Chisora, still resonating loudly in his ears.