Commentary

Klitschko seeks vindication vs. Haye

Updated: July 1, 2011, 4:59 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

For more than five years, Wladimir Klitschko has been heavyweight champion. He has rolled through opponent after opponent in his nine title defenses, winning eight by knockout, one by shutout decision, and barely lost a round along the way.

He has unified two belts and has as many defenses as the prime Mike Tyson did during his first glorious reign.

The Ukraine native has packed arenas throughout Germany, his adopted homeland, and made tens of millions of dollars. The 1996 Olympic gold medalist is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Yet for all of his accomplishments -- through two title reigns -- what is Klitschko's defining fight? He hasn't had one yet.

Maybe it's because he has smoked most of his opponents so easily. Maybe it's because some define his career more by his upset losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster during his dark days, a 13-month stretch in 2003 and 2004, than they do by his victories.

Maybe it's because he hasn't had the rival every great fighter needs, like Muhammad Ali had in Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard had in Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran.

But Klitschko has his defining fight at hand, three years in the making: He will finally meet titleholder David Haye of England before an expected crowd of 55,000 at Imtech Arena in Hamburg, Germany, on Saturday (HBO, 4:45 p.m. ET with a 9:45 p.m. ET/PT replay).

It is the biggest heavyweight fight boxing has seen since then-champion Lennox Lewis defended the title in what turned out to be his final bout, against Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir's older brother, in a bloody 2003 slugfest.

The Klitschko-Haye outcome will go a long way toward cementing the legacy of both fighters, but Klitschko, 35, insists that isn't on his mind.

"I honestly don't think about that. That is the 100 percent truth," Klitschko said in an interview with ESPN.com. "[Trainer] Emanuel [Steward] is calling it a signature fight. I'm like, 'OK, whatever it is, I just enjoy myself.' I lost to Sanders and Brewster and I was on the bottom of the sport. I was criticized. I was nothing. Even my brother told me, 'Wladimir, look in the mirror, I think you have to stop boxing. That's it. You reached your peak and that's it for you.'

"I remember someone pushed this British magazine at me after the Brewster fight, and there was this picture of me on the floor on my knees with a funny face and there was a headline, 'Broken Man,' and it was so hard to see that. I always had been a star, and then I was on the floor of the sport. They said I had no guts, no heart, no chin. This is payback for all of that. I do not care about legacy. I don't think about legacy. I don't think about it at all. I think about my payback and my performance. Every fight, in a certain way, is a payback. But this is the ultimate one."

I remember someone pushed this British magazine at me after the [Lamon] Brewster fight, and there was this picture of me on the floor on my knees with a funny face and there was a headline, 'Broken Man,' and it was so hard to see that. I always had been a star, and then I was on the floor of the sport. They said I had no guts, no heart, no chin. This is payback for all of that. I do not care about legacy. I don't think about legacy. I don't think about it at all.

-- Wladimir Klitschko on whether Saturday's fight with David Haye will define his legacy

Haye takes the opposite view, knowing he can make his career in one night.

"This fight solidifies my legacy. It'll get people to realize that I'm better than him. This is my chance to prove I'm the main man in the world," said Haye, who is not bothered by traveling to Germany for the fight. He won his heavyweight belt there and was also on the road in Paris when he knocked out Jean-Marc Mormeck to unify cruiserweight titles.

"This is the defining fight of my career, and also of his."

Klitschko (55-3, 49 KOs) and Haye (25-1, 23 KOs) have been on this collision course since 2008, when Haye, then the cruiserweight world champion, confronted Klitschko at a press conference in England and tried to goad him into fighting.

Later, Haye, 30, angered the Klitschko brothers when he famously wore a T-shirt depicting himself standing with the decapitated, bloody heads of each of them.

Adding to the rivalry was Haye's signing to face Wladimir in June 2009 only to back out a couple of weeks before the fight, citing an injury he never produced medical documentation for and one few believed was real.

Later in 2009, Haye negotiated a deal to challenge Vitali Klitschko, who holds one of the belts. But Haye backed out just before signing to instead sign to face titlist Nikolai Valuev, with whom he had been secretly negotiating. Haye eked out a majority decision against Valuev and has made nondescript defenses against former titlist John Ruiz and countryman Audley Harrison.

But Haye talked such a good game and got under Klitschko's skin so deep that, despite grueling negotiations, they are finally here on the eve of their much-anticipated fight.

Haye, who claims he will retire at the end of the year, has no regrets about pulling out of either of the 2009 fights.

"I'm a betting man and I believe my chances are better now," Haye said on Sky's Ringside. "I'm a better athlete [now], I'm bigger, I'm stronger, I'm more seasoned in the heavyweight division and I'm a champion, and it's a 50-50 [revenue] split. If you looked back at what I was going to get [for the first 2009 fight], it was peanuts -- complete peanuts compared to what I'm getting now. Everything happens for a reason, and I'm glad it has happened the way it has because I believe I'm in a good position now."

Haye also said he has no regrets about his verbal assault on Klitschko -- whom he has called boring, a robot and accused of using performance-enhancing drugs -- or wearing the infamous T-shirt. After all, he knows those acts got him the biggest fight of his career.

"Without those controversial acts that I implemented on him, I probably wouldn't be here now," Haye said on Ringside. "It always takes that little spark to get the interest. Without the initial interest, I may never have been on his radar. But the fact that I ruffled some feathers, not only in Britain but worldwide, Germany, America, it put me on the map even before I'd have had a heavyweight fight. People knew who I was. They'd say, 'You're that guy who wore that crazy T-shirt.' I bypassed a lot of the tougher, interim fights that most fighters may have to have to get to a title fight because of the way I was acting, because people were interested in me. So in no way, shape or form do I regret doing any of the controversial stuff that I've done or said."

Klitschko is convinced Haye will finally show up this time.

"He has to," Klitschko said. "He said he stopped sparring 18 days before the fight so nothing would happen to him and he couldn't injure himself. This time I'm pretty sure he will show up. He has to show up. If he won't, it will be ridiculous."

And when he does, Klitschko has a plan for him.

He has nicknamed Haye "No. 50" -- as in, Klitschko plans for Haye to be his 50th knockout victim.

"I'm happy that Haye will be in great shape, because that means a real challenge for me and that's what I want," Klitschko said. "I respect Haye as a fighter, but definitely not as a person. I will knock him out, back into reality. Haye will be my No. 50 on my knockout list."

Klitschko said although Steward would like him to get an early knockout, he wants to make Haye suffer through a beating.

"I will bitch-slap him for 12 rounds and then knock him out at the last second. That will be the best lesson," Klitschko said. "Inside David Haye is not a bad guy. But after his little success, he's lost the ground under his feet. It could happen to anyone, and I understand it. My task is to put him back on the ground. It's going to be better for his future. The guy has lost his mind completely. I will save him and make him a better person. I would call this fight his treatment. This fight is going to be his rehab. That's what he needs. I am not even joking."

Haye is predicting his own knockout.

"I'm in tremendous shape. I'm healthy, have great punch power and speed. I have the perfect game plan to beat Wladimir Klitschko," he said. "Once I start landing flush regularly, I will hurt him. But I'll have to bust him up slowly. He's not as chinny as people say he is, and it will not be a fencing competition, as his arms are twice as long as mine. I know I can implement the game plan we have masterminded, and I'm going in there to rip the belts off him. No way will he last 12 rounds."

For all of the talking Haye has done, he has refused to again wear the famous T-shirt, despite Klitschko's dare. He has also refused to shake Klitschko's hand during their various media events, be it multiple press conferences or the filming of HBO's "Face Off with Max Kellerman."

"He denied to shake my hand," Klitschko said. "The Dalai Lama shook this hand. President Clinton shook my hand. This same hand shook hands with the president of Ukraine, Max Schmeling, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Larry Holmes, Steven Spielberg. I can go on forever. None of them denied to shake my hand. David Haye denies to shake this magic hand. The man doesn't give any respect.

"He thinks I'm accidentally heavyweight champion of the world and I have no talents. He will be No. 50 on my list. I will show him that he is no different than those 49 guys on my list. He will be knockout No. 50. David Haye is an egg. He looks hard on the outside, but when you crack it open, it's soft on the inside."

Klitschko said Haye even refused to sit in the same room with him during the taping of a joint interview on England's Sky network, whose pay-per-view arm will carry the fight in the United Kingdom.

"We were supposed to sit in the same room, and he wouldn't," Klitschko said. "I was waiting for him. Later, he was on the screen but in the other room at the studio. I said, 'Dude, get in the room.' He didn't want to be in the same room with me. I didn't get this. I was trying to treat him as respectfully as I can. I am not playing with him. I am serious about the business and pissed off at David Haye. My emotions are one thing, but I am treating him respectfully, but Davis Haye as a person is garbage."

Steward has helped keep Klitschko calm and is also confident of a knockout.

"David Haye says he is going to fight a robot on Saturday night," Steward said. "Well, if that's true, it's a very fast and intelligent robot. It's a robot that will destroy and kill and knock out David Haye.

"Then this very intelligent man will come to me and say, 'Mission accomplished.'"

Mission accomplished. Respect earned. Legacy sealed.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.