After a war of words lasting nearly three years, the talking is about to stop. On July 2, Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye will meet in the ring to unify three-quarters of the heavyweight championship in front of an expected outdoor crowd of 57,000 at the Imtech Arena in Hamburg.
The fight has attracted unparalleled attention for an event with no American involvement. Much of that is down to Haye, who has sold the bout almost single-handedly, even though some of his promotional stunts have gone way beyond the usual pre-fight hype. Haye, from south London, England, is the betting underdog, but the former cruiserweight champion has shown in the past that he fights best when the odds are against him. He will unquestionably need to again.
In Klitschko, Haye is facing a bigger, more experienced opponent in his own backyard - and one whose pride has been wounded in the long and torrid build-up. Klitschko, 55-3 (49), born in Kazakhstan but raised in Kiev, Ukraine, has fought most of his career in Germany, where he has lost only once, to big-hitting South African Corrie Sanders eight years ago. The 35-year-old will be returning to the city where he made his professional debut in 1996, a few months after winning the Olympic super heavyweight gold medal at the Atlanta Games.
But the exciting, charismatic Haye, 25-1 (23), says this is the fight he will be remembered for. He intends to retire on October 13 - his 31st birthday - and wants to leave in a blaze of glory. Haye will do just that if he knocks out Klitschko and adds the WBO and IBF titles to the WBA belt he took from Russian giant Nikolay Valuev in Nuremburg 20 months ago.
There is no doubting Haye's motivation. At a media training day in London earlier this month, I stood just a few feet from Haye as he went through a punishing, high-repetition weights routine to strengthen his arms. As his muscles started to burn, Haye glanced at a giant poster of Klitschko just behind me, as if to remind himself why he was going through the pain barrier.
Make no mistake, Haye knows exactly what's on the line.
Adam Booth, Haye's manager and trainer, believes the outcome will be decided by the difference in the fighters' characters. "Wladimir doesn't really want to fight," Booth claimed. "Emotionally, mentally, spiritually, it's not what he is. He's just a big man who has good skills. David's a natural fighter, somebody who will risk getting knocked out to try and knock you out. He will spin the coin every time. "Wladimir's not a risk-taker. If he tries to become a risk-taker, he will be fighting in a way that's not natural to him. I would rather have my problem than their problem, because I think my problem is easier to predict."
Asked if Haye's best chance was in the early rounds, Booth replied: "As long as David is standing up and breathing, he is dangerous. It doesn't matter what condition David's in, he will always look to throw the finishing punch. He is fast and heavy-handed. Any fast, heavy-handed fighter is dangerous early. But Wladimir will be dangerous early as well because he'll be scared - and a scared man can be unpredictable."
Klitschko has stopped 10 out of 13 opponents since his last defeat, a five-round collapse against American Lamon Brewster in Las Vegas in 2004 - a loss he later avenged. Haye's only setback came in the same year, when he was ground down in the fifth round of a cruiserweight bout in London by the much-older Carl Thompson, after punching himself out.
Emanuel Steward, who has been preparing Klitschko at a hideaway in the Austrian Alps, says his fighter's experience will be a major factor, and insists he is not worried about anything Haye brings - including his trademark speed.
"We have enough speed to neutralize that," Steward said. "Wladimir's not the slowest guy. I'm amazed how everybody sees him as a big, lumbering guy. David may feel fast after boxing the kind of guys he's been fighting. But he would have [had] a rough time with Eddie Chambers, Sultan Ibragimov or Chris Byrd [all beaten by Klitschko]. We've looked at David. We're very comfortable with him. We have never, ever had a problem with someone that was fast."
As for Klitschko's heart, Steward said: "He has been through some rough fights, getting off the floor three times with Sam Peter [in their first fight] to come back and have Peter out in the 12th round. That was the fight that changed his whole life. What has David been in? Has he been in any quality, challenging fights? I think David has the character of a champion and Wladimir has the character of champion. That's what makes it a good fight. I just see Wladimir as superior. ... I think Wladimir knocks him out inside six rounds."
Jim Lampley, who will call the fight on HBO's World Championship Boxing, said: "Haye's done a good job with his fighting style, and more particularly his public persona, in creating the impression that this is a legitimate, competitive fight. I'm very skeptical as to whether there is a real fight here, but it's great that the public believes there might be.
"Klitschko deserves to be a heavy favorite. There is nothing in Haye's record that suggests he is the kind of threat to Klitschko that his public assertions say he is. But stranger things have happened in the past. There was nothing in Buster Douglas's record that led you to believe he was going to beat Mike Tyson. Cassius Clay was a 7-1 underdog when he first won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. No-one should rule out the possibility that Haye can get something unusual done because Klitschko, in the past, has shown a vulnerable chin.
"The dark side for David, which every one of his fans will want to overlook, is that he didn't have the world's strongest chin in the cruiserweight division. He is about to fight a heavyweight champion with one of the highest knockout percentages in the history of the sport. If he wins, it ranks up there as one of the great upsets."