Opinion

Entrepreneurs are more like heavyweight boxer David Haye than they know

12 min read

20 April 2016

Former deputy editor

Sitting in the audience of an interview with British heavyweight boxer David Haye, amidst the talk of his upbringing, ambitions and comeback trail to become world champion once more, it became clear business leaders have more in common with the fighter than they realise.

Communication techniques from the world of sport

At first blush it may not seem clear, but it was undeniable that there are major similarities between Haye and the modern entrepreneur.

At Advertising Week Europe, Real Business sat in the audience as the boxer was grilled by psychotherapist Kathleen Saxton about everything from his upbringing to present day return to the ring.

Haye grew up in Bermondsey, South London, living with both parents, a brother and a sister. As a result, said he had a “great upbringing” with a “lot of love” and described his family as a “big healthy support team” – something business leaders are required to have in their staff for a business to thrive.

And thrive Haye did. “My parents said do whatever you want, as long as you’re best.” In Haye’s mind, having possessed a desire to be the heavyweight champion of the world from a young age, being the best was “about being first and winning. If you’re in second place, you’re a loser,” he said frankly, much to the amusement of the crowd.

Prior to boxing, Haye danced with martial arts – inspired by his dad’s part-time role as an instructor. As such, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were idols of his, joining the likes of Muhammad Ali, Linford Christie, Frank Bruno and Nigel Benn.

At 14 he found himself sparring with men twice his age. Commenting on the age difference, he said: “It forced me to improve at fast rate on a steep learning curve. When you’re fighting grown men, you need to start learning or get your head punched in. It forced me to become a better fighter and teaches discipline and toughness.”

So obvious was his “freakish God-given punch power” that he knocked his fellow child opponent during his first fight in 1991, achieved in just 12 seconds. He said it was all quite scary because kids aren’t generally strong enough to generate that much force.

David vs. Goliath: How boutique fitness sector is squaring up to gym chain giants

With that success and others along the way, Haye soon came to his first defeat, which he said gave him a “hell of a humbling”. He went into the ring confident he could easily beat the opponent, who didn’t appear to be much of a threat, which was something he found to be inaccurate.

“You can’t have no respect for someone’s ability. The person with the best strategy is the best boxer,” he said.

The same rules apply to the enterprise world. Your sales can be flying, but getting complacent and taking your eyes off the rival that wants to take you down could result in a knockout. There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness.

In terms of Haye’s advantage, which can be compared to a unique selling point, he believes his ability is reading what the opposition is planning to do before it happens.

He described it as though “everything feels in slow motion” and said fights he lost were based on tactics. To generate the dizzying sensation of being punched on the chin and hitting the canvas, Haye incorporates a mixture of spinning and boxing into training to help recovery in the unfortunate event he should hit the deck.

So what do you, as a business leader, do to anticipate market situations? Bosses, of course, observe prospective challengers and generate a strategy to roll out in the event of an attack, ending what could have been a nasty dizzy spell.

For Haye, intense focus is also key. He filters out the noise of the crowd’s commands of “move your hands” and “kill him” to concentrate on what his coach has to say to him. Have you got a mentor? Their opinions can be paramount and, for Haye, his coach’s are the instructions he believes he needs to hear.

Read more on sport and business:

Now 35, Haye’s first comeback fight was in January 2016 against Mark De Mori, which the Brit won.

The reason for the comeback, however, was that a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery left him out of the game for three and a half years.

“I believe it’s my destiny to regain the heavyweight title,” said Haye on his return. Admitting the road back has been “real tough at times,” he couldn’t even go for a brisk walk without suffering from pain. “Things happen in life, in sport, that aren’t what you want. Just keep going,” he said.

It came to light through re-evaluation that his arm was injured because of a particular aspect of his training regime he should have left behind when he turned 30.

He compared the return to starting off as a cruiserweight before moving on to become a heavyweight.

“I believed I would fight again; in my heart I believed it. When I realised I wasn’t going to be big enough to be heavyweight, I started as cruiserweight. Everyone said ‘you’re too small’. [It’s a matter of] not being disheartened by failure, I still was the fighter I believed,” Haye detailed.

Stay sane as an entrepreneur in seven steps – a guide from a psychiatrist-cum-business owner

Of course, he went on to become not just the unified cruiserweight champion, but also the heavyweight champion – the only boxer in history to do so apart from Evander Holyfield – thus proving the naysayers wrong.

“The people that achieve great things are those that don’t give up when faced with failure, they learn from them. They become the bigger, stronger better person, whatever field or industry you’re in, you can be the best.”

Looking to the future, Haye said he is “realistic to his skill set”. Now with a new coach, 28-year-old Shane McGuigan, and team in tow, the boxer compared the choice for a young coach as moving into the digital age.

He said the key thing first off is knowing weaknesses and limitations, with McGuigan careful not to rush Haye at 100mph.

“You need to move into the digital world, Shane is the modern day version of a digital coach. He looks at anatomy and size. Lots of coaches think their way is the right way and say – ‘I’ve doing it since 1928’. Look at any sport, look how scientific their training is, boxing has been left in the dark ages,” Haye offered.

It can be compared to the companies yet to embrace social media. Far too many small businesses have been found guilty of neglecting customers on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and with the platforms becoming only more prevalent, boxing is not the only industry at risk of remaining in “the dark ages”.

Check out my previous columns:

“We’re focused on injury prevention. Training enough to get the desired effect without pushing to get injured. Training now is about quality not quantity, I listen to my body,” said Haye on the difference.

It’s not unlike the diligent entrepreneur who will work all the hours under the sun to get something done, but in the end we all know that burnout is a very serious risk.

The other difference for Haye, training aside, was thinking outside of the box when it came to marketing and generating an audience.

His comeback against De Mori was aired on Freeview channel Dave, which prompted people to make remarks such as “how the mighty has fallen”. Haye had the last laugh as three million viewers at home tuned into the fight, which he noted was significantly more than Anthony Joshua’s 400,000 viewers on Sky Box Office for his title fight on 9 April.

“The last 12 years of my career have been on a paid-for channel, but I wanted my comeback to be accessible to the masses,” Haye explained.

Closing with advice to his younger self, which the entrepreneur will also be able to appreciate, Haye said: “Go with your gut, don’t trust people and, if it seems to good to be true, it is. You don’t get anything in life without putting in the hard work.”

Another individual bringing sport into the digital age is Joe Wicks – we spoke with him to find out how he made the sprint from personal trainer to business sensation The Body Coach.