By Terence Dooley
When Liverpool’s Tony Bellew (30-2-1, 20 KOs) walks to the ring this Saturday night for what he insists will be his final fight he will be in both a position and a place that he relishes: the underdog with his back against the wall.
Rumours that the 35-year-old was meeting Ukraine’s Oleksander Usyk (15-0, 11 KOs) on Sky PPV at the Manchester Arena for all the major cruiserweight titles was initially met with scepticism — surely he’d take an easier option, right? Once it was firmed up and a date was set the assumption was that he would be destroyed by the world’s dominant 200lber
As time has ticked on and, let’s be honest, as Sky’s massive media machine has done its work, there is a growing sense among some fans that he will not be destroyed. His 31-year-old southpaw opponent has more the natural, mercurial talent of Vasily Lomachenko than the destructiveness of Gennady Golovkin. Although he is still heavily favoured by most, it is now more widely assumed that Usyk will use his boxing brain to gain dominion over the “fat Scouser”.
In truth, Bellew has been written off more times than The Sweeney’s motor. In September 2010 he was woeful against Bob Ajisafe in a Commonwealth light-heavyweight title defence on a Frank Warren-promoted show. His performance, which included the indignity of a fourth-round knockdown, was followed by a few sage head nods as he emerged with his record just about intact yet his reputation damaged.
Then came a mini-epic with Ovill McKenzie in his second Commonwealth title defence a few months later. Down twice, and heavily, “The Bomber” regrouped to drop and stop “The Upsetter” at 2:46 of the eighth with Frank Maloney — then a man and also McKenzie’s manager — furious about the nature of the stoppage.
Maloney agreed that his fighter was about to be taken out yet he told ringside observers that he at least deserved a few more seconds to see if the outcome would be definitive. Whatever those in attendance felt about Maloney’s viewpoint, a fair few agreed on one thing: Bellew had been brutally exposed and would never reach the lofty heights he had set for himself.
A rematch was made and lessons were learned, Bellew decided that then-trainer Anthony Farnell’s style of coaching was not in keeping with his own brooding intensity and he hooked up with Mick McAllister for the return. People expected fireworks when they met again, Bellew would be dragged into a war, possibly further exposed, and, either way, his card had been well and truly marked.
Instead, Bellew boxed a textbook fight against a man who former matchmaker Dean Powell once told me was: “The most dangerous three-round fighter in the world.” It was punch perfect from Bellew yet the sages were still not impressed. His “arse had gone” they opined as they wrote him off as a possible top-level talent.
For Bellew, though, the seeds had been planted that would help him grow into the fighter he is today and the man who finally reached the summit when stopping Ilunga Makabu in three for the WBC cruiserweight title at Liverpool’s Goodison Park in May 2016.
“Yeah, that is a fair assessment,” said Bellew when speaking to BoxingScene on the eve of his final fight. “I look back on those fights myself and envisage who I was, where I was, and what I was doing. I made and learned from my mistakes. Going into the McKenzie rematch, or any other fight, it is about looking at mistakes that were made and how you improve on and recover from them.
“I’ve learned as I’ve gone along in this game. I’ve tried my very best to use my abilities to my advantage. I’m at the stage where I’m at the end of a long road and it is a road that taught me a lot about myself. That first McKenzie fight taught me an awful lot about myself and my situation at the time.
“I knew I needed to make a change. I was going backwards technically with how I was being led and who I was listening too — you can’t say I wasn’t going backwards back then if you look at my performances. I was deteriorating at a very fast pace and losing all of my amateur qualities. The ones that had brought me success.
“I was losing my boxing ability so had to make a decision and make a change, and I did that. I was back home for just 16-weeks, and look at the difference between the two fights and performances. I went back to Mick, back to basics, and it showed. Then time moves on and you move on and want to try other things, so I went with Dave [Coldwell before meeting Valery Brudov in March 2014] and things just went up another notch again. It has all come right in the end.”
“It was an absolute killer, that first night against McKenzie,” he recalled. “It just boiled down to that insane drive and desire I had to make it to my feet and drag myself through it. I can only explain it with those words: insane drive. That night, that event, it was all very hard, but I found a way.”
The second win over McKenzie dovetailed into a first world title challenge. A fight with WBO light-heavyweight holder Nathan Cleverly had been due to take place on short-notice following Juergen Braehmer’s withdrawal from a mooted meeting in May of 2011 only for it to spiked due to Bellew being too far away from 175lbs to make the limit safely. When they did meet it was in Bellew’s backyard in October of that year yet he failed to dethrone a man he quite clearly detested and found himself on the end of a Majority Decision loss.
It had been a prime opportunity, one that had slipped away from him, and guess what? Bellew was “finished” all over again. Things got even worse very quickly when a rematch slipped away over the horizon and Bellew chose to announce that he was parting company with promoter Frank Warren, setting up a fight outside the ropes that could have potentially left him sat on the shelf until they found a binding resolution.
Bellew had gone rogue, a renegade fighting a personal and professional legal fight and doing it in virtual silence as most online and print outlets failed to report the ins and outs of his biggest battle to date. BoxingScene covered it in full, and from both sides, and by October 19 of 2012 a tired and emotional Bellew phoned through on a Friday evening to reveal that he was finally, and definitely, free to move on with new promoter Eddie Hearn, who he had already fought under when stopping Edison Miranda in nine the previous month.
In the midst of all this, Coldwell’s promotional outfit had won the rights to stage a British light-heavyweight title fight against Danny McIntosh in April to ensure that the previously undefeated contender had some form of a runout. Coldwell’s intervention laid the foundations that turned a friendship into something deeper, he would eventually oversee the most fruitful period of Bellew’s career.
Meanwhile, and despite his body telling him otherwise, Bellew opted to remain at 175lbs to pursue a fight with WBC holder Adonis Stevenson. It was untenable, a little bit crazy, in truth, and in many ways a forlorn hope — in fact, it was very Bellew-esque. A sixth-round loss in Canada underlined the fact that it was time to move up in weight and on to pastures new once again.
“At the time, and once again, it (the post-Stevenson link with Coldwell) just came about naturally,” he recalled. “I had always remained close with Dave after dealing with McIntosh on his show. As you know, it was very, very hard to make that weight in the end. Nothing could have been harder than that.
“It has been a great journey, some great times, and throughout it you reach points where you have to move on and do what is right for you. I’ve done that when I needed to and it has got me to this great point. This is a huge level in boxing for me to be at.
“Then my life really started to change when the Cleverly rematch happened [a tepid Split Decision win in November 2014]. When you fight on Sky Box Office you do notice that things change for you. I beat him, but it was a bit of a disaster because the fight wasn’t good yet I went away, did a Rocky movie (Creed), and it all went from strength-to-strength. My only regret is that I didn’t start with Eddie sooner and didn’t go with Dave earlier in my career — I’d have achieved even more if I had done that. I’m over the moon apart from that.
“I still struggle with it all, really. I don’t like fame. It is just something that I cannot do anything about. I just keep moving on, keep trying to be the best possible version of me that I can be, and I am at the point now where I’m happy with what I’m doing from day-to-day.”
“No chance,” he said when asked if he will become as addicted to celebrity as some of his peers and cling on to it by any means necessary. “On November 11, I will retire properly. You won’t see me for a while. We can still catch up. You will see me at the odd fight supporting the guys and that is about it. I’ve got business opportunities available to me down in London. I have a property portfolio. I will rely on those things.
“As far as publicity goes, I will go quietly into the night. The public eye is not for me. It is only a matter of time before they try to find the cracks if you are in the public eye, things usually go badly wrong for people when they are in that sphere. I’m not nor pretend to be a role-model, I am not a person who should be in that spotlight so I will be gone from it.”
The loss to Stevenson kicked off a 10-fight winning streak in which Bellew has felt comfortable enough at the weight to show the different facets of his game. Consequently, he has been more stable, more two-fisted, and it is the happiest he has seemed in the ring. A brace of wins over David Haye — one by 11th-round stoppage in March 2017 and the other a more definitive fifth-round win in May — are the icing on the cake of that run of form. He hopes that Usyk will be the cherry on top.
“I have shown people that I am more than a puncher: I can counter, box, move, brawl, plus I can and have used various tools to win fights,” he said, sounding satisfied with his recent lot. “I’m not always the most pleasing on the eye, and people judge me on what I say when a lot of what I say is to sell fights, so people just see me as a mouthy Scouser.”
Outside of the ring, there was family tragedy when Ashley Roberts, his close friend and brother-in-law, died after an accident on a family holiday. Bellew took all that pain, loss, and turmoil into the second Haye fight.
Grief has a number of stages and impacts on people in different way. It can settle down deep within you until it becomes a persistent and physically perceptible feeling of extreme sadness. It can manifest itself in anger. It can also make you feel that you have been hollowed out and that all that is left is a numbness, a lack of feeling that you have to move beyond to find that healthy way of grieving where you know the person is gone forever yet you still feel that they imbue every aspect of your life.
They may no longer be there in person yet they are there in thought, memories especially, and sometimes they seem so close to you that on some days you swear you can smell their cologne, a whiff of their favourite tipple, or feel and hear that familiar embrace and voice. Or it comes to you in those moments between day and night as you are drifting away, the times when a pre-sleep reverie comes for you and you can almost feel the comforting presence of that lost loved one as the lights go out.
“I don’t think we’ve still come through the other side yet, we have our good days and bad days, but I think we have passed through the worst of it now,” admitted Bellew. “Not a day goes by without it crossing my mind, though. Time heals is the only thing I can say.”
He paused before adding: “I had so many underlying factors going into that Haye rematch with what had gone on in my family. I just wanted to go in that ring and have an absolute war then got in there and felt so cold and clinical on the night. Then all my emotion come out when the fight was over.”
Bellew’s wife, Rachael, has popped up on the odd Sky Sports pre-fight promo yet she likes to keep things ticking over in the background and has been a steady, stable influence throughout a career that has had some dramatic ups and big downs.
Fighters make physical and mental sacrifices in order to step into the ring. We forget, though, that their families are giving up a loved one to a sport that does not always love them back and leaves many fighters jaded and broke(n): kicked to the curb once their time is up and given about as much afterthought and care as roadkill.
Rachael Roberts knew from the get-go that she would have to share her man. Their children know that daddy was fully committed to a profession that he knows is so brutal it brought him to the edge of tears when he spotted his son in the crowd before the Makubu fight, telling me at the time that: “I heard a voice say ‘Dad’. I turned around and my son was there. I was heartbroken. Seeing his little face at a boxing match was too much, he has no place being at something like that. I was still in tears in the dressing room.”
Despite all of these pressures and reservations about his trade, Bellew believes that he has done the right thing for the family’s collective future, even if there are dark nights of the soul, the point where reason is replaced by irrationality, where he chastises himself for having to adopt the selfish mind-set of a professional athlete.
“They have struggled with that, you are correct,” he concurred. “I am used to it, but it is hard on them. It is a tough life to live. My wife and family have made enormous sacrifices, without a doubt, and my wife especially — I’ve put boxing first since the day she met me. It isn’t nice. It is something I did. I’m not proud that I’ve had to do that at times.
“On the other hand, it was a sacrifice I made for my family, for our future lives and to get us in a beautiful home together. The years of sacrifice have worked out so I can’t complain too much. It has gone better than I even planned it. I’ve made the best of everything that has come to me.”
Ashley Roberts would have especially approved of the second win over Haye. The first one was seen as an aberration, a hollow victory over a man who was cashing out en route to the knacker’s yard; the return bout will always be seen in the same way by many, yet it was the nature and the focus of the attacks that stood out in the rematch. In fight one, Bellew could not buy a clean, fight ending shot for love nor money. By fight two he was accurate and relaxed enough to land the punches needed to put Haye out of his misery.
Some fans will argue until their throats run dry that the wins hugely flattered Bellew, then they will have a lozenge and argue the point some more. For Bellew, though, it is now by the by. His life has changed dramatically in recent years yet he still had his heart set on this weekend’s fight because a win would be a huge final statement and a loss, in his own words, would be nothing to be ashamed of. Either way, he will not linger around like a bad smell, fighting well beyond his sell-by date and chasing a slice piece of glory.
“That was never going to happen to me,” said Bellew, underlining his desire to walk away. “I always had my eyes on a way out once I stopped being a fighter. I will retire from boxing, boxing won’t retire me. That was the main thing that I had to put into place and it will happen for me.
“I’m actually more than happy over how my career has worked out. It has gone fantastically well. I can’t wait, I’m just looking forward to it coming to an end. I won’t miss this (being in camp). I hate being away from my family and I’m looking forward to getting it over with. I’m enjoying what the future has in store for me.”
“I will, yeah, I definitely will do, but he has always known it is going to run its course,” he said when asked if he will miss training alongside Coldwell in Sheffield. “We are at that stage now where it is coming to an end, you just have to embrace it all and take it on board.”
In the next part Bellew talks about the fight itself.
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