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Klitschko-Haye tension crackles on HBO set

Wladimir Klitschko has plenty to disklike about David Haye, but it started with a tasteless T-shirt. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

As soon as it was over, Max Kellerman knew it was the best one yet -- better even than when Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal glowered at each other through the previous edition of HBO's "Face Off."

"There was such a contrast between them," Kellerman said of David Haye and Wladimir Klitschko, who batted insults across the table while Kellerman, an HBO analyst, refereed the latest installment of what has rapidly become one of the most eagerly anticipated segments of a promotion for a major fight on the network.

"There was so much tension. Plus, they're heavyweights, and we haven't had a big heavyweight fight in a while. And they're two of the three best heavyweights in the world."

The contrast between the two men was evident, Kellerman says, even in the way they expressed their dislike of each other.

"At the very beginning, I asked Wladimir why he didn't like Haye, and he talks about his whole look, his earrings and so forth, and I suggested that someone's dress sense wasn't really a very good reason to hate someone," Kellerman said. "And he goes on with some other reasons -- he's filibustering, really. And I asked Haye why he doesn't like Wladimir, and he says simply, 'Because he's a d---head.' It was much the same as the way they fight: Wladimir very calculating and cerebral, Haye very quick and to the point."

The roots of the antipathy are buried in more than a heavyweight rivalry, of course: Haye's T-shirt portraying the severed heads of both Klitschko and his brother Vitali; the Briton backing out of an agreed-upon June 2009 clash, citing injury, and then -- according to the Klitschko camp -- entering negotiations to fight Vitali only to suddenly change course and instead fight Nikolai Valuev. It is a profound clash of personalities: Haye unafraid to say or do whatever he feels necessary to gain a psychological advantage, Klitschko adhering to the belief that certain things are off-limits. Like, for example, depicting beheadings or suggesting -- as Haye did on Monday at the final press conference in Hamburg before Saturday's bout -- that the fight would result in Klitschko going to the hospital.

"This game, this sport, is very intense and unfortunately there have been a lot of cases where people have been handicapped and people have died during and after fights," Klitschko said. "It's not something to joke about."

So, of course, Haye said it again.

"This is going to be the most brutal execution of a boxer that you've seen for many, many years," he said. "I'm going to go out there and absolutely destroy him, really quickly."

Having watched them up close, Kellerman suspects that the animosity is largely a one-way street, that it is deliberate provocation by Haye designed to throw Klitschko off his game.

"I haven't seen Wladimir show such an obvious dislike for an opponent before," he said. "That thoughtful, cerebral style has worked so well for him that [it seems] someone who can get under his skin, get him out of his game plan -- and who can punch -- has a chance."

If it is indeed all part of Haye's plan, if his intent is to throw his opponent off his game and force him to abandon his usual caution and fight angrily, the question is this: Will it work?

Kellerman said he doesn't "expect Klitschko to be Arturo Gatti in there." But he added, "I would be very surprised if Klitschko was not gunning for the knockout."

As for Haye's chances: Kellerman noted there are two ways that have been demonstrated for defeating Wladimir Klitschko.

"One is the Corrie Sanders way, to blitz him from the beginning," he said. "The other is to show the ability to walk through some fire. Haye hasn't shown a great chin so far. But if he's tough enough, resilient enough to walk through the fire, if he keeps coming, then maybe there's some give there. Maybe Klitschko starts casting his mind back to earlier in his career, and maybe he starts exhausting himself."

Although HBO will be broadcasting the fight, Kellerman -- whose wife is expecting the couple's second child -- will not be there. But, sudden spousal labor pains permitting, he has every intention of watching the bout from the couch. He would be doing so anyway, of course, but having observed firsthand the two men's animosity adds an extra element of anticipation.

"Just seeing the tension between them makes me want to see the fight."