Tony Bellew: The Greatest Hits
The last time former WBC cruiserweight world champion Tony Bellew left the ring he was battered, his mind a fog but he’d rolled the dice at greatness. He’d loss to the brilliant Aleksandr Usyk, the final fight in a successful and lucrative 30-3-1 (20 knockouts) career.
He’s presently one of the stars on a hit TV show, a celebrity version of SAS: Who Dares Wins. He’s still not afraid to speak his mind. He never has been. But he can’t bring himself to watch the shows he’s on. “I switched it off,” he said when asked how his phone must have lit up during the SAS premier. “I didn’t watch it so I haven’t seen it. I don’t ever watch myself back on TV, the only time I have has been to study performances from fights. I can’t watch anything I’m in. I might have seen bits on the tele if it’s been repeated months later and I’ve seen a minute or two, but I just can’t watch myself on TV. Never have. Never will. I can’t stand my voice and to look at myself.”
He is about as self-deprecating as it gets but he’s a married father of four who is content with what he did in boxing.
“A part of me feels like I overachieved, but that’s just my mentality because I’m so tough on myself,” he said. “If anything, when I look back on the work I put in and how dedicated I was it’s the least I deserved. I would take myself away months at a time on camp, in America, in Sheffield away from my family, doing four days a week there. Derek Chisora [who followed Bellew to trainer Dave Coldwell] phoned me after one night there and said, ‘How the f*** did you do this for so many years?’ I said, ‘You get used to it.’ You stay at the Holiday Inn, you and a microwave in your room and one night a week I was at the pictures on my own. You have to have that solitude. People say when they fight that they’re only in the gym two hours a day, what else am I supposed to do? I’ll tell you what else you’re supposed to do, think about boxing. You’re supposed to be focused on boxing.”
Bellew made boxing an obsession. He wanted to provide for his family. He endured some crazy weight cuts trying to make light heavyweight, changed trainers when he felt he needed to and constantly tried to improve himself.
A triple ABA champion whose vaunted power earned him a big reputation before he turned professional, he fought 34 times in the paid code climbing off the floor after 13 bouts to beat Bob Ajisafe and then Ovil McKenzie (whom he stopped in their first fight and outboxed and outscored in their rematch). He suffered his first defeat, a close, hard-fought points decision to bitter rival Nathan Cleverly for the WBO 175-pound title before notching wins over dangerous Danny McIntosh, an aging Edison Miranda and Roberto Bolonti. He drew with tricky Isaac Chilemba in a bore but won the rematch which earned him a second world title shot, this time in Canada against Adonis Stevenson. Bellew was stopped in the sixth and immediately moved up to cruiserweight. He halted Valery Brudov and Julio Cesar Dos Santos before avenging the Cleverly loss. Winning the European title against Mateusz Masternak set up his big night, his third world title fight, this time for the vacant WBC crown against Ilunga Makabu, who was 19-1. Bellew climbed off the deck to win a three-round thriller in front of his hometown fans at Goodison Park.
He defended his title against BJ Flores and then moved up to heavyweight where he twice beat David Haye. With his fame and riches cemented, he was about to walk into the sunset before Aleksandr Usyk called him out and there was one last fight, a losing effort for the undisputed cruiserweight championship.
“I miss fighting,” he said, 18 months on from that last night in the ring. “I just miss fighting. But when I look back, fight week was stress because you’re worried about getting injured. That last sparring session I’d be so nervous and I would always be terrible. I would be like a cat on a hot tin roof. Sparring partners in the last session couldn’t get near me. There’s loads of happy memories but as many highs as you’ve had you remember the lows and they stick with you. That Stevenson fight was the lowest point of my career and I remember just being alone in my room and crying myself to sleep. That night sticks with me. Then you look at what that fight got me to and how it pushed me and made me strive and drive myself even further so it was a blessing but it was a hard lesson to learn.”
Here, Bellew reflects on the biggest nights of his storied career.
Date/ Venue: November 30, 2013/ Pepsi Coliseum, Quebec
Titles: WBC light heavyweight
“The Adonis Stevenson fight was a massive wake up call. My previous world title attempt, I didn’t really count the first one [vs. Nathan Cleverly] as a loss because I didn’t think I lost, I just had to crack on. It was just one of those fights where you don’t get the decision. The other one, against Stevenson, was a massive part of my career, a massive part of my life and it made me change everything and go back to the drawing board. I was dead at light heavyweight but I thought I could make it one last time. My plan was I’ll catch Stevenson before he catches me, I thought I’d knock him out and the plan was to move up immediately and fight Bernard Hopkins at a catchweight between light-heavyweight and cruiserweight. I was always trying to plan ahead but I fell short and it didn’t happen.
“Up against Stevenson, my world got crushed. It was the first time I’d ever been stopped in my life. It was heartbreaking. I went back to my room and cried myself to sleep because I thought I’d just wasted 10-15 years of my life chasing this dream and you tell yourself, ‘I’m not good enough to be a world champion. I’ve put all my eggs in one basket, here. I’ve got no qualifications. I’ve finished school’. I’m not going to tell you the thoughts that were going through my head when I came home.
“Stevenson was a very heavy puncher. I don’t think technically he was the best, but he was very awkward. His reach was unbelievable. I couldn’t grasp the distance and the only round I had a good go at him was the third. I put him over and they said it was a slip but it wasn’t, I hit him on the back of the head and he toppled over and I just didn’t capitalize. That was the one moment in the fight when I had a chance to capitalize but I didn’t. He was very dangerous and one of the most powerful fighters I’ve fought.”
Result: Stevenson KO 6
Date/ Venue: November 22, 2014/ Echo Arena, Liverpool
Titles: Cruiserweight non-title bout
“My most satisfying night, and people might not want to hear it, but beating Nathan Cleverly was massive for me. I don’t like him. I’ll never like him. And everything I said after that first fight [L MD 12], I proved in the rematch. The only reason I got tired in the last three rounds of that first fight – I still think I won but he got the decision – I was winning up until Round 9, 10 and then I sort of let my foot off the gas and the only reason for that was I’d butchered myself to make weight. In the rematch I put it straight and I just beat him up for 12 rounds. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t good. But he did not want to know. It’s the only fight in his whole career where he just wouldn’t throw punches and the reason was because he knew if he did he would have got knocked clean out. It was disappointing for the paying public, it really was, but it was very satisfactory for me, and from there I went on and made the movie [Creed]. Beating him was a real highlight for me, I was so happy. The only thing was it really hurt my public image because I fought him in the November, I went over and started making the movie in December for two weeks, I came home for Christmas and New Year and then went back to Philadelphia and lived there for three months but when I left it was like the boxing world forgets about you and me and Cleverly was terrible so [promoter] Eddie [Hearn] said he just wanted me to disappear, basically. He said, ‘I can’t do anything for you. That was the worst disaster fight pay-per-view I’ve ever put on.’ It was just horrendous, terrible. I thought the scorecards were a piss-take. One judge voted for him, he [the judge] never liked me, but any man watching that fight had a clear winner and it was me. Every commentator had me a mile ahead. Every journalist had me a mile ahead. I’m not saying it was a great fight, it was terrible, but when you’re facing a former world champion and their only thing is to survive, they’re very, very hard to beat. You’ve got journeymen who when they come to survive, they’re impossible to beat or to look good against. Imagine how hard it would be to look good against a world class fighter who is only trying to survive. It’s impossible.”
Result: Bellew SD 12
Date/ Venue: December 12, 2015/ O2 Arena, London
Titles: European cruiserweight title
“I think Masternak was a slight favorite in the fight. I remember Eddie Hearn calling me and saying, ‘Listen, we’ve got you a European title shot’ because I’d demanded one. I was mandatory for the European and Masternak was the former European champion. He gave up the European to face Grigory Drozd for the WBC title. If I’m being honest, I thought this might be my ceiling, that was in the back of my mind. I thought I could beat him. I thought I was a better boxer and a much heavier puncher but I knew it was going to be a hard fight. When Eddie said it was Masternak I said, ‘For f***’s sake, you could have got someone easier.’ And he said to me, ‘I’ve put a few quid into you, if you can’t beat Masternak you’re not good enough to win a world title.’ That pissed me off and I said, ‘I’ll show you.’ I got okay money. When I look back now it was shit money. I took shorter money and I wasn’t happy, it was under a hundred grand and when I look back now I always give Eddie abuse for it but I just thought, ‘Bite the bullet and get on with it.’ When I was going to the ring I wanted to prove Eddie Hearn wrong. That’s why I wore camouflage shorts, because I felt like I was going into a war and the only person who had my back was me. That’s how my mentality and mindset was. I was dominating him for seven rounds and then I switched off and I let him win seven to 10 and then [trainer Dave] Coldwell ripped into me and said, ‘Why are you letting him back into this fight? You’ve got to be big in these last two rounds’ and I nearly stopped him in the last round. I was 10, 15 seconds from stopping Masternak and I knew a world title was on the line if I beat him.”
Result: Bellew UD 12
Date/ Venue: May 29, 2016/ Goodison Park, Liverpool
Titles: Vacant WBC cruiserweight
“The best night of my career, nothing even comes close to it, was Goodison Park. Nothing comes remotely close. It was crazy. It was an event that was put together in eight weeks for a world title in a football stadium – although maybe it was six. It was just insane the way it all came together, the speed of it, and then just getting in the ring… It was all my dreams come true in one night. Since the age of nine or 10 I’ve been going to Goodison Park every other Saturday to watch my beloved Everton play. I always dreamed of being a footballer for Everton, but the fact of the matter was I was too fat and I wasn’t good enough. You’ve got to be brutally honest sometimes, and then my dream was to have a fight at Goodison Park. Everything went to plan except getting my nose broke and getting put flat on my back in the first round. I’ve only ever been nervous for two fights in my life, one was my first amateur fight and the second one was Goodison Park. I love fighting, I truly love it. But I was so, so nervous walking to the ring. I knew exactly how good Makabu was, which he’s gone on to show. When I left the dressing room, I’d never been so scared in my life. When I was walking to the ring I was thinking, ‘If you lose here, you are never coming back again.’ I would never have gone back through the sheer shame. I’m the only person to ever have a boxing match there and I’ll probably be the only person to have a boxing match there. The pressure was enormous and I just thought, ‘I can’t let myself down. I can’t make a fool of myself in front of my family.’
“It’s very rare a fighter has three world title fights and then gets a fourth one, very rare. I knew this was going to be my last throw of the dice. Makabu was 20 fights, 19 wins, I think 18 were inside the distance, so I knew what I was up against. He’d been the WBC No. 1 contender for 18 months and it was only because Drozd didn’t want to face him that I got the shot. After he put me down, I remember looking at Victor Loughlin and saying, ‘Victor, I’m fine’. I remember he said in the dressing room he would give me every opportunity [to continue] as long I proved I was okay. I said, ‘Remember what you said to me? I’m fine.’ He said, ‘Go on.’ And he did the same for Makubu because he was still counting when he was asleep on the floor. He knew what it meant to us. We had our lifelong dreams in front of us.
“I’m sure for Makabu it was like Rocky going to Russia, but for me, I was the Russian and I was at home and no one was beating me. When I went down, my first thought was, ‘cracking shot.’ I think I said that as I rolled over. Then I thought he’s going to have to kill me. When I look back it’s embarrassing to say that because I’ve got so much more on the line and so much more going on in my life but I’d have died before I lost at Goodison Park.”
Result: Bellew KO 3
David Haye I
Date/ Venue: March 4, 2017/ O2 Arena, London
Titles: Heavyweight non-title fight
“It was just mayhem. The fight was going perfectly for me for the first five rounds and if you watch it back people will say I was losing. I thought it was 3-2 to David Haye after five rounds but at the end of the fifth round I stood in the middle of the ring and said, ‘You are blowing out of your arse. You’re finished now.’ Then the worst thing happened and his Achilles tendon blew out. He could barely walk; my hand was smashed to bits. I couldn’t put the right hand in properly and the left hand was killing me, too.
“I picked up in the rematch where the first fight finished purely because I was so cool, calm and relaxed in that first fight for the first five rounds, but when his Achilles went, it was like my head went and I just wanted to take his head off. I just swung hell for leather and boxed absolutely dreadfully from Round 5 until I stopped him in Round 11. Dave Coldwell was giving me all kinds of abuse in the corner, ‘You’re blowing it… You’re doing this wrong… You’re doing that wrong,’ because I just wanted to hurt him and take his head off. As the fight went on, I admired him more and more for staying in there. I’ve always respected him and I always will for the fighter he was and the fighter he is. When it was over, I understood why he said the things he said [in the build-up] and why he did the things he did. He did go too far, definitely, but he knew he couldn’t get to me in any other way. When he was on the floor at the end, I picked him up and carried him back to his corner and I did that because I’m a real person. I didn’t want to really hurt him, I just wanted to render him unconscious for 10 seconds.”
Result: Bellew TKO 11
Date/ Venue: November 10, 2018/ Manchester Arena, Manchester
Titles: Undisputed cruiserweight
“I think the biggest thing that happened to my detriment was I stepped up to heavyweight and went back down to cruiserweight, I wish I’d just stayed at cruiserweight. After the Haye fight I came back for legacy because I was retired. I got married in the July of that year. I fought David in the May and I was retired. I was on my honeymoon, pissed as a fart and made that Usyk fight with Eddie Hearn while I was pissed on the phone. He [Usyk] called me out after winning the Super Series and I called Eddie Hearn and said, ‘I’ll fight him’. He said, ‘No, you’re retired’ and I said, ‘If you don’t make it I’ll make it’ and the next day it was virtually done. The Usyk one was tough. It’s hard when you’ve lost in such a manner but when I watched the fight back I was proud of it. Age doesn’t wait for no one and I’ve never been so tired as I was going back to my corner at the end of Round 7. I’ve never been one to be short of stamina, I’ve always been in good shape – unless I was at light-heavyweight – but as a cruiserweight I got stronger as the fights went on. Usyk wanted to do the fight at heavyweight but I wasn’t doing it for money, I was doing it purely for legacy. I wanted all the belts.
“I had thought maybe I’d be a world champion, right time, right place, but I’d never dreamed of being undisputed champion. But I had the opportunity. Yes, I was winning after seven rounds on the cards but it was a 12-round fight so it makes no odds. I had a game plan to make him miss and counter every time. I was trying to get him to walk onto a big shot but he was putting the pressure on gradually with his feet and it’s an art I used on people over the years but I’ve never had it done to me in such a manner. He was outstanding. I’ve got no complaints. That’s why I was at peace when I lost to him. I can deal with losing to someone who’s just better than me. He’s the best I ever faced. The last thing Coldwell said to me in the corner was, ‘Are you tired?’ And I said, ‘I am absolutely f*****.’ I was going out for that eighth round hoping I’d get a second wind but I could barely breathe so when the shot landed, I don’t remember anything from the fight after Round 7. I don’t remember how I got back to my dressing room, I don’t remember the interview in the ring, I didn’t even know I’d done an interview in the ring, the only thing I remember was talking to Dave after Round 7 and then talking to my missus in the dressing room.”
Result: Usyk KO 8
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