The evolution of Tony Bellew
By Terence Dooley
I remember when I first met Tony Bellew, it was 2007 and the Liverpudlian light-heavyweight was getting underway in the professional ranks. He was training under Anthony “Arnie” Farnell here in Manchester at the time and the city’s boxing community was abuzz with talk of the big-hitting, three-time ABA heavyweight champion, who had also trained as an accountant and had a reputation for being able to muster a sound bite, or three. Billy Graham, the then-trainer of Ricky Hatton, had confidently told me that the star amateur could be destined to set the pro game alight as long as he continued to work on his craft.
Prior to that first meeting, I did my research and headed down to Farnell’s place. Bellew was there with Joe Selkirk, now a middleweight contender, and Chris Walker, a respected and well-loved boxing journalist — the three Scouers were having a heated debate about Everton FC.
Bellew introduced himself and went through his paces in training while using the breaks between rounds to continue his dispute. After he was done for the day, we sat down for that first ‘Getting to know you’ interview. I produced a note pad, a sheet of questions and a tape recorder that was big enough to microwave food.
The fledgling pro nailed every question and still managed to fire out pro-Everton missives to his mates, winning the verbal battle through a mixture of attrition and passion. He was on point that day, and has remained so throughout an exciting career in which he has managed to spin a lot of plates: boxer, personality, calculated lunatic, quote-meister general and, in his own words, “a smashing machine”.
Roll on six-years and I stepped out of a restaurant on a cold Good Friday evening here in Manchester to put a call through to Bellew, who is now based back in Liverpool with Mick McCallister; he returns to his hometown on Saturday night after back-to-back outings away from his own private Holy Land. As the phone rang drag queens, Eastern European hard men and Hen Parties staggered past — this is Easter in Manchester after all — and then there was a double click as Bellew picked up and I hit record on my mobile phone — how times have changed.
One thing hasn’t changed, though — Bellew’s still a quote machine despite the fact he was heading from the restaurant to his hotel room after a good turn out at the weigh-in for his WBC Silver light-heavyweight title defence against South Africa’s Isaac Chilemba.
“I’m sound, I’ve just had my pre-war meal,” said Bellew. “I think it all became a little bit more real to him for the first time today. He lost it for the first time, but all this isn’t new to me. I’ve fought for a world title [a majority decision loss to Nathan Cleverly for the WBO title in October 2011], and think I won that one, so all that out-of-character stuff like throat-slitting that he pulled today is just water off a duck’s back.”
Chilemba had hoped to fire Bellew up by wearing a Liverpool FC shirt. It became a moot point anyway as the visitor was denied the chance to wear LFC red by the BBBoC, who kyboshed the 25-year-old’s plans due to fears over crowd control.
“No, the Board stopped it because he wanted to wear one at the weigh-in,” said Bellew when asked if his opponent had made good on his threat. “People forget that we’re all Scousers anyway. If he thinks wearing a red top can divide this city then he would have made a big mistake.
“I’ve had a few fights on the road lately [his wins over Edison Miranda (TKO 9) and Roberto Feliciano Bolonti (W12) took place in London and Nottingham respectively]. It has worked out great with Matchroom and Eddie Hearn and their faith in me, but now I’m back home with our big crowd and I’ve got a statement to make. I’m happy — this card is stacked. I’m grateful for what Eddie’s done, what he’s building for me, so it is going well. I am where I am, where I need to be.”
Pre-fight hopes and fears rest heavily on the shoulders of every fighter. Bellew was given something else to think about after his last fight, he suffered a terrible gash over the right eye in round three after flooring Bolonti in the first and third stanzas. There were fears that the resulting scar tissue could become the contender’s biggest enemy, but Bellew told me that the cut had healed so well it is barely noticeable, and his doctor can attest to that.
“I let it heal naturally,” he said. “It healed up nice and perfect. I’ve taken a few bangs on it without the head guard on, so it is working out great. I went to the doctor and he was looking at the left eye, so I had to tell him it was the right eye that was cut. I was going for the knockout early on, and probably would have got it in that (third) round, but he landed the shot that cut me. I had to knuckle down and adapt. If it had been a butt, and not a punch, then I would have gone for it more, but if the cut had stopped the fight then I’d have lost. I couldn’t get stopped. It would have been a loss in my career, the loss of my belt, so I had to box to instructions the way I did.”
Now Chilemba stands in his way. The South African is descended from the Lemba people, who are said to have Jewish roots, and he has come close to Judaism through his manager Jodi Solomon. Historically, Hebrew boxers have been hard to shift, the odd Dmitriy Salita aside. Chilemba also grew up hard, he looked after his siblings when his mother died and, like Bellew, is fighting for both himself and his family.
Indeed, the winner will move a step closer to a world title shot. Both men are at the stage of their careers where one wrong move can derail years of unseen effort and graft. Buddy McGirt, the trainer of Chilemba, stoked the pre-fight flames by praising Bellew for taking the fight, with the added inference that this is a step up due to Chilemba’s fights with the unbeaten Thomas Oosthuizen (a twelve-round draw), Maxim Vlasov (W10) — Vlasov lost his ‘0’ in that one — and common foe Edison Miranda, who Chilemba decisioned over 10-rounds. Throw in a win over the previously undefeated Doudou Ngumbu (W12) and Chilemba is a bit of a “Scalp hunter”.
“I think Buddy just tried some mind games about me taking the fight,” said Bellew. “I’m not thinking about Buddy, we’ll just have the fight and see where things stand after it. I don’t think he does anything outstanding, but he ticks all the boxes, does everything well and is the most well rounded fighter I’ve faced so far. But I’m putting it together myself and am not thinking about the people he’s been in with because he’s never been in with anybody like me, either. I don’t think there’s too far to go now. I want to become mandatory challenger, so I’m there and just have to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Bernard Hopkins shook the 175lb division up by posting a win over Tavoris Cloud. Some, this writer included, had predicted that Cloud’s style would be meat and drink for Hopkins. This proved to be the case, but Bellew felt that the former IBF titlist made things too easy for “B-Hop”.
“I look after my body, that’s probably why my cut healed so well, and Hopkins is a good example of that, but I was very disappointed in Cloud that night — he approached it all wrong,” said Bellew. “It was very, very difficult to criticise Hopkins, but Cloud gave that fight up and didn’t respond well to the pressure, which is disappointing at that level.”
As Bellew arrived at his check out desk, I asked him if he could ever imagine getting a shot at someone like Hopkins and then retreating into his shell if it became clear he was being out-thought and out-fought. The question prompted Bellew to ditch the verbal jabs and drop one of his bombs.
He said: “Mate, I’m not joking around when I say this, but I’m willing to die in the ring — that’s just me.” I don’t know what the friendly receptionist made of this comment, but it was pure Bellew.
And that was that. It has been a long journey for Bellew, there have been lots of changes, but he fundamentally knows how to play the game, selling both himself and his fights in the process, and you can bet your bottom dollar that he still knuckles down in the gym day in and day out. As much as things change, some things remain the same and the 30-year-old is still the buoyant, slightly demented character that I met over half-a-decade a go — he’s just knocked off a few rough edges since then, both in and out the ring.
Bellew’s multitasking and ticking all the right boxes right now, as a result of this he will walk out to a city united at the Echo Arena tomorrow night to take part in a fight that could propel him to a world title shot. Life doesn’t get much better than that, and one senses that Bellew both knows and appreciates this, which makes him a real force in the light-heavyweight scene.
Please send news and views to firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @Terryboxing.Tags: Tony Bellew , Isaac Chilemba , Bellew-Chilemba , Bellew vs Chilemba