Discussing Haye, Hendrix, Hacks, HBO, Herzog and Hitting 30 with Elliot Worsell

By Jeff Weston on January 11, 2017
Discussing Haye, Hendrix, Hacks, HBO, Herzog and Hitting 30 with Elliot Worsell
“If we're talking marketability, Anthony Joshua is the man the division needs to succeed.”

“David hated the boxing business and all who claimed to be a part of it. He had no time for promoters, managers or trainers. He saw himself as different…”

I originally started corresponding with Elliot back in February 2016 after reading his article Tyson Fury: Uncut, During Wladimir Klitschko Fight Week. It seemed to embody the style of the great Gay Talese, have echoes of Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man and Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. I was intrigued that new journalism was still seemingly alive and wondered how such a baton had been passed down the generations.

I put a number of questions to The Ring and Boxing News writer—and brother-in-law and biographer of heavyweight, David Haye—and managed to get great insight with regard to his second, long-awaited book, ‘Dog Rounds’ which is due out in the summer of 2017.

Elliot—to call you a veteran seems ridiculous given your tender age (just 30), but you’ve been writing for nearly a decade and a half now, I understand. And it all started with you covering the Howard Eastman vs. Hacine Cherifi European middleweight title fight in Norwich, England in July 2003 for Eastsideboxing.com. Was that a good introduction to the sport and how did it feel hustling your way close to the ring a month before your 17th birthday?

Like the majority of people in boxing, I blagged my way in. Didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t care. But I wanted to write about boxing and I was passionate about it, and that was enough. I was also willing to write about boxing for free, do it purely as a hobby, which helped a lot at the beginning. Nobody was going to pay me a penny at 16 or 17, but it didn’t matter to me. I wanted to do it regardless.

Your first boxing interview was actually the year before that (age 16) with ‘Irish’ Micky Ward – the legend who fought Arturo Gatti three times at the end of his career and was the inspiration for the Mark Wahlberg film, The Fighter. How did being in the company of such a boxer—albeit it on the phone—in the aftermath of that classic first Ward-Gatti fight feel and what did you glean from the man?

I didn’t glean much, truth be told. My questions were terrible and Micky, as you probably know, isn’t much of a talker. I remember writing down my questions, about 20 of them, on a sheet of paper and reading them robotically to him over the phone, yet he was gracious enough to give me the time and seemed either impressed or a little freaked out that a 16-year-old from England wanted to interview him. He even sent me a signed picture a week later. I was such a fan.

We should get the obvious question about David Haye out of the way. Your relationship with him is not what it was. Are there elements of that bond between boxer and writer that you perhaps miss or was such an ending serendipitous in helping you grow as a writer? You have mentioned being hamstrung by your great knowledge of him in terms of writing fresh material about his career—can you elaborate on this?

It’s my preference to be removed and write from a position of insight and relative objectivity. David Haye will always be a boxer I look out for, and I hope he achieves whatever he hopes to achieve, but it’s great to write about his comeback with a freedom I wouldn’t have had when I was a kid following him from place to place.

I’m 30 now. I don’t have the same interest in a single fighter’s journey the way I did back then. Following Haye in 2017 would be like listening to the same music I did when I was 17 or 18. I love ‘Appetite for Destruction’, always will, but you won’t find Guns N’ Roses anywhere near my iPod these days. I’ve grown up, moved on.

That said, I know enough about David Haye to write about him without including quotes from him or anyone else, so that’s what I’ll do from time to time. It’s a weightier kind of knowledge, too, deeper than just spending an hour with someone you hardly know and asking them questions.

Piecing together quotes from your articles and correspondence concerning the current crop of paid, boxing journalists (generally newspaper employees) paints quite an ugly picture of the profession. You are refreshingly outspoken about this and perhaps implicitly associate boxing’s demise with the dearth of brave writers out there willing to dig properly regarding a story rather than simply pay homage to a fighter’s words.

All the guys on the British boxing beat do a great job. Their hands are tied by editors to some extent, so often they can’t write exactly what they want, or perhaps as much as they want, but there are far more knowledgeable heads writing about boxing now than there was when I first started getting in their way at ringside 13 years ago.

Of course, a lot of what is written about boxing now is safe. There’s a fear of repercussion, a fear credentials might be taken, a fear work might dry up, and that probably makes journalists think twice and turn a blind eye now and again. In a sport as unruly as boxing, that’s not necessarily a good thing, but it happens.

My belief is that very little learning is done at press conferences or in arenas on fight night. It’s just surface level stuff. And, although I can’t match some newspaper journalists for experience or journalistic muscle, I do have an insight many are without. I have been around boxers, been around big fights, been in gyms, been in changing rooms and been places which are strictly off-limits for most journalists and writers. I’ve seen the true version of boxing as opposed to the director’s cut its stars would rather we all saw. That counts for something, I think.

You didn’t exactly go quiet after the 2011 publication of ‘Making Haye’—what with your article output online and through magazines—but the five to six years in between have been akin to waiting for a Stone Roses or Kate Bush album. There was good reason for this, I believe and plenty of failed projects in the interim which shines an interesting light on the difficulties of getting a book to market even for established authors. Has the hard road been worth it given the imminent arrival of ‘Dog Rounds’—your study of the guilt and anguish boxers feel after having killed an opponent in the ring?

Very hard. Boxing is a niche sport, yet fighters are the only sportsmen or sportswomen who really interest me beyond just watching them in action. I want to know the characters and their stories; combat sports stories are the best stories and fighters are accessible in a way most sportsmen and women are not. But try telling that to anyone outside the bubble.

I’m glad I’ve managed to get another idea off the ground, though, if only because it allows me to put the last book well and truly behind me. It’s like anything, I guess, you move on, you get better, you hate that old version of yourself, and ‘Making Haye’, written by a naïve 24-year-old, was very much a product of its time. It would obviously look completely different if written now. ‘Dog Rounds’, in contrast, isn’t attached to a celebrity fighter nor has it been hurried. It is, I hope, a book that says something and actually means something. It’s a book about guilt. The guilt of the boxer and, ultimately, the guilt of the spectator. How does a boxer feel when they do too much damage? And how do we feel when seeing too much damage done?

The current heavyweight division isn’t the strongest but it promises a string of difficult-to-call clashes if the promoters and boxing organisations get their act together. Do you see any serious contenders besides the obvious (active) six of Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua, Luis Ortiz, David Haye, Joseph Parker and Wladimir Klitschko (whose fate and possible rejuvenation will be decided on 29th April)?

In terms of ability, I don’t see a clear leader. I think they are all capable of beating each other. But, certainly, if we’re talking marketability, Anthony Joshua is the man the division needs to succeed. He’s the one who has something about him beyond just the ability to flatten an overmatched challenger with a single punch. He has crossover appeal, he is exciting in the ring and he is young. Most of the others, to my mind, are either past it or lacking that x-factor that takes a heavyweight beyond just holding an alphabet title that in this day and age means about as much as a post-fight piss test.

Each heavyweight seems to have an Achilles heel: Wilder’s windmills leave him wide open at times; Joshua is still learning his craft but looks a little stiff and too muscular on occasions; Ortiz is ageing and doubts remain over his stamina despite his original pedigree; Haye is very much an unknown after returning from injury and one wonders over his ability to go beyond 4-6 rounds; Parker is the new kid on the block with very few fights outside of his homeland; Klitschko—there are big concerns over his ability to judge risk and reward these days. Do you see anyone unifying the division?

At this point, it’s hard to say. Some are protected on account of being raw and young, some are avoided and some are buying time and gorging on patsies in the hope of securing one walk-away payday. That was 2016 in a nutshell as far as the heavyweight division was concerned. I’m hoping 2017 will provide some answers.

Adam Booth—Haye’s former trainer—once said that a boxer, in order to succeed, needs to be either frighteningly clever or ignorant. Do you see any truth in that?

Absolutely. I think more are ignorant than frighteningly clever, mind you. And in the context of being a professional boxer, ignorance is no bad thing. In fact, it’s a kind of intelligence.

“No matter how much I practise, no matter how much I live, and no matter how much I try, I will never ever write like [Norman] Mailer. I haven’t been blessed in that way. Others at least give you hope. They seem obtainable. Not Mailer, though. He was a freak.” You wrote this in late February in an email. Do you think it’s important that writers of all persuasions accept their lot and have a realistic yardstick in terms of judging / accepting what they produce?

I think you’ve just got to be patient and realistic. I’m only at the start line. I have no idea how good or how mediocre or how terrible I will end up being. But I’m okay with that now. That impatience and delusion of youth has, I think, made way for a bit more maturity, and I only have to look back at ‘Making Haye’ to realise how far my writing and knowledge of the sport has come. That, for me, is the reminder, that reality check.

“Haye thrived on…the purity of the violence he was about to exact,” you observed in ‘Making Haye’. Does this, in some way, justify the brutality of the sport? Does a boxer have to be at one with the richness of the game in order to quash some of his darker thoughts?

Boxers definitely view violence—the act of punishing an opponent—differently to how the rest of us view it. To them, a knockout shot is no different than a footballer (soccer player) connecting sweetly with their right boot and volleying a 30-yarder into the top corner. It’s what they practised, it’s what they hoped to achieve.

Even fans of combat sports view the violence differently to those who refuse to watch combat sports. We also dilute it. We have also become somewhat desensitized to it. Personally speaking, I can look past a boxer getting bashed up and bloodied, his face disfigured, if I know his game plan is to come on strong in the later rounds and outlast his opponent. But most in society won’t see it that way. They will see a human being getting pummelled and hurt round after round. They will see straight to the violence.

There’s the running battle in ‘Making Haye’ between your love of Jimi Hendrix and Haye’s love of Lenny Kravitz—particularly the song It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over. You see Hendrix as a maestro and original and Kravitz as a copy and mere shadow of such talent. Do you think, looking back, especially with David’s eventual words of “Not everybody can be great” that Kravitz represented hope but also a humble fallback in case Plan A went kaput? Do you think Kravitz (and the sadness and regret that happen to lie at the heart of that track) symbolises the doubt that resided in Haye all along despite the apparent confidence?

That was what I was trying to convey. I’d convey the message a lot better now, but I think, even back then, it kind of resonated. Haye certainly wanted to be Hendrix—a god of the game, worshipped, a ruler—but that night in Hamburg was left with no choice but to accept his limitations and realise second best wasn’t such a dreadful thing after all. He was beaten by a bigger and better opponent. There’s no shame in that.

Also, Haye, though very confident in his ability, was always able to deal with reality in a way few boxers can, which is to say he knew his limitations before they were exposed. David never had designs on having a Hall of Fame-worthy career. He didn’t think like that. He wanted to win world titles, no doubt, and he wanted to be remembered, but his primary goal was to make a lot of money and get out by the age of 31 with his faculties intact. That was reiterated to me again and again.

“He’s just a boy. Ain’t nothing but a little boy,” Maurice Core, Carl Thompson’s trainer, said after the fifth round TKO and ‘upset’ back in September 2004 with obvious reference to Haye’s foolhardy impetuousness and rush to expend his energy reserves. Preparation, strategy and complacency all seemed to be at the core of that first loss for Haye. And you questioned the legitimacy of the training camp (your first) afterwards: “Haye’s cape had ripped while attempting to soar prematurely through skyscrapers.” There was talk of light-hearted beach runs, numerous visits to strip clubs and the like. Even Haye’s own words “He might think I’ll blow a gasket after four rounds” had a certain, horrible prescience about them, albeit with the gasket blowing earlier. Do you think that experience was a vital and necessary warning to Haye and something that sits in his head to this day?

I’m sure it does. After all, that defeat shaped him. It changed him. It made him realise he wouldn’t be able to get by on just talent and punch power. He actually had to knuckle down and train. He had to do what all those other guys were out there doing. And that’s what he did. That’s why he was able to rebound from the defeat to Thompson and become the number one cruiserweight in the world.

There was definitely something in his head after the Thompson defeat, though. A nagging doubt. He wanted fights over quickly. He didn’t want to go rounds. I remember a few days before his European title fight with Giacobbe Fragomeni, a tough Italian known for his durability, he expressed concerns about going rounds and not being able to make an impression on an unbeaten fighter with a granite chin. I then found myself having to remind him that all fighters on computer games—stuff like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat—have health bars which will invariably and gradually deplete, whether it takes one punch or a hundred. It was as dumb as it sounds, but he seemed to like it and extract some kind of reassurance from it.

The three of you—David Haye (fighter), Adam Booth (trainer) & Elliot Worsell (writer) —together during that special time (2003-2012), do you look back on it with fondness? Do you consider yourself fortunate to have stumbled upon such an adventure (from Tony Dowling and the English cruiserweight title to post-Wladimir Klitschko, at Upton Park vs. Dereck Chisora)?

I do look back on it with fondness. It was an unconventional education of sorts, both in terms of boxing and in terms of life. They both taught me a lot. There were things you wanted to see, things you felt lucky to see, and also things you didn’t want to see—bad days, injuries, fall-outs, for example. Sometimes you felt too close. You wanted to be the fan sat in row Z again. At least then you’re able to maintain the illusion; when you get close to a sport like boxing, you see the blood-stained masking tape holding it all together.

There was an element of the pariah, the outsider to all three of you: Booth, the former university lecturer and amateur boxer (40-8) “uncomfortable in his role as promising trainer and manager… [certainly] no backslaps from the condescending old guard”; Haye watching Jackie Chan movies as a kid instead of Sesame Street; yourself subjected to snide, journalist comments as a young reporter: “They’re even letting schoolkids turn up and cover these things nowadays.” Do you think such mutual knowledge helped keep you together even against the backdrop of David being particularly good at engaging with fans via the blossoming online community?

David hated the boxing business and all who claimed to be a part of it. He had no time for promoters, managers or trainers. He saw himself as different to them, more intelligent. He was adamant he knew the way things should be done. He was going to buck the trend and do it all independently. He was going to win titles, make money and then get out. He only wanted a temporary fling with boxing, never a long-term relationship. That was always my impression anyway. Adam was of the same thinking. He too had no time for the characters in the business. He too wanted to do things unconventionally and independently. They had shared goals and mindsets and they worked well together. And by virtue of having me involved, I’d say they were both open to new ideas and perspectives.

Back to the heavyweights. You often get a few moments with HBO’s Larry Merchant who confided that the Cuban, Luis Ortiz would beat every single one of his peers. Ortiz, I have to say, reminds me of Riddick Bowe and has so much promise despite only making his pro debut shortly before his 31st birthday. How do you view the 37-year-old King Kong?

I think he is very good. Not good enough to be a star but far too good to be put in with the men considered stars or future stars. That’s his problem. If given the opportunity and the right fights, Ortiz could be a nightmare for some of the green heavyweights at the top of the pile. But the longer he waits, the more chance there is that he becomes the next Odlanier Solis rather than the next Riddick Bowe.

Writers have special relationships with certain boxers. I recall you telling me that Steve Cunningham had taken the time to email a “Thank you” back in 2004 following an article you wrote about him and the cruiserweight division. That meant a lot. And since then, besides the Haye years, you seem to have had the ear of George Groves, Tyson Fury and Chris Eubank Jr amongst others. Are there a number of ‘go-to’ fighters you consider more readily than others in their capacity as friends? And if so, who? Also, what do you think brought you together?

I’m wary of getting too close to boxers nowadays, but it’s good to have access to a side of them they keep at arm’s length from other journalists and writers. Close but not too close is how I see it. You want to be close enough to gain insight and know you can rely on them to provide you with a version of events they won’t have already given to someone else with a dictaphone or notepad. But you don’t want to be so close that you’re unable to criticise them when it’s necessary or even write honestly about them. Then you’ve gone too far. I like to think I can write openly and honestly about any boxer, even the ones I might call friends, and that’s important also because boxers typically aren’t surrounded by people who are willing to provide them with honesty. Instead, they are often around people who shun honesty in favour of keeping the ship steady and staying on good terms with them. Honesty, therefore, is vital, and is actually appreciated by those boxers secure enough to deal with it.

If I asked you to name five boxers that currently excite you, who would they be? (Fighters that you simply sit in admiration of.)

Gennady Golovkin is the most exciting boxer in the world right now. He’s probably the one guy I’d cancel everything to watch live. I also really like Terence Crawford. He’s a skilful thinker, a craftsman, who actually looks to entertain and finish. That’s a rare thing. Vasyl Lomachenko is the same. He’s a joy to watch.

If we’re talking UK, I think the Anthony Joshua journey is kind of unmissable right now—he’s a heavyweight who looks to finish fights—and I’m also quite fond of Liam Walsh’s skills. He has flown under the radar for far too long, but every time I’ve seen him, whether live or on TV, I’ve been taken aback by his intelligence in the ring.

You’ve been in a lot of dressing rooms pre and post-fight. This must be quite an experience and privilege. You must see the REAL face of a fighter for example, pre-fight nerves etc. Are there any occasions that stand out?

The one that stands out was being with George Groves moments before his two fights with Carl Froch. The second fight, in particular, was almost overwhelming, so big was the occasion, so big was the venue (Wembley Stadium), the changing room, everything. Also, being able to compare Groves before fight one and fight two was fascinating.

At a lower level, I’ve shadowed amateurs, journeymen and guys in British title fights. They’re all different, they all have their own way of doing things. I even spent a night backstage at one of Matchroom’s old Prizefighter tournaments—primarily focused on Liverpool’s John Watson—and that was a unique and insightful experience; fighters everywhere, fights happening all the time, draws being made, cuts and injuries being assessed.

In all honesty, I don’t think there’s a better way of getting to know a boxer than to see them at that moment, hours and minutes before the first bell. Often they won’t say much, but that’s absolutely fine. It’s everything you see that counts.

It’s extraordinary, looking back, to think that Adam Booth spontaneously trusted YOU to negotiate / phone Carl Thompson in an effort to broker Thompson-Haye II (the clash that never happened). That must have felt a little surreal? I know that David was always obsessed with avenging defeats.

I was always surprised by the trust David and Adam extended my way. Not that I’m untrustworthy, more that I was just a young kid learning on the job. Maybe they saw something in me at a young age. Maybe they had no one else to turn to. Either way, it was very strange to barter with Carl Thompson, a fighter for whom I had enormous respect, in an attempt to lure him into a fight with David. You’re right, also, about David’s obsession with revenge. Certainly for a while it was all he would talk about. That Thompson defeated haunted him for a good few years.

The journey of a boxer, in many ways, is similar to a writer. Most go from awe to hubris to wisdom. Any thoughts around this?

That’s a great way of putting it. What’s poignant, though, is often the fighter, unlike the writer, won’t stumble upon wisdom until it’s too late; it usually kicks in when they’ve retired. At least writers can capitalise on eventual wisdom.

“Cruiserweights have always been the bastard children of the sport” you once said. Do you mean they occupy quite a unique, unappreciated pocket?

The cruiserweights have always been overlooked. It’s a relatively new weight class and even its name triggers confused looks from those unfamiliar with it. The casual sports fan has no idea whether it’s just beneath heavyweight or lightweight. It’s a shame, too, because the division has always produced decent fights and fighters and is enjoying a renaissance at the moment.

You grew up watching gangster films, then flashier stuff directed by Lynch, Fellini and Kubrick. Such work inspired you to write a number of unpublished screenplays. There are always stories behind a writer’s current exploits it seems. What did this early dedication teach you?

It just taught me the nuts and bolts of storytelling, I guess. And that’s what I try to do today—tell stories. The screenplay stuff helped in terms of structure and character and it also made me realise, upon looking back years later, that my work sucked and I still had a hell of a lot growing up to do. In ten years I’ll more than likely be saying the same when looking back at the stuff I’m writing now.

“I [did not] anticipate how a single boxing match would spook me,” you emailed back in April following the tragic events that unfolded at the end of the Nick Blackwell-Chris Eubank Jr fight. I understand that you developed a friendship with Nick over the preceding 18 months and that once out of the coma you “had the privilege of [allaying his fears and] telling him he wasn’t knocked out by Eubank, but was instead stopped because of the swelling over his eyes”. A sense of pride over and above health from a boxer—to the average Joe in the street, that seems extraordinary. What are your thoughts now?

It was the first injury I’d witnessed live from ringside, so, yes, you’re right, it definitely shook me and changed the way I view the sport. It was a jolt to the system, a reminder of what exactly it is I enjoy watching—two men or women beating the shit out of each other. I didn’t feel great about it and felt worse when I went to see Nick a couple of times in hospital. The first time I went, when he was still in a coma, was obviously hard, but the second time, the time you mention, was surreal for different reasons. Nick was awake, surrounded by relieved friends and family members, but was convinced he had been knocked out by Eubank Jr. in round ten. We told him the truth and the look on his face—upon realising he hadn’t been knocked out and his tough guy reputation remained intact—was one of surprise and joy.

I get the sense that you worry over catch-weight fights such as Khan-Canelo, Brook-Golovkin and, we should say, Bellew-Haye becoming the accepted norm. Are such bouts exploitative and inherently dangerous?

It’s not so much the danger—all boxers accept that, it’s their choice—more the cynicism behind such fights. Are they fights or business transactions? Do they exist for any reason other than lining pockets? A sign of the times, maybe, all I know is they are not the kind of fights that first attracted me to boxing as a kid.

I think it comes back to the issue of getting too close. So close that the illusion goes. I feel that’s what’s happening with boxing now as a result of the digital age. There is a transparency the business could do without. We know everything about the promoters and the fighters and the fights, and that’s great for us fans, because we’ve never felt closer, but it shines a bright beaming light on the bullshit of it all. Boxing has always operated from a flimsy scaffolding, but now it’s shakier than ever.

Boxers like the once phenomenal Roy Jones Jr struggle to quit this game even once middle aged. How do you view such antics and need?

It’s an addiction for some and a necessary evil for others. Some boxers have an inability to give it up because they need the training and the routine and the exposure and the acclaim in their lives, whereas other boxers simply have no alternative ways of making money—big money—in the real world. Both roads lead back to the gym and the arena. Both result in the comeback.

You claim to be quite a cynical person—beyond your years, in fact—having grown up around boxing gyms. Any chance of diluting this distrust and believing the worst in people as you get older?

I’m definitely cynical as a result of being too close. I think anyone would be. It’s not a sport to which good people tend to gravitate (which is not to say there aren’t good people in it). It’s a dark, seedy game, one full of snakes and secrets. That’s partly what makes it so attractive to follow and write about, of course, but it will also make you appreciate the virtues of people you meet in other walks of life.

Early on in your career, your dad accompanied you and acted as photographer while you were reporting on certain bouts. Great / funny memories I imagine? Particularly as he once shouted “Get your bloody hands up, David…shattering [your] already flimsy veneer of professionalism”.

Before I had a driving licence of my own, my dad, Graham, would drive me to far-flung places like Norwich, Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Derby and Sheffield—hundreds of motorway miles—in order for me to write thousands of words about nondescript undercards played out in empty leisure centres for which I wouldn’t be paid a penny. He’d blag his way in as a photographer, just as I blagged my way in as a writer, and for that I will always be grateful. Then, after the event, he’d drive me back down the motorway in the early hours of the morning, elbows on the steering wheel and a KFC bargain bucket between his thighs, and I’d nervously be glancing in the mirror to make sure his tired eyes remained open and focused on the road ahead.

“I was born with a black eye…I looked like a boxer who had [already] done ten rounds…Punching tables and kneecaps was how I spent my early years,” David Haye once said to you. Do you think there are significant events behind most people’s futures?

Everybody is different. Haye wasn’t necessarily born to fight, but he was athletically blessed and could punch hard from a young age. That helps. There are certainly more natural fighters, though, guys for whom a boxer’s life is pleasurable. As good as he was, Haye never loved training. He’d probably say he hated it. But he was always more of a scrapper than people thought—tougher, stronger—and was backed up by talent and physical gifts.

Can we associate Haye’s failure to beat Thompson with the blue rubber ball you were supposed to be supervising him with all those years ago in order to improve his hand tension / strength and grip?

Yes. Either that or his desire to get to the after-party as soon as possible. Or Carl Thompson being one of the toughest mofos the sport of boxing has ever seen.

“My legs were the problem,” Haye famously said following the defeat to Thompson. Do you think most boxers are goners / doomed once the legs go?

It would be wrong to generalise and say all boxers are finished once their legs go, especially when Carl Thompson, Haye’s opponent, made a career out o http://www.boxingnewsonline.net/drugs-in-boxing/f battling back when seemingly finis are frontrunners and are excellent when on top and fresh, whereas others are accustomed to soaking up punishment, going rounds and outlasting their opponent. They’re all different. The unpredictability of a fight is what makes us all keep coming back.

You recently broached the somewhat taboo subject of drugs in boxing suggesting that the problem is actually worse in the UK than in the US. How do you think this will play out in the coming years?

It’s depressing to think many of the boxers we have admired or currently admire may have benefited from performance enhancing drugs. But it’s also the reality we have to face. That was the point I was trying to make in the piece. Either we punish cheats the right way—lengthy bans, if not a life ban—or we simply accept that a hell of a lot of boxers are using and thus resign ourselves to that being the new normal. At the moment we have this weird middle ground whereby we condemn those who have been caught cheating with PEDs yet happily have them fight on our TV screens in major fights. I think that’s the result of ignorance and confusion. We don’t really know what to think. We want to believe all boxers are honest and genuine and that their excuses are valid. We want to believe the ones who say they were set up or didn’t knowingly take anything. We can’t fathom being duped, being told Santa isn’t real. But the more you investigate, and the more time you spend around gyms and fighters, the more you realise how nothing is as it seems. The drug testing is nowhere near good enough, nor is the punishment served to offenders. We know that. The rest is on us. If we entertain cheats or turn a blind eye to them, we can’t then moan when someone gets popped or when, inevitably, a fighter gets seriously injured or killed as a result of their opponent being aided by an illegal substance. At that point we all have blood on our hands.

The effort in writing a book is immense. The research, planning, travelling, desperate need for originality, chapter titles, getting precious quiet time away from the rigours of ‘normal life’. How has writing ‘Dog Rounds’ (2017) been different to writing ‘Making Haye’ (2011)?

1. I know what I’m doing now, or at least think I do. 2. It’s less personal. 3. It’s more grown up. 4. It required a hell of a lot more research and that aspect was fun.

Despite your unsparing humour in ‘Making Haye’ (“Since that [amateur] defeat in 1999 [to Jim Twite], Haye had gone on to excel as both an international amateur and fledgling professional, whereas tiler Twite flunked as a pro and returned to the grout-spreader and spirit level not long after”) you strike me as quite a serious person. Has that helped or hindered you in your journalism and writing?

I am quite serious. Anyone who knows me would agree. But I also think, in terms of boxing, that cynicism nicely complements humour. Boxing is a very serious sport, with serious repercussions for its brave participants, but the business side of it is frequently hilarious. That’s something I want to tap into a lot more.

“Brutal and beautiful” is how you describe boxing. When, for you, has it been the former and when the latter? Or do you usually mix them together?

When at its best, it’s both at the same time. Brutal and beautiful. Mismatches, to me, are just brutal. Worse than that, they make me question why I watch. But then you get beautiful, technical boxers who laugh in the face of the sport’s brutality and are somehow able to win fights like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Then you’re back to seeing it as an art form.

Is there something acutely sad and pitiful about a boxer’s life away from the ring? Something inherently ignored by the general public? Something perhaps too unpalatable and indigestible?

Boxers are some of the most admirable yet selfish people you will ever meet. They have to be selfish in order to excel. Spartan-like existence. The loneliest sport in the world. Blah, blah, blah. But what is accepted during the course of their career doesn’t necessarily fly when they retire. People become tired of their selfishness, I suppose, no longer willing to give them a pass, and some boxers struggle with this. They get thrown off. They have grown used to having people do things for them for many years—the duration of their career—and that suddenly stops in retirement. The boxing gym and real world are two very different things. You can be the all-knowing king in one and an ignoramus in the other.

When you hear the words “post-traumatic stress” in relation to boxing and not war, what do you think?

I think it’s arguably the biggest issue in combat sports right now. I read ‘League of Denial’ last year and recall scenes of doctors analysing brain scans of American football players and assuming they were the brains of boxers, so horrific was the damage. The book shook up the NFL, yet for boxing, a sport which allows one human being to hit another round the head, I fear this is all par for the course. The sad thing is, all those gym wars, all those fights, they add up, and when you get close to a fighter, and know them over a long period of time, you do notice quite telling changes in their behaviour, changes which were flagged up and explored in ‘League of Denial’.

When I mentioned Herzog a while back, there was an assumption on your part that I was talking about the German screenwriter and film maker, Werner Herzog but I was, in fact, talking about Saul Bellow’s restless, epistolary novel—itself about Moses E. Herzog and his midlife crisis at the age of 47. What do you think hitting 40 will be about for you?

It seems a long way off right now, but the speed with which I went from 20 to 30 reminds me it’s not. I guess I just hope to be ten years better than I am now, in every facet of life; writing, being a husband, one day being a father.

Marc Weingarten in his superb book, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight believes that New Journalism’s golden era ran from 1962 to 1977, that it was fifteen years of heaven for “thwarted novelists or fiction writers who moonlighted as journalists” and that the three greatest post-war magazine editors, Harold Hayes at Esquire, Clay Felker at the Tribune’s New York and Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone were at the centre of this revolution. Do you think there is an equivalent today and if so, does it make you want to raise your game?

I don’t know about an equivalent, but the birth of long-form pieces online has certainly provided a platform for that type of stuff to rise from the ashes. And there’s plenty of quality new journalism out there if you look hard enough.

You talk about getting a ‘real’ career at times—perhaps in publishing, perhaps elsewhere due to the pittance that sports writing offers. Do such thoughts ultimately sadden you?

Sure, it saddens me, but you’ve also got be realistic. Not everybody can do exactly what they want in life. I’ve been lucky in a sense—right place, right time—but I’ve also had to do a fair amount of non-writing work that gave me zero satisfaction in order to make ends meet. That’s just the way it is. Obviously, though, the dream is to one day write for a living and for that to be enough. If I can achieve that, I’ll be a happy man.

From Dickens, Balzac and Fielding and their social realist fiction, to Jack London’s advocacy journalism (“minutely observed chronicles”), to George Orwell and George Plimpton’s participatory journalism, to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism and even my own magpie journalism (extracting shiny quotes from other works and placing them in a richer form) —writers have tried in earnest to get to the core or nucleus of a story. They have desperately sought original angles and wished to do justice to the person or people before them whilst hopefully blowing a bugle in relation to their own talents. How do you relate to such history?

I think you have to earn your place in the story. If your presence isn’t relevant to the story being told, you shouldn’t be there. In saying that, a lot of what I like to read is participatory stuff (and guys like Plimpton, Mailer and Thompson unquestionably earned the right to not only be in the story but to be the story).

Also, a lot of it depends on the interview subject. Some are better than others. Fighters, in particular, cover the extremes. Some are fascinating, others have nothing to say. So, when a subject has very little to say, I enjoy reading the author’s observations and insights instead, as it’s far more interesting than a fighter giving lip service or combat clichés.

In a sporting context, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (1970), George Plimpton’s Paper Lion (1966) and Gay Talese’s Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man (1962) are considered masterpieces of the New Journalism era (and that is without mentioning non-sportswriters such as Michael Herr, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joe McGinniss, John Sack and Joan Didion). Who and what has informed your writing?

W.C. Heinz’s boxing novel ‘The Professional’ is a book I recommend to anybody interested in sports writing or just good old story-telling. It’s probably my all-time favourite; definitely, for me, the boxing book which is most relatable and the most realistic. And yet it’s fiction.

Like you, narrative non-fiction is my go-to genre. Talese’s ‘The Loser’, an account of Floyd Patterson coming to terms with his second loss to Sonny Liston, might be my number one piece of boxing writing, and obviously Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ had a big impact on me when I was a teenager. It sparked a realisation that you could write about real people and places but do so in a manner that was more in keeping, stylistically, with fiction.

I also last year got round to reading Darcy Frey’s ‘The Last Shot’, a brilliant non-fiction account of a number of nineties basketball prospects (imagine the documentary ‘Hoop Dreams’ as a book), and that stuck with me, as did Andrew Hankinson’s ‘You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat)’ and Gary Younge’s ‘Another Day in the Death of America’, both released in 2016, both great works of narrative non-fiction.

A clue as to the quality of Worsell writing to come was—to my mind—early on in ‘Making Haye’ when you described Haye’s first professional opponent, Tony Booth (41-72-8): “To the uninitiated, Haye might have been beating up a shyster plumber for a job not-so-well done, such was the disparity in athleticism and ambition.” Have there been moments in your career when you’ve sensed that your writing needs to ramp itself up and follow what you see with fresher, evolving eyes?

Of course. I want to rewrite shit all the time. There are things I wrote last year that I’d write differently now. But that’s the hard thing about wanting to be a writer, I suppose. You never really know when you’re writing good stuff.

All I do is observe how other people cover and write about combat sports and then try to do it differently.

Where do we find new ideas? you once asked somewhat rhetorically. I, nonetheless, told you to hoover the house, do mundane tasks (like washing the pots), go for a walk—anything that is undemanding. That is when ideas ferment, when they are born. Did you take any notice of my words?

Yes. And my wife is both shocked and delighted by the emergence of her new domesticated husband.

“At least he was drinking cranberry juice,” you wryly observed of Haye in the run-up to the disastrous fight with Carl Thompson as he was sat in a Bournemouth city centre strip club. Looking back and seeing yourself at the time as “Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights” does such preparation seem incredibly complacent from a boxer looking to scale the heights? Does it remind you, to a degree, of English footballers in the 1970s and 1980s boozing and smoking?

He will admit himself that he was complacent in those days. And he had every reason to be. Most of his early professional opponents were there to lose, there to be knocked out, and Haye duly delivered. His whole reputation was built on power and knocking old men out and Carl Thompson was hand-picked by Haye and Booth to go the same way. They assumed he was over-the-hill. They believed the timing was right. But, of course, they were wrong. Thompson was fresher and tougher than they hoped and Haye had yet to mature. Lessons were learnt.

One of the finer compliments I’ve read of yours in relation to Haye is that when watching boxing videos of himself there were “the uncontrollable reflexes of a man programmed to fight…a form of fistic Tourette’s”. Haye often re-watched his worst and best moments, “relived it in slacks” but apparently “has never re-watched the first three rounds of the Thompson fight” such is the discomfort and embarrassment. Do you still see that naturalness in him?

Definitely. Haye, like countless others, doesn’t know anything else; fighting other blokes is what he does best, it’s what he’s done since the age of 10, and that’s why he’s still doing it in 2017.

Interview by Jeff Weston conducted between December 2016 and January 2017.

Follow Jeff Weston on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeffweston1970

His website is www.thesportswriter1.com.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Richey 10:47am, 01/14/2017

    Please don’t mention Gay Talese and Elliot Worsell in the same breath. Worsell’s OK, but come on – that’s a ridiculous comparison.

  2. Moon-man 09:26am, 01/14/2017

    Irish…Don’t forget steamed blue crabs, Johnny U, Cal Ripken, or Brooksie. Pittsburgh should have jumped on Johnny Unitas while they had the chance. Can’t believe they didn’t select another native named Marino. Speaking of Unitas, who spent his last year playing for the Chargers, looks like those beautiful powder blue unis will be playing in LA. Damn, LA goes all those years without a team and now, two football teams once again. My own personal favorite Oriole was the late, Dave McNally. RIP.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:17am, 01/14/2017

    @Moon-man-When I think of Baltimore, the Orioles and Earl Weaver come to mind sure enough and right there with them is John Waters and Divine. It also takes me back to the Oyster House in Pittsburgh where humongous and scrumptious fish sandwiches and fried oysters came down the dumbwaiter from the kitchen upstairs and straight to the bar where I would be chasing my shot of Corbys with an ice cold bottle of Rolling Rock.

  4. Moon-man 08:12am, 01/14/2017

    Speaking of noses. Another good sports book is Black and Blue by Tom Adleman. This is the story of ‘66 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles. The heavily favored powerhouse Dodgers from glamorous Los Angeles vs. the upstart undergog O’s from that “little cow town.” “Someone once compared liking Baltimore to ‘falling in love with a woman who has a broken nose.’ Adelman’s, “The Long Ball” is another great book about the epic ‘75 World Series. “About Three Bricks Shy Of A Load,” by Roy Blount, Jr., another great read, centers on the 1973 season of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jack Cavanaugh’s book, “Tunney” taint bad either for anyone interested in one of boxing’s most underrated heavyweight champions.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:34am, 01/14/2017

    I’m figuring that with the current exchange rate Froch spent at least $5000 for his new nose. He’s talking a lot of shit about GGG but the truth is a couple of stiff jabs from Gennady and it will be like that money was flushed down the toilet. He had a perfectly good nose to begin with so you can almost understand why he had the procedure done when he says stupid shit like Eubank Jr would beat GGG.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:05pm, 01/13/2017

    “Buying time and gorging on patsies”....he wouldn’t be referring to that guy down in Alabama or the other in New Zealand….these two already have titles of sorts and they’re pulling that shit!

  7. allen 01:12pm, 01/12/2017

    Good article
    by the way Moon-Man is Eric. Why is he commenting with another screen name?

  8. Moon-man 09:52am, 01/12/2017

    Tanks Irish. I was wondering who that girl was myself. BTW, I heard through the grapevine that Soros is paying up to 35 bucks an hour for SJWs on Jan. 20. Not bad money. hehe.

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:44am, 01/12/2017

    Moon-man-Great comments as always, you probably have a better hang of this whole thing than Elliot does…...meanwhile I’m checking out the girl in the photos above with Daniel Tosh.

  10. Moon-man 09:31am, 01/12/2017

    The cruiserweight division was doomed from the start when Marvin Camel and Mate Parlov fought a draw for the first WBC Cruiserweight title. Parlov and Camel were good light heavies who probably migrated north to escape the heat of the 175lb division. Parlov & Camel had lost to the cream of the crop in the light heavy division, so this probably led people to assume fighters in the cruiser division were guys who couldn’t cut it in the light heavy or were just too small to be legit heavyweights. You had some big names at the start, but fighters like Galindez, Yaqui Lopez, and Leon Spinks were all done before they even got started in this new division. Even after all these years, the cruiserweight division has produced only one recognizable name to the general public, and Holyfield made his name mainly as a heavyweight. This is the only division that should have been added to the original 8 IMO, but it sure doesn’t look like it will ever really catch on.

  11. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:53am, 01/12/2017

    Memo to Bellew: Hit him on the side of the head like Thompson and Mock did ....just do it dammit!

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:38am, 01/12/2017

    Wlad under performed miserably with Haye as did Kovalev with both Hopkins and Ward. Wlad needs to get up on his hind legs this time and KTFO Joshua.

  13. Moon-man 07:29am, 01/12/2017

    “Paper Lion” was a great book, but not as good as “Instant Replay,” or Jim Bouton’s, “Ball Four.” I’m sure Bouton had help writing his book, and Schaap helped Kramer, but both of these books are a cut above the rest as far as books on sports IMO. Wow. Never knew that anyone was a fan of Lenny Kravitz, now I see where Haye got the idea for that weird hair. Hey Lenny, you were probably sh*tting your diapers during the hippie age, let it go, man. Peace.