Tony Bellew, David Haye. Two polar opposites, two household names for boxing fans in the UK, both former cruiserweight champions, one from the north, one from the south; in the ring they produced fireworks.
The seed for Tony Bellew vs David Haye was first planted after Bellew secured the vacant WBC Cruiserweight crown with a third-round stoppage Ilunga Makabu (26-2 KO 24). After the bout, Bellew called out the newly returned David Haye to drop back down to Cruiserweight for an all British world championship fight. Following this call out, Bellew was scheduled to defend his newly minted title against Haye’s friend and perennial contender BJ Flores (34-4-1 KO 21).
Going into the fight Flores had never been stopped, both Bellew and Flores threw bombs and went to war for three rounds, Bellew found the answer others couldn’t and stopped Flores in three rounds to retain his belt. After the contest, Bellew charged at Haye, who ringside working for Sky Sports after a verbal exchange it seemed the public was set to see two of Britain's best Cruiserweights of recent times square off.
So, the stage was set. March 4th at the O2 arena in London, Tony Bellew would step up to the Heavyweight division to take on David Haye. This was personal for both warriors, punches were thrown at the press conference and Haye would go after both Eddie Hearn and Dave Coldwell, claiming that after Bellew he was going to topple Anthony Joshua and end the Matchroom empire and calling Dave Coldwell a T-Shirt seller, referencing his time in the Haye camp long ago.
Going into the fight Haye was an overwhelming favorite with a lot of pundits expecting Haye to be much superior for Bellew and to stop him within four. On the night Haye looked supremely confident whereas Tony Bellew looked calm and composed. When the fight began Haye looked the cleaner of the two and used his reflexes and speed to keep Bellew true, he looked like he still had a bit left in the tank after injuries had plagued him for the last few years. But, in the sixth-round disaster struck for the Hayemaker.
After an exchange with the Bomber, Haye stepped backward awkwardly and ruptured his Achilles tendon. From this point onwards the ball was in Bellew's court, Haye hung tough, avoiding big shots from the Liverpudlian by moving his head whilst sitting against the ropes. Eventually, the pressure of trying to hang in there got to the former two-weight World champion when in the 11th round a combination, partly assisted by the injured leg, sent Haye crashing through the ropes. Haye somehow found the will to climb back through the ropes and back to his feet but Shane McGuigan finally threw in the towel crowning Tony Bellew the winner and providing him with one of the biggest upsets in British boxing history. Odds of up to 80-1 could be found at the time for Bellew to stop Haye leading up to the bout.
The reaction in the days after the contest was strange, it was hard to give Bellew the credit he deserved for the win due to the freak injury that no doubt came into play during the bout and had a huge assist in the win. For Haye, it was surely time to retire but living with the fact that Tony had got the better of him and the fact he was winning up until the injury must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
There was only one way to settle this, let Haye heal up and go again, this made sense for both men. For Bellew, it gave him the chance to finally earn the respect he deserved and prove the first win was not a fluke. For Haye, it was a chance to right the wrong and to prove that without the injury there was no way Bellew could hang with him. So, the date was booked and both men looked forward to the rematch, May 5th, O2 Arena, the sight of the first contest.
Leading into the fight Haye had promised a clinical finish of Bellew, admitting that a loss here would damage his legacy and only a dominant performance would prolong his career. Going into the night once again Haye was the favorite, albeit by smaller margins. Haye this time enlisted the services of Ismael Salas as a trainer.
Haye entered to McFadden and Whitehead song ‘Ain’t no stopping us now’ and waited for Bellew in the ring with headphones on. Bellew, as usual, entered into the arena to Everton FC song Z Cars, he looked calm as he did in the first contest and both men seemed confident that they would emerge victoriously. The fight was nerve-wracking and both men seemed nervous as they jabbed and postured in the opening two rounds, Bellew threw his arms up the air to mock Haye's body shots. It did seem like the Achilles injury was still playing on the Haymaker's mind as he didn’t put much weight on his back leg preferring to put power into his left hook.
In the third, Haye was caught out. Bellew followed his man, backed him up onto the ropes and unleashed a huge straight right hand that caught Haye bang on the chin, the 37-year-old's eyes rolled back, and he was down.
Haye rose to his feet beating Howard Foster's count and smiled at Bellew. The bomber smelt blood and looked to finish Haye, with not long left in the 3rd Haye was down again, a good left hook from the Cruiserweight champ had Haye crashing down to the canvas for a second time. Hayemaker once again beat the count but the psychological damage was done, Haye now knew that Bellew could hurt him and this time it wasn’t his Achilles that had him down, Bellew now had the upper hand but had to be careful, after all, he was in there with a known banger and as it often is in the heavyweight division one punch can change everything.
The end would come in the fifth. In a wild exchange, Bellew found a home for his short-left hook, bang on the button Haye would be done a silly dance as his legs gave out. Somehow, Haye climbed up again, showing his warrior spirit, he nodded at Bellew acknowledging that he had caught him. Bellew pinned Haye against the ropes and unloaded causing Howard Foster to jump in and stop the contest.
Bellew celebrated with promoter Eddie Hearn before collapsing onto the canvas in an emotional moment as he looked at the empty seat that should have been occupied by his late brother in law Ashley. Haye gave credit to Bellew and shortly after the contest he would retire with a record of 28-4 KO 26 and a two-weight World champion. Bellew would fight once more as he put in a game effort but was ultimately knocked out in the 9th round against undisputed Cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk (17-0 KO 13) retiring with a record of 30-3-1 KO 20.
Both men produced magic in the ring when they met. Both fights had drama, injuries, bad blood but ultimately respect for each other. Ultimately though, Bellew proved that you don’t need muscles to be a champion and this was no more apparent than in his two victories over the more muscular and athletic Haye, something that Andy Ruiz Jr would reiterate in his shock stoppage of Anthony Joshua a year later.