By Terence Dooley
Being a professional fighter must be similar to negotiating mountainous terrain. You have to scale a number of peaks, motor through rocky pathways and do whatever you can to reach your goal. Most fighters view the various titles as their mountain peaks, but prior to his move to cruiserweight Tony Bellew’s real mountaintop moments came when he stepped onto the scales ahead of all of his light-heavyweight fights.
Bellew, who was a heavyweight as an amateur, would always hit the 175lb mark yet he constantly ran the risk of leaving his form, strength and vitality in puddles of sweat on the gymnasium floor. The move up to a new division was long overdue; he believes it will be the making of him.
“It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?” said Bellew, 21-2-1 (13), when speaking to BoxingScene about his 12th round KO win over Valery Brudov, 41-5 (28), at his home city’s ECHO Arena last Saturday night, his first fight at cruiserweight. “I’ve done it now, had the fight and the pressure’s off. I just want to go out and fight again.
“It had become too much towards the end. It was hard to get down to those last few pounds. Going up in weight has made me happier in life, in the gym and I’m back in love with boxing a little bit more.”
Bellew’s admission that he had lost some of his passion for the game may come as a surprise to those who have seen him on TV. His fervor for boxing is apparent, however the struggle to get to 175lbs for fight after fight chipped away at him.
“I’ve hated it (boxing) for the past 18 months,” he said. “There’s been court cases, the pressure of final eliminators then going in there for the big one [the WBC world title challenge to Adonis Stevenson]. I’ve had a lot of reasons to dislike boxing, but, right now, I’m enjoying it again and it shows in the results.”
Fighters who struggle to make weight also struggle to maintain in other areas of their lives. Family, friends and trainers have to tread carefully. Especially when those last few crucial pounds are being chiseled or toweled away.
“I was a nightmare in Canada [ahead of last year’s WBC world title fight against Adonis Stevenson],” admitted Bellew. “Those last pounds are just something I can’t explain—the levels it pushes you to are unbelievable. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a breaking point. I lost 20lbs in the camp, then it comes to those last pounds and I just couldn’t shift them. I was getting in hot baths to sweat them out—it killed me.
“Now I’ve got a smile on my face, there’s nothing to get wound up about anymore. Don’t forget, it’s hard to have someone in your face telling you what they’re going to do to you when you’ve just shed 25lbs through a camp. It’s annoying to hear how they’re going to knock you out, but when you’ve lost so much weight the slightest thing will get you touchy.
“You’re highly strung, that’s the best way of saying it, but then times it by 10. You won’t see that from me again, the only person who could get that out of me is the other fella [long-time domestic rival Nathan Cleverly].”
Like many before him, Bellew stuck around for too long at an artificial weight purely because he had reached a point of no return. Bellew, his training team and nutritionist Kerry Kayes worked miracles fight after fight, but his high ranking and world title hopes became a prison tying him to a division that he could no longer effectively operate in.
Bellew hung on, eventually traveling to Canada to challenge Adonis Stevenson for the WBC belt. Stevenson tore apart Bellew’s dreams in six rounds. Still, the 31-year-old believes he should have been credited with a knockdown in the third after Stevenson hit the canvas.
“I always wanted to be a proper world champion,” he said. “Yes, I lost the fight, but it was to the best champion in the division. I knew before the fight that it would be a bad struggle, but I’d get myself down to 175 after working hard to get myself so highly ranked at the weight. You’re working for your shot at that weight, you know you can’t move up and get an instant shot unless you’ve challenged for the world title, so you have to do what you have to do. I know I might have to go the long route now, but it’s the right route for me. It is a hard decision to make. This is boxing, though—it’s a hard, tough business.
“Listen, I’m not going to say the loss is down to making the weight, I don’t make excuses and lost to the better man on the night—he’s an outstanding world champion. What shocked me was just how hard he was to hit, he was quite quick and hard to tag. When I did tag him [in round three], I feel I dropped him. It was a legitimate knockdown, not a push. If you get pushed over you protest it, but he knew he’d been tagged with a shot and took his time, showing his experience to ride out the storm.
“I was hoping to get to the later rounds, capitalize on his shortfalls and win. He’s the best in the division, very hard to hit and powerful. He cracked my ribs in the third round, it was very tough for me. I came out towards the end trying to blow my gasket and take him out, but there wasn’t enough of a gasket to blow by then.
“I’m happy with what I’ve done at light-heavy. I spent a lot of money on the camp, went out there and did it right, but it wasn’t my fight so after that it’s all about improving, using my experiences to move forward.”
And move forward he did, Brodov was lined up as his first cruiserweight foil; the 37-year-old was deemed to have come close to foiling Bellew’s plans after unloading with a series of right hands in the seventh.
“It was a good fight, Brudov didn’t give me nothing I didn’t expect: he’s a very good, strong and tough fighter, a typical Russian,” he said. “He kept coming and knows how to fight. The one thing that did shock me, and I didn’t expect, was that he was faster than I’d anticipated. I expected him to be a lot slower, and to be honest I think that’s why he came in at 13st 10lbs, which is light for a cruiserweight. I think he was prepared for speed and knew there’d be a speed deficiency.
“He’s not just durable, he had a lot of tricks and knew a lot of stuff, but ultimately he didn’t know enough. People say he’s 37, but he’s been a very active fighter, loses very few fights, and is a winner, 41-4 going in. You have to add that he’s never been knocked out for the 10 count in his whole career, and he’s fought two world champions. That was the first time he’d been left on the floor.
“He was pulled out by the corner against [Ola] Afolabi, lost on points to others and he was stopped on his feet against [Guillermo] Jones. I put him out bad, but it was a six out of 10 for me as a performance. Some might be generous and call it a seven, but I’m my own worse critic.”
“I thought they did make too much of it,” he said when discussing the seventh round. “I got caught with one big shot. If you go out into the water then you’ll get wet. I wasn’t stumbling about all over the place.
“It was a good shot, but I’ve been hit with far worse—people have seen me on the floor. And he hit me low, to bring my hands down, so a lot was made of the punch I took because it was clean. Don’t get me wrong, I lost the round, the only one I cleanly lost, and I did switch off, but I didn’t hit the floor or look remotely close to going down. It’s the excitement of boxing. People want to hear: ‘Bellew nearly got knocked out then came back to knock him out’, but, in my mind, it was far from anything like that.
“I definitely don’t believe there’s a vulnerability factor. I’ve been nailed there by a guy who has more knockouts than I’ve had fights. If I was going to down, it would have been then. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s times where I’ll have to get up to win fights. I can’t explain how different it is when you take a shot with those 10 ounce gloves on.”
He added: “People will always doubt my chin. I’ve been stopped once and been on the floor against big punchers, but I don’t think I get the credit I deserve for getting up. If Ovill McKenzie hits you clean then he takes you out, he hit me clean when I had only half a tank of gas—I got up off the floor and stopped him. Against Stevenson, yeah I got stopped, but there were factors to that. Apart from that, I’ve met big punchers and haven’t been stopped. I am confident in what I’m doing.”
Bellew floored Brudov heavily in round two only for the visiting fighter to rise to his feet and work his way into the fight a few rounds later. Often criticsed for talking a good fight only to box behind his jab if it goes long, Bellew bombed early and then late in his first fight at the new weight.
“I felt I’d get him,” he said. “When I was getting ready to come out for the 12th, [trainer] Dave [Coldwell’s] instructions were: ‘Just have an easy round and see the fight out’. My response was: ‘I’ll get him and take him out’.
“I know I’m going to be in with more cruiserweights like him, guys who have immense pride, courage and won’t quit. He felt that no one would stop him, but I got the stoppage and it was pleasing. I’m just glad he was okay afterwards as he’s a nice guy. He also said I’m the best guy he’s fought, which is a real compliment so I hope he comes back strong.
“I’m not boiling myself down, depleting my body for week after week, so I have the power to finish a fight in either the first or the last minute. It is an attribute that was boiled away in the past. People knew I was dangerous early at light-heavy. They’d stay away from me in the early part of fights knowing that I’d fall apart as it went late. My body was deteriorating at the weight. I’m a lot happier now and can give a lot more. People also have to remember that the guys I’m facing have got a lot going for them too. They’re dangerous, powerful and explosive, I know it’s a dangerous game.”
Bellew is now a target for other contenders—BJ Flores called him out last week during an interview with Rick Reeno—so there will be no shortage of options over the course of the next year.
He said: “It’s crazy, at light-heavy I was one of the most avoided men on the planet, but now I’m at cruiserweight I’m the most wanted man on the planet. Look, the days are gone of me picking my way, I leave that to [promoter] Eddie [Hearn] now—he’ll look after me.
“I want to fight guys who will improve me. I’ve seen Flores calling me out. The last time I saw anything of him he was losing to Danny Green. What I will say is that he’s a career-long cruiserweight in a division that it’s not hard to get a shot in, so why hasn’t he been over to Germany for a fight yet?
“The titles are all sewn up over in Germany. I know I’d take up those challenges. Why haven’t they gone for the champions instead of me? Call me a weak touch all you want, when we get in the ring and I start hitting you you’ll see that I’m no weak touch.”
There are very surprises in boxing these days. Information tends to seep out quickly and widely. Bellew, though, kept a big change to his training set-up under his hat prior to last week’s fight, leading to a few raised eyebrows when walking out with new trainer Dave Coldwell. His former handler Mick McAllister remains a firm friend, but Bellew hopes to forge something new with Coldwell.
“You know what, I just like to keep my business private and to myself, I don’t see the point of talking about this, but Dave’s a good guy, Mick McAllister’s a fantastic person, he’s close to my family and I’m close to him, so there’s no rift—it is something and nothing,” he said.
“I’m doing what I need to do to make my career work. Dave’s a fantastic coach, I’ve known him a long time and we’ll see how we go moving forward. As long as I’m progressing and improving—that’s all that matters.
“We’re getting more knowledgeable as a team, but I’m the one that matters because I’m the one taking the punches, so I’ll do what’s best for me. I’ve got to have that selfish attitude. I will only get one shot at this. Trainers get tons of chances, they can train hundreds of fighters, but the fighter only gets one chance and has to do what’s right for themselves. It’s hard, but sometimes the right decision is the hardest one to make.”
British boxing fans are now anticipating Nathan Cleverly’s arrival up at 200lbs. The former WBO world champion lost by fourth-round TKO to Sergey Kovalev in his last fight at 175. Bellew cannot wait for their paths to cross again.
“I’ve waited a very long time, I don’t know his situation, but everyone knows I wanted a rematch from the moment the first fight ended,” he said. “I’m the only decent money fight out there for him in this division. I don’t think he’s a true cruiserweight, so he doesn’t want to come anywhere near me.
“I think he can do light-heavy quite comfortably. I was three-time heavyweight ABA champion; I was struggling against those scales from my first day as a pro. This guy’s come from welterweight.
“Saying that, it’s no major surprise to me that he moved up. He needed to clarify the reasons why he lost in his own head and hasn’t done that. I understand why I lost, it was to the better man on the night, but it is killing him that he lost. I don’t think he can accept that he lost to the better man, so he blames the factor of weight when it was down to the issue of coaching and his style.”
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