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To cut it as a professional boxer you need far more than mere muscles. Sure, assault rifle arms and iron chins help the cause considerably, but what separates the good from the all-time greats is a special kind of mental strength. The inner grit that sees a beaten fighter in the gym the dawn after a KO, or a champion that eschews a richly-deserved blowout in favour of skipping and some bag work.
David Haye knows the significance of mental fortitude more than most. After vowing not to box past his 31st birthday, the Hayemaker’s plan to unify the Heavyweight division by conquering Wladimir Klitschko in 2011 went awry – on account of a broken toe and the Ukrainian’s then-invincibility – and Haye has since retired and returned on two occasions.
It’d be easy to dismiss Haye’s actions purely as a quest for cash (like choosing to fight Dereck Chisora on a boxing licence from Luxembourg in 2012, or making a ring return last year on Dave, a TV channel better known for Mock the Week reruns than sport). But dive deeper into the 36-year-old’s psychology, and you’ll find a boxer ravenous to succeed. And one that will bow out for good at some point, but only when it’s on his terms – as a champion.
Days out from Haye’s hotly anticipated London showdown with Tony Bellew (a contest that’s featured no shortage of Haye’s patented mud-slinging and mind games), AskMen visited Hayemaker HQ, in south London, to pop the lid on exactly what comprises a winning mentality.
Shoot for the moon
“Set unrealistic goals for yourselves,” says Haye. “I never wanted to be the number one runner in my school, I wanted to be the best on the planet. Ever since I was three years old I said I’d be the heavyweight champion of the world. Not the British champion, or to fight for the world title, but the heavyweight champion of the world.
“So if you want to reach the stars, you’ve got to aim for the moon. If you aim for the clouds, you’ll only get to the clouds.”
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Enthusiasts vs. Athletes
“I understand that I can push my body to the limit, and that nothing adverse is going to happen. I know I can push my heartrate up to 196 beats a minute, I know I’m conditioned to push my body beyond what the average person can do, and that allows me to push further, push more, and know that within a minute I can go again – 10 or 15 times.
“For the average person, their heart would snap, their soul would tear, and they’d have to give up. But that’s the difference between world class athletes and fitness enthusiasts. For enthusiasts, it’s not their business – they have a full time job, this is something they do on the side – but for me, it’s something I’ve been doing full time since I was 10-years-old.”
Make obstacles your motivation
“Do I have any mantras? Just keep pushing. When you’ve got lactic acid, you need to trick your mind into thinking lactic is fuel. The more you feel, you think, ‘I’ve got it, now I’m working’. Use the lactic to push further – it’s complete mind control. Most people feel lactic and stop, but I think, ‘Here we go, we’re getting started’.
“It takes years and years of living with lactic to find out that it is actually your friend.”
“Everybody breathes, but very few do it effectively. You breathe every day without thinking, but have you spent any time thinking about how deeply you’re breathing? Have you opened your lungs as much as you can? Have you sucked air into the pit of your stomach?
“Take 20 or 30 deep breaths. It might make you a bit lightheaded, but it opens up your lungs, oxygenates your blood, and it’s what makes us live.”
Stay ahead of your enemy
“If I’m in bed, struggling, I always imagine my opponent’s up working, so I need to match it. So not only will I go to the gym, I’ll go to the gym and push harder than he is pushing.
“That’s the thing, in your mind you’re always fighting this guy that’s pushing further than you are, so when you want to sit down and chill, you need to give it that extra round. In your mind you’re fighting a guy that’s faster, bigger, stronger, so you need to make sure you cover all bases and push further than your imaginary opponent’s going to.”
Don’t blow your hard graft
“After sacrificing for so long, a lot of fighters find it difficult to get a balance. Because it’s so strict when they’re training, as soon as they don’t need to train they completely fall off the wagon. They come apart at the seams, become an alcoholic, start dabbling in drugs and doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s not connected to being a professional athlete.
“As I’ve got older I’ve realised – everything in moderation. So if you’re gonna get off your normal diet, don’t get off so far that you’ll need six months to get yourself back into shape. In your 20s there’s only so much damage you can do in a couple of months but, in your 30s you can do a world of damage and put on a solid 10 kgs of blubber if you’re out on the piss every night.
“I really try to do everything in moderation, even excess.”
Watch David Haye vs Tony Bellew exclusively live on Sky Sports Box Office on 4th March from The O2, London