There has always been a constant struggle between youth and experience in boxing. Though many fighters in recent years seem to have tapped into a wellspring of unlikely rejuvenation at advanced ages, the reaper can’t be fended off forever. Eventually old succumbs to young, brittle to sturdy, and so forth.
Youth does have its drawbacks, however, chief among them likely being hubris. Just as heart and will can occasionally conquer talent and skill in the ring, so too can wisdom envelope and tarnish the freshness of youth.
A physical specimen with lofty expectations and the kind of self-awareness that refuses to see the forest for the trees is like catch of the day for a hungry, capable old warrior. And that exact scenario unfolded on September 10, 2004 between Carl Thompson and David Haye.
Relatively soft-spoken, Thompson looked to be living out a normal, unassuming life in his hometown of Manchester before boxing. Thompson had been working for a company that distributed sporting goods to retailers, and climbed the ranks to be a section manager. But feeling as though the job wouldn’t take him anywhere, he told friends and relatives that he thought he could become a world champion in boxing.
Having just barely punched the time card at his new profession, Thompson was sent straight into the meat grinder and was made to spar against fellow Mancunian and noted journeyman Danny Lawford. Thompson apparently did badly enough to dissuade him from becoming a boxer, and instead he began training in Muay Thai, eventually landing on the doorstep of famed and controversial trainer Master Sken Kaewpadung.
In a later interview with Will Hale of BoxRec, Thompson remarked, “I used to love Bruce Lee films. We used to go to the Cinema and watch them then start kicking each other about. So we went to the gym and it toughens you up.”
Joining the likes of Samart Payakaroon and Khaosai Galaxy, Thompson transitioned to boxing after winning a world title in Muay Thai and realizing there could be greater opportunities and better organization in the “Western” art. Additionally, and no small matter, Thompson was crippling his legs kicking with his shins.
After making his pro debut in June of 1988 at 24-years-old, Thompson racked up eight wins in just over one year, but was still training with Master Sken, and using the more upright stance and wide open guard better suited for Muay Thai than traditional boxing. And the bad habit earned Thompson his first loss in October of 1989, against Yorkshire light heavyweight Crawford Ashley. According to Thompson, Ashley capitalized on the mistake after tasting canvas in the 1st round, breaking through Thompson’s guard and stopping him in the 6th when Thompson claimed he couldn’t see. It would lead Thompson to break from Master Sken, and pick up manager Nat Basso.
By his own admission, Thompson then became a gatekeeper — a fighter utilized to test the mettle of up-and-comers, often on late notice, and often away from home. Said Thompson, “…after you lose, people start to use you.”
Six months later, Thompson jumped in with Franco Wanyama, a Ugandan fighting out of Belgium, in Oost Vlaanderen, not far from Brussels. Thompson was knocked down at some point, but claims he offensively shut Wanyama down otherwise, despite losing on points in six rounds. Nearly a year later, Thompson barely edged former Olympian Terry Dixon in eight rounds, fighting on a week’s notice. A month later, and with only two weeks to train, he was vanquished again by a Ugandan when veteran Yawe Davis took him out in two.
Having lost three of four fights in an 18-month span, Thompson considered himself battle-harded, rather than broken or bending. He said, “Those fights made me. Those fights made my heart and my mind strong. I didn’t quit and pack it in, I didn’t moan, I just dusted myself off and got on with it and that’s when Nicky Piper came along on short notice.”
Piper, a former ABA light heavyweight champion with an undefeated record of 10-0-1 (10 KO), likely saw Thompson as a name to scribble onto his ledger, but stepped too far up the ladder. Before three rounds were complete, Thompson had laid waste to Piper and as a result, was given the opportunity to fight for the vacant British cruiserweight title against Steve Lewsam. Thompson battered Lewsam about the body and stopped him in round 8.
Three quick knockout wins in 1993 led to Thompson ransacking Italian favorite Massimiliano Duran in eight rounds for the European cruiserweight title in early 1994. Diversifying his portfolio for the rest of ’94, Thompson defended the European title by stoppage against French-Algerian Akim Tafer in France, then halted Brazilian Dionisio Nascimento in the U.K., then leveled American Tim Knight back in France.
Another months-long hiatus then brought Thompson back home to Manchester, to challenge for the vacant WBO cruiserweight belt against German ruffian Ralf Rocchigiani in June of 1995. The chance at becoming the first world champion from Manchester in 60 years — since flyweight great Jackie Brown — wasn’t enough to push Thompson past Rocchigiani.
Despite trading knockdowns in round 5, Thompson led on all cards and was landing thudding shots on Rocchigiani almost at will. There seemed to be concern about Thompson never having gone past eight rounds before, and the concern indeed proved warranted in round 8 when Rocchigiani found success with his right hand, rocking Thompson twice with it and seizing the round. Thompson tightened up slightly and jabbed his way through the 9th, but he sunk to the canvas after landing a right hand upstairs on Rocchigiani in the 10th, appearing to complain about his hand. Moments into round 11, Rocchigiani sensed victory and moved in to finish Thompson off. As Thompson threw a defensive right hand, his shoulder visibly dislocated, and he ate a right hand before bending over into the ropes, and then bowing out.
Thompson sat out for nearly a year amid talk that he didn’t have the wind for extended outings, didn’t have the chin for battle, and didn’t have the fortitude to fight through a painful injury for another two rounds. But in true Carl Thompson fashion, “The Cat” plowed through three hapless victims in a year’s time, then in October of 1997, pounced on a chance to rematch Rocchigiani in Niedersachsen, Germany.
This time, Thompson clearly out-worked Rocchigiani, but settled for a split decision win as inexperienced WBO judge Jose Sausa oddly scored the bout for the German in his final job as a judge.
For whatever reason, Thompson wasn’t in a hurry, in terms of career activity. In a decade of professional boxing, Thompson had amassed a mere 26 fights, going 22-4 (16 KO), but he had seemingly just rounded a bend in his mid-30s.
In April of 1998, Thompson defended his belt against former two-division titlist and talkative character Chris Eubank, who passed over a division for a chance at glory. And through the first half of the bout, it seemed as though Thompson could get nothing working but a jab, even going down after taking an uppercut in round 4, when seemingly having Eubank in trouble. But Thompson’s jab was enough to aggravate the skin around Eubank’s left eye, which gradually closed over the first two-thirds of the fight, and was shut entirely for the last few rounds. Through it all, Eubank battled bravely and even rattled Thompson here and there, but the latter ultimately retained his belt, and Eubank collapsed in his dressing room after the fight.
Eubank was somehow cleared to rematch Thompson three months later, and once again looked great in the early portion of the bout. His left eye began to deteriorate quickly, though, and he couldn’t seem to buzz Thompson as he had in the first bout. After round 9, the ringside doctor pulled the plug in what would be Eubank’s last fight, and the only fight in which he lost inside the distance.
It took Yorkshire battler Johnny Nelson five rounds to undo Thompson and take his belt. Thompson’s tendency to start slow and lumber his way though rounds was exploited by Nelson, whose speed befuddled the champion through three rounds. In round 4, a right hand sat Thompson down, though he survived the round. But in the 5th, a barrage from Nelson went unanswered, and the bout was stopped. Thompson protested, as did Sky commentators Glenn McCrory and Ian Darke. Nelson would go on to defend the belt 13 times, albeit not against the greatest crop of challengers, even if cruiserweight never tended to be a deep division.
Once more Thompson found himself at the bottom of a hill, looking upward. And as he’d done previously, Thompson scraped his way up, winning four fights over the next two years, including a TKO over former titlist Uriah Grant, who had just gotten a win over heavily-aged legend Thomas Hearns by freak injury. In November of 2001, Thompson scrummed power puncher Ezra Sellers for 10 minutes in a knockdown-filled scrap.
Thompson later said of Sellers, “He was the hardest puncher that I ever came across. I think it was three two to him in terms of knockdowns but others say he had me down four times. I say the referee was wrong. The fight was classed as fight of the year. He won, and that was it.”
In rounds 1 and 2, both men knocked each other down, then Thompson says he injured his ankle. They continued to wing shots at each other, looping and straight, upstairs and down, with Thompson getting the worst of it. In rounds 3 and 4, Thompson’s efforts to go home early walked him in to punches that put him down. But the southpaw right hook that caught Thompson on the chin in the 4th completely fried his nerves and folded him backward, for the count.
At 37 and having been stopped five times in six losses, the end of Thompson’s journey appeared near. Former conqueror Johnny Nelson told the BBC, “The last person that knows it’s time to quit is always the fighter himself and nobody wants to retire a fighter. But that’s a sad way to see Carl finish after all the exciting fights he’s been in. I’d have loved to have had a return bout, it would have been an exciting fight for me and Carl, and the chance of us fighting was getting closer and closer. But now his people want to be seriously thinking about this guy’s career. A loss like this should have been avoided.”
“The Cat” still had a few more lives, as it turned out.
Three more opponents were skipped past in 2003, which lined him up to face Sebastiaan Rothmann, an Israeli fighting out of South Africa, in February of 2004 for the IBO trinket in Yorkshire.
Thompson was getting jabbed around and marked up early in the fight, and a right hand counter bowled him over in round 4. Thompson scored with a right uppercut that sent Rothmann down in the 5th, but went back to pursuing and likely giving away rounds shortly thereafter. In round 9, Thompson absorbed a salvo that had him weary and wobbly, and BBC commentators suggested that Thompson might get stopped soon. Out of almost nowhere, Thompson baited Rothmann to the ropes, timed the incoming, and struck with an incredible right hand that crumbled Rothmann to the canvas. Though he somehow beat the count, Rothmann couldn’t help but stagger backward to the ropes, and the fight was ended by the referee.
The IBO belt was of the fringe kind, but winning it — and winning it in that manner — created opportunities in more ways than one: The belt itself was an attractive prize for many a fighter, but Thompson, who was soon to turn 40, looked vulnerable and spent.
There were rumblings of a young charismatic cruiserweight named David Haye climbing through the ranks in British boxing, and appearing regularly on television. Haye was Thompson’s opposite — youthful, outspoken, cocky and complete with a list of amateur accomplishments. Haye’s manager and trainer, Adam Booth, felt it was time to move the youngster forward, and through Carl Thompson.
Haye first donned gloves at 10-years-old, training at the Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club in his hometown of London, later describing himself as “skinny,” but athletic nonetheless.
In 1999, when he was 18 and fighting at light heavyweight, Haye punched his way onto the British team for the World Amateur Championships in Houston, Texas — a team also consisting of future foe Audley Harrison, Stevie Bell, Gary Jones and Stephen Burke. Haye was sent packing early in the tournament by American amateur standout Michael Simms, but he would bulk up significantly over the next year or so, and folks around the gym began calling him “The Hayemaker.”
At the next Amateur Championship 2001, Haye was at heavyweight, and lost in the final match to member of the Cuban team Odlanier Solis in Belfast. There was truly no shame in losing to to Solis, or anyone on that particular Cuban team, for that matter; Cuba won gold in seven of 12 weight classes that year, and bronze in two of the remaining divisions.
Finally, at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, sporting longer hair and fighting at a solid 200 lbs., Haye defeated his first opponent, Shoukat Ali of Pakistan, but conceded a walkover loss to Jason Douglas of Canada, citing a bicep injury, in what would have been his final amateur bout.
When the sun set on Haye’s amateur career, he reported a 83-7 record, though may have more losses when accounting for a few disqualifications he suffered in his teens, and two walkovers. He also maintained that a few of his amateur losses were robberies, like his loss to Giacobbe Fragomeni that caused him to miss out on the 2000 Olympics.
Haye’s most notable amateur loss is likely his stoppage defeat at the hands of Jimmy Twite, in the semi-final of the 1999 National Amateur Boxing tournament in Bethnal Green, East London. In a 2009 interview with Daily Mail, Twite said, “He was arrogant and cocky back then an needed taking down a peg or two. He had no respect and had even told his friends he would knock me out in two rounds. But I proved him wrong. He was darting around the ring in his trademark style but I caught him with a cracking left hook at 58 seconds. It was all over after that punch. He hit the deck and the ref counted him out.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Haye got the rug pulled out from under him.
Shedding headgear and a few pounds, Haye turned professional in December of 2002, then rattled off six wins in the span of nine moths, including two fights in the U.S.
The first serious test of Haye’s career came in September of 2003 against Congolese trialhorse Lolenga Mock, who hadn’t won in three years, sporting a 0-4-1 record in his previous five bouts, but also had never been stopped at that point. Haye, who had a 10 pound weight advantage and looked to be a full division larger, sent Mock to the canvas with a right hand in round 1. But as Haye got lazy with a jab from his lead left hand in round 2, Mock bounced a right off Haye’s think tank that wrecked his legs and sent him down. Up at the count of eight, Haye tackled, held and wobbled his way to the bell as soccer horns vibrated through the Rivermead Leisure Centre in Berkshire, U.K.
In the face of suffering a big upset loss, Haye surged forward and won round 3 outright with sharp, steady work. In the 4th, after getting tossed to the canvas by Mock, Haye regained control, absorbed a few more looping right hands, then floored Mock with a right uppercut follow by a right hook. Though he was up early in the count and seemed perfectly cognizant of his surroundings, referee Mark Green puzzlingly waved the bout off despite Mock’s — and the crowd’s — protests.
On paper, Haye picked up the victory, and though the outcome didn’t go quite as expected, there was simply no way a potential star like Haye would break stride to do Mock a favor by rematching him.
A few weeks later, Haye told reporters, “I went out there with the attitude that I was going to knock him down, and I did the wrong thing at the wrong time, and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. But one of the biggest pluses that can come from that fight is if future opponents think I have a weak chin. Hopefully every cruiserweight in Britain watched that fight and fancies their chances, because before they were saying under no circumstances would they face me. But now they realize I am human, and I can be beaten — but in saying that it will be a rude awakening when they get in the ring and realize that shot isn’t on offer.”
Haye logged two more wins that, added together, amounted to just over three minutes of work and a British cruiserweight title, then dispatched of former cruiserweight belt-holder Arthur Williams in three rounds. The 40-year-old Williams was on a bad streak and hadn’t beaten a credible opponent in a while, but he usually gave his foe rounds before getting stopped. This time he ate a flurry in round 3 punctuated by a left hook that had the referee stepping in.
The win brought Haye to 10-0 (10 KO).
Booth likely assumed that Thompson was another link in the chain pulling Haye’s hype train toward a world title — another 40-year-old who would put up a fight, but fade out after a few rounds. It was a fight that would position him in or about the top 10 in the cruiserweight division, if he could manage it.
Thompson had been on Haye’s agenda for about a year, and Booth had hinted at pursuiing the match up before it was finalized. Around the time that news of the potential match up began making the rounds, Haye said, “I’ve always said I want to face the best fighters out there, and Carl is one of the best — he is a big puncher and has a high knock-out ratio. His people want him to have a few fights before he gets in the ring with me, but when it does happen I’m confident I’ll win conclusively.”
Matters were settled and the bout was made official in late July, less than six weeks out, and tabbed to take place at Wembley Stadium in Haye’s London backyard. And Haye’s talent and perfect record were played up in the promotion, which carried the tagline “Don’t blink.” Thompson had played the underdog before, though.
“How you fight David is you let him steam at you, try to blast you out, then you’ve got to attack him straightaway, so that you’re forcing him to work when he doesn’t want to work,” said Thompson, pre-fight.
Soon after the opening bell rang, it seemed as though Thompson had made a terrible miscalculation. Haye established both his jab and a slightly arcing right hand early in round 1, and his speed, power and precision advantages shone through. Thompson, for his part, was acting out his game plan and covering up to blunt Haye’s offense and lashing out with wide counters, most of which missed, soon after. But when the gong ended the round, Thompson was on shaky legs and had been rocked several times, and Haye’s offense was simply getting started. Thompson’s gloves also touched the canvas at one point, but with an exchange unfolding, referee Terry O’Connor chose to let them be.
Round 2 began just as the opening salvo had — with Haye crashing right hands home, and Thompson teetering on the brink. But about halfway through, Haye’s attack slowed considerably, which he would later say was an intentional strategic move. Much of the power appeared to have drained from his punches, though, and Thompson began landing a nagging right hand.
Haye counterpunched in the 3rd as Thompson looked for openings off his jab, but Haye still had a marked advantage by landing the harder single shots, and again stunned Thompson with right hands. The deliberate attempts to switch gears were gone, though, and Haye went to his corner gasping for air.
The flashier work from Haye continued at the start of round 4, but Thompson kept chipping away in the face of punches that were forcing him to reset, and right hands that had swelled his left eye some. But with Haye not even attempting much of a guard anymore, Thompson found the opening he needed.
Brian Doogan, reporting from ringside for Ring Magazine, said, “[Haye] was wilting, and it gave Thompson hope. With the jab, he was catching Haye, whose hands were ruinously low. Thompson had success with his right hand in the fourth, tagging Haye several times. The young man’s legs suddenly looked weaker than Thompson’s. The fifth round was new territory [for Haye], and it showed. Thompson was catching him with the jab and then suddenly a right hand exploded off the side of Haye’s head and down he went. He took the referee’s count on one knee, but his tiredness was as clear as the shock on his face. The tide had turned irreversibly.”
Thompson managed to land the fight-changing right hand moments after he again looked stunned, and Haye found himself unable to capitalize. When Haye got up and action resumed, Thompson couldn’t miss, and Haye’s legs moved as if they were chained to anvils. Haye gamely tried to fight his way out of trouble, but he couldn’t move, and another right hand from Thompson had Haye struggling to keep his balance. When Haye lurched back-first into a neutral corner, his corner surrendered and the bout was stopped while he was flailing helplessly.
After the bout, Thompson said, “I was on the receiving for the most of it. He rocked me and got me hurt. I felt David was getting tired, but I hung in there. I’m showing age is not a barrier.”
Haye said, “I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t that gone in the first round. A lot of people take fights where they are 100% sure of winning, but I knew Carl takes punches as can come back and that’s why I took this fight. I would love to fight him again — I was actually enjoying it in there.”
Thompson fought once more, scoring a points win over Frenchman Frederic Serrat, before retiring, citing injuries and his inability to run and do roadwork. It was strange to see a rugged mangler like Thompson go out so unceremoniously, but at the same time, good to see him go out after a win rather than a pulverizing loss. Outside of the ring, the exit made sense, but the efforts Thompson put forth time and again begged for something more grandiose, or more bloody. His record stands at 34-6 (25 KO).
Haye, on the other hand, truly did have most of his career ahead of him, and he showed the promise Thompson assured the fans he would. Pulling himself back together and being candid about his loss and the shortcomings that caused it, Haye bounced back to notch nine victories, which included wins over Glen Kelly, Alexander Gurov, and a revenge defeat of the man who kept him out of the Olympics, Giacobbe Fragomeni. Haye went on to win the cruiserweight title by stoppage over Jean Marc Mormeck, then assimilated Welshman Enzo Maccarinelli’s WBO belt quite brutally before moving up to heavyweight and sending former belt challenger Monte Barrett home before five rounds were up.
Antics meant to arouse the anger of the Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko worked, and though fights with both brothers seemed ready to be made, Haye balked and instead faced Nikolay Valuev in 2009 for the WBA heavyweight belt. 12 rounds of disappointment later, Haye had picked up the belt, and therefore leverage against one or both of the Klitschkos. Defenses inside the distance over former titlist John Ruiz and former teammate Audley Harrison in 2010 readied Haye for a showdown with the younger, healthier Klitschko, Wladimir. But the highly anticipated match up fell far short of expectations, Klitschko dominating with ease while Haye blamed an injured toe for his poor performance. And the loss hurt Haye’s credibility.
A 2012 stoppage of Dereck Chisora helped Haye regain much of the good will he’d lost, but he hasn’t fought since. Through it all, Haye has been a polarizing figure, and it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll step through the ropes again. His record now is 26-2 (24 KO).
Thompson and Haye tangled, each with a different cause and motivation, and each filling different stereotypical boxing roles. But they had more in common than the youth and experience separating them in the ring. Thompson derailed Haye’s career when the latter was 10-0, Thompson’s hit the wall at 8-0; both learned how to overcome adversity from round to round, and fight to fight; and both were good fighters who faltered in some big opportunities, but triumphed more often than not.
The difference between them, and the one that mattered that night, was that Thompson’s experience made him war-ready for Haye’s youth.
Happy Holidays from the whole team at The Queensberry Rules!