The Corrib Rest in Kilburn, North West London is a large bar situated in an area with the biggest Irish population in London. Designed as an Irish cultural and arts centre, it was commonly seen as a parting gift to the local populace from its minister of parliament, the soon to be Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone—who at that time was viewed as an espouser of the Republican cause.
It soon grew to resemble just another of the tens of thousands of London's Irish pubs. However, its 'Irishness' is clearly defined. Novels by Joyce, Maeve Binchy, and Frank McCourt join the poems of Yeats and Seamus Heany and are stacked prominently amongst the alcoves.
While Guinness, Murphy's, Bushmills, and Magners Cider are foremost behind the jump, and the many sports screens always show the available GAA sports.
Apart from the lavish function rooms upstairs and the odd bit of traditional Irish dancing, the pub is generally patronised as a sports bar. The big football matches draw large packed crowds, especially if any of the big three London clubs are playing—Arsenal, Chelsea, or Tottenham Hotspur—and even more so if the national team are playing—England that is—as a majority of the second generation Irish, the children of the '50s and '60s émigrés, have given their allegiance to the country of their birth.
This was where I ended up watching the Haye fight.
The fight started at 10 PM but by 9.30 PM the bar was full, the table spaces taken early, maybe 250 people. The crowd was surprisingly different from the football games, maybe three, four, whole tables taken by groups of 30-something black males.
And a good number of late middle-aged men, both black and white, many with their wives and lady-friends, of whom a good few sported the clearly distinguishing features of the ex-pugilist—the men, that is.
The direct grouping of people around me was something of an eclectic mix. There was a bar manager, an artisan plumber (whatever that may be), three non-working but impeccably mannered Cocaine dealers, a scandal rag journalist and a compiler of crossword puzzles, with a specialism in the cryptic format.
There were also three very attractive young ladies; one white, one mixed race and one with an American accent, who turned out to be Australian.
The atmosphere pre-fight was again very different from the football crowd. Nobody was openly drunk, though everybody was drinking. The black guys were 'out-Irishing' the Irish, and all to a man on pints of Guinness, as were the Cocaine dealers, probably as a lifestyle counterweight—as it's seen as a healthier drink than lager. The rest were on a mixture of beer, red wine, and vodka.
It was however, strangely quiet. People talking to each other in hushed voices, discussing the pros and cons of the fight. Prediction-wise there seemed to be no clear favourite, most people expecting Haye to win but not really sure how the fight would go; mainly due to the unnatural size and weight advantage of the Russian champion, and unvoiced fears about the sturdiness of David Haye's chin.
When the fighters came out and were introduced to the crowd there were resounding cheers for Haye, shouts of "C'mon David” but once the fight actually started there wasn't very much noise at all. The reason being nothing much seemed to happen.
The first few rounds were spent with Valuev stalking Haye, while Haye bobbed, weaved, and manoeuvred, making Valuev miss nearly all of the time, whilst throwing scoring combination one-twos of his own, which hit the mark but seemed to number no more than a maximum of four a round.
It was a strange fight and it continued that way through the middle rounds. Valuev missing, Haye hitting, but not following up and seemingly content to rely on the judges scoring the fight accurately, which can be a dangerous tactic on German soil. Germany has an ominous reputation for home-fighter decisions with, in particular, some of Sven Ottke's fights in the nineties being spectacularly laughable.
It was maybe the memory of this that affected Sky Sports Scottish co-commentator Jim Watt, the ex-world lightweight champion. Watt began to have Valuev ahead on points. Which was strange (as it was debatable whether Valuev had actually scored a point) but understandable in the context of home-town decisions. But then again un-understandable as Valuev was not German but Russian.
Maybe it can be put down to the uniquely Scottish air of despondency that Jim Watt has always had around him. He often resembles the John Laurie character in the 70s British TV wartime comedy "Dads Army," who at the slightest hint of adversity would immediately exclaim "We're all doomed, doomed!"
By the time we had gotten round to the last three rounds, the same or similar thought was beginning to loom large in the minds of our collected audience. The black guys were muted, looking down into their pints of Guinness. The old pugilists were rubbing at the scar tissue over their eyes, or rubbing the backs of their ladies.
The Cocaine dealers were becoming less interested in the fight and more interested in the three young women, while the plumber had started talking about the private job he was doing the next day, which featured a bidet.
Then suddenly, in the final round it all changed. Haye attacked and rocked Valuev with heavy blows. The giant wobbled and the bar went berserk. The black guys leapt up, the pugilists put up their dukes, and the white girl amongst the three attractive ones knocked a bottle of red wine over my jeans. I didn’t care, no one cared. To a man the whole crowd screamed “Finish him David!” and “There’s still time!”
There wasn’t. The final round ended and the euphoria of moments before dissipated as the scorecards were counted. It was a tense time. The Haye corner looked confident, even as they applied the salve to a swelling on their fighters face.
Haye looked surprisingly marked for a man that hadn’t been hit. Valuev remained impassive, seemingly emotionless. The thought passed through everyone’s mind. Maybe the fix was in? Maybe Jim Watt was right? Maybe we were all doomed?
And then the score cards were read out. One drawn and two unanimous decisions. A majority win for the new champion, David Haye! The bar erupted again. Everyone shook hands. Everyone was friends. The Cocaine dealers hugged the girls. The plumber hugged the crossword artist. I went over to the black guys and discussed the future. Who would it be next. The Klitschko’s? Could he beat Vitali? The answer. “Who knows?”
I returned to my place just in time for Haye’s post fight interview. It was only then I realised that he’d been in a real fight. The emotion he showed talking about how he had dreamed of the title since he was a kid. It was moving and it was also surprising. Sometimes you forget the sacrifice, the years of training that go into making a day like this.
And no matter the standard of the bout it’s amazing how popular boxing still is. How it brings people together from all segments of society in a common cause-especially with someone like David Haye; bright, personable, handsome; not entrenched in one particular community but capable of representing them all. A symbol of a new London, a new Britain.
Full of these heady thoughts I finished up my drink and said goodbye to the rest of the table. The good feeling endowed by the fight had been endemic, everyone was happy. The Cocaine dealers had persuaded the girls to join them in a night of celebration, the scandal journalist had learnt of two new celebrities with drug issues, the cryptic crossword master had thought up a two part clue for the word elixir , and the plumber was in the toilet.
I left them all with my thoughts oddly turning to Nicolai Valuev. He seemed like a decent person and I felt sorry for him. Maybe it was time to call it a day. Retire to the steppes and breed giant children. Hopefully he’d earned enough money in the sport to spend the rest of his days doing whatever he wanted. I hoped so.