Having demolished Welshman Enzo Maccarinelli in two easy rounds at South London’s O2 Arena, it was reported that undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world, David Haye, had simply walked home from the bout.
“I don’t know where that story came from,” Haye tells FourFourTwo in his swanky West End gym. “I didn’t get out of there until five in the morning; there was no way I was walking home.”
Where this particular round of Chinese whispers stemmed from, it’s fair to say, was the knowledge that the fight had taken place in Greenwich, just an uppercut away from the mean streets on which Haye was raised.
“I grew up in a rough place called Long Lane. I was born in London Bridge and went to school in Rotherhithe. I was a Bermondsey boy so football-wise it was always going to be Millwall for me. There were kids at my school who supported Barcelona or Brazil! Barcelona! They couldn’t even tell you where it was on a map.”
More attuned to local geography than his schoolmates and with two pushy uncles urging him on, Haye made his way to the notorious Den on Cold Blow Lane, not a place for the faint hearted. “It was an intimidating place,” says Haye. “All barbed wire and corrugated iron. I loved it, though. I liked the whole thing, all the swearing. It was a little tense. And I loved that it was my local club.”
Before Haye was 10, Millwall were promoted to the old First Division. “That 1988 team were great. Teddy Sheringham and big Tony Cascarino up front. Sheringham was brilliant even back then, and with Terry Hurlock doing all the dirty work behind him, he got loads of goals. Terry Hurlock. What a nasty piece of work. Fantastic.”
Did Haye ever dream of joining his heroes out there? “I loved playing football but I was banned from playing,” he laughs. “I broke three people’s legs and one ankle – and they were on my team. We were training! The parents had a word and got me banned. I wasn’t dirty, I just went in a little hard. When I was 13, I was 6ft 3in and 12 stone. I was so much bigger and stronger than the other kids that when I went in for tackles you’d hear bones cracking!”
Millwall actually led the First Division (albeit for a matter of hours) in 1988 and stayed up for two seasons before dropping back down and missing the Premier League gravy train. Not that it worries Haye too much. To him the game has become soft, its stars too pampered. “I’d like to start a campaign to change the rules. For me the sport is almost non-contact and that’s a shame.
“What’s frustrating is seeing these athletic, powerful men, 13 or 14 stone of muscle, rolling on the floor like little bitches. What the hell is that? Aren’t they embarrassed that you’ve got 50,000 people watching you roll around like that? It’s accepted now but I reckon they should take a leaf out of boxing’s book and actually count the player off the floor. If you’re down for 10 seconds, you have to go off. Watch it stop!”
An understandable argument from a hard man brought up on hard football. Spoilt players rolling around the Old Den’s turf certainly would not have been tolerated. “It wasn’t a place for fairy footballers. It was a scary place – �the reputation it got was fully deserved.
“A lot of the Millwall fans follow me and yeah, they can be a rowdy lot. Bermondsey is a notoriously tough area. I’ve been fighting since I was a kid – you had to be able to. I grew up on the 18th floor of a council estate. You had to be able to look after yourself.”
But did, as tabloid rumours suggest, a young David Haye ever throw punches in anger in the name of Millwall FC? “Me, a hooligan? No, never! Don’t get me wrong, as a youngster I loved a tear up and there were plenty of incidents in the area, just not at football.”
Today Haye spends much of his time in Cyprus but when he’s in town, he can often be found at the New Den. “I’m going down there when I next get the chance to show off the new belt I picked up when I beat Enzo Maccarinelli.
So many of the fans that came to the O2 were Millwall fans. On the Friday before my fight, Millwall had gone to Swansea and won so me facing Maccarinelli was another South London vs Wales clash and we came out on top again.”
Still, there’s a hint of wistfulness as Haye considers the way Millwall has changed. “In the 1990s the club took a lot of steps to clean up its image and now they have a lovely stadium and it is a good, modern place to watch football. I guess it couldn’t keep going the way it was at the old Den, could it? But there’s still a slight old Millwall mentality about the place and if you wanted to kick off at our place then you’d be in trouble.”
Not many fancy a scrap at the New Den, but Haye does. First he plans to win the world heavyweight title, then it’ll be back to Millwall. “A world heavyweight title fight at the New Den. That’s a real ambition of mine.
It’s not Cold Blow Lane, but it’ll do.”
With thanks to The Third Space Gym on Sherwood Street, London W1F
From the June 2008 issue of FourFourTwo