Listening to David Haye speak, it's impossible not to be swept up in one of his rhetorical flourishes. Whatever else he is to British boxing, he is a champion verbalist and heavyweight talker who needs little by way of conversational prompts. Speaking just over a week before his upcoming fight against Tony Bellew, he comes across as surprisingly easygoing, relaxed and in good humour, with our phone interview conducted in impromptu fashion from the calm and comfort of his physio's massage table. Lying, one presumes, in a state of moderate undress, he produces not so much a stream of consciousness as a torrent of spontaneous articulation, the force of which carries the interviewer off until he is little more than a distant and barely perceptible speck.
Having hauled oneself back into the mental foreground and shaken off the bamboozling effects of the experience, however, it becomes clear that some of the things Haye says are considerably less personable than the tone in which he is saying them. Take, for instance, his response to a question as to how he sees his fight against Bellew going down. "I see it as being seriously, seriously horrendous for his health," Haye says, sounding matter-of-fact about the whole thing. "I think it's a violent mismatch, and although he's technically the reigning world champion at cruiserweight and I'm not a world champion, people are taking too much notice of that. We're very similar in terms of height and weight, there's not much difference, but I've become used to fighting guys who weigh up to seven stone more than me, and beating them – I'm used to fighting bigger, stronger people than him. When it comes time for fight night, he's going to be found badly wanting."
While it's hardly unusual for a fighter to belittle his opponent's talents, the ominous undertones regarding Bellew's welfare seem rather more sinister than the standard bravado. In fact, in the days following our interview, it is reported that Haye is in trouble with the British Boxing Board of Control over comments made elsewhere, specifically the suggestion that he would hospitalise Bellew and "do serious damage to his head." Boxing is ultimately a violent sport in which insinuations of bloodshed are par for the course, but much of the fighting fraternity seems to have decided that Haye has gone too far here. This comes barely a year after Nick Blackwell suffered a bleed on the brain in the aftermath of his fight with Chris Eubank Jr., and mere months after the death of Scottish fighter Mike Towell, who suffered a fatal bleed after a bout against Welsh boxer Dale Evans in September 2016.
With Towell's mother now criticising Haye's comments and potential sanctions in the offing, it's clear that the former heavyweight champion struggles at times to see the line in the sand. The disadvantage to having so spontaneous and unguarded a mode of speaking is that, just as it almost submerges his interviewer, his torrent of consciousness seems in his own mind to wash that line away altogether. This is not an excuse so much as an attempt at understanding why someone would say of an opponent: "I hope, if he does care for his family like he says he does, he does not invite them to the fight. It would be pretty sad for his family to witness first hand what I'm going to do to their dad or husband." Even in the context of hyping up a boxing match and attempting to psyche out a fellow fighter, this is trash talk that most people would baulk at, mainly because – whichever way one looks at it – it is a deplorable thing to say.
The thing is, speaking to Haye, he does not come across as a deplorable man. There seems to be a fundamental contrast in his character, in that he can be disarmingly charming and forthcoming in conversation as well as aggressively distasteful when he feels the need. There is perhaps a clue to this contradiction in his early schooling in fighting talk, which he puts down to a childhood grounding in martial arts and boxing culture. "It's something you're sort of born with," Haye says of his approach to verbal antagonism. "My father was a martial artist and everyone in my family was a big boxing fan, while Muhammad Ali was the main man in my household when I was growing up. This was a guy who was great, and I wanted to be a great – I consider my dad great, and I wanted to be bigger and stronger than my dad was because he was the biggest and strongest guy I knew. So, when other kids were watching Thomas the Tank Engine, I was watching Enter The Dragon."
Muhammad Ali was not averse to controversy or threats of doing an opponent serious damage, of course, while Bruce Lee hospitalises a fair few people in Enter The Dragon, if memory serves. In that sense, Haye's latest comments seem like those of a man attempting to write his own movie script, seeing his words as pure cinema with a bit of seventies brutality thrown in for good measure. Tellingly, Haye goes on: "I got my experiences of life, my experiences of right and wrong – revenge and whatnot – through movies. One of my other idols growing up was Jackie Chan, while Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and all these amazing kung-fu movies definitely moulded me in my mind. They are very comedic, but serious as well. The action's non-stop, and that's kind of how I live my life."
So these fictional narratives have influenced the way he goes about his to and fro with an opponent? "Exactly, because in a lot of those kung-fu movies the main guy gets beaten up," Hays replies. "The main guy struggles, but then he goes away, trains, comes back and kicks the other guy's arse. With me, with any sense of loss I've felt in my life, I've gone away and done the training behind the scenes to come back bigger and stronger. Whether that be when I was 10 years old in the gym and someone beat me up in sparring, so I'd come back a couple of weeks later and beat them up, or whether it be now, it's the same sort of thing. These are the ups and downs of life – life is kind of like a movie, but you can control it."
Were Haye actually living in a movie, he would no doubt get away with threatening to hospitalise Bellew, even if his comments on his opponent's family might make him seem more villain than hero. Haye is not living in a movie, however, so much as a reality in which he faces a harsh rebuke from British boxing's governing body. While borrowed elements of kung-fu scripts might enhance his fighting talk most of the time, they have, on this occasion, seemingly contributed to an unsavoury episode which is threatening to overshadow the outcome of the bout against Bellew. At the moment, the difference between Haye and his idols is that – while they weren't above handing out a good battering – Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan at least were conscious that a fighter should show a base measure of moderation and self-control in his choice of words.
Comments on Tony Bellew's health aside, Haye is actually quite philosophical at times, and gives what feels like sincere insight into the life of a professional boxer. Again, this is an inherent antithesis in his character, in that he is capable of low-blow insults against an opponent while also inclined to be contemplative about his sport. Speaking about the mental pressures that come with being on edge for a long time ahead of a bout, Haye speaks openly about the toll the build-up can take on the mind of a fighter. "Too much of anything isn't good for you, and too long spent thinking about fighting someone isn't good either," he says.
"Normally my team train in Vauxhall under the arches, where there's barely any natural light and outside there's driving rain. That means that training camps over the years have predominantly been times of stress and strain, even a bit of depression. Now, I'm trying to do something every day that's memorable, something that I like doing. I'm 36 years old now, in the last couple of years of my life [as a boxer], and I want to make sure that I enjoy these years, enjoy my training camps and so on. I don't want to have to wait for this life to be over for me to go and have some fun – I want to have fun in the whole lead up, and I want to have fun on fight night, directly afterwards and directly before."
Much has been made of Haye's preparation for the coming fight, with some suggesting he has shown further disrespect to Bellew with his supposedly nonchalant approach. He certainly hasn't had an orthodox build up, spending time lounging on yachts, water skiing in the Bahamas and, by his own admission, watching a fair amount of women's volleyball. Based in a gym near South Beach Miami, he describes his daily routine as "waking up in the mornings, going to the beach, watching the sunrise and swimming in the sea," interspersed with intense training sessions. While his claim that he's been feeling "at one with nature" might seem a bit pseudo-spiritual to some, Haye does sound genuine when he says that he's been focussing on staying happy during his preparations more than he ever has before.
Whether or not that happiness will stay with him all the way up until fight night, only he knows. Though he maintains his good humour throughout our chat, Haye's comments on Bellew seem characteristic of a man who is still bitterly competitive, and desperate to win the psychological battle which will define their bout on 4 March. While Haye might well have had his fun in the build up, speaking sensationally, pushing the boundaries and projecting an unruffled image all the while, there is something discordant in his jovial attitude and the vicious remarks he's made so casually. Once more, one must come to the conclusion that Haye is a man of contrasts, a fighter who cannot decide whether to be hero or villain and so finds himself reading from a contradictory script.