By Terence Dooley
Liverpool’s Tony Bellew meets Malawi’s Isaac Chilemba at the O2 Arena on Saturday night in a 12-round fight that will decide the WBC’s mandatory light-heavyweight challenger. Bellew meets Chilemba for the second time in eight weeks — they fought to a draw in March — knowing that there is more than just the WBC’s Silver 175lb title on the line.
Bellew laboured during the early rounds of their last encounter, he struggled to pin down his slippery 26-year-old opponent and the fight was nip-and-tuck right down to the wire. Indeed, the outspoken Liverpudlian was hit by a tidal wave of criticism after that bitty encounter; he intends to make a statement at the O2 Arena to finally put the Chilemba rivalry to bed.
“It is all about getting the job done,” said Bellew when speaking to BoxingScene on Friday evening. “I let him get too close last time, so I’ve just got to go in there and change that. I’m not going in with the same unknown box of tricks this time — it (Chilemba’s style) is something I’m aware of. I just have to go in there and perform.”
As for the disparagement that came his way following the first meeting, the 30-year-old contender is philosophical about the furor, telling me that it is par for the course. He said: “It comes with the territory, I suppose, but I am disappointed in it because I was labeled as a ‘shit fighter’ just because I struggled for six rounds. It is a very fickle sport, you have to take the highs with the lows and get on with it.
“Listen, it is very frustrating to be in a fight of that magnitude — final eliminator and last step to a world title — and to be in there with a guy who is that negative. As I say, you come through these moments in fights sometimes — it is part and parcel of the game and you just have to go through it.”
Buddy McGirt trains Chilemba; the former world champion was involved in the post-fight storm in March after Bellew revealed that McGirt had told him he won the fight. When the draw came in, McGirt denied Belllew’s claims.
“His exact words were: ‘I had it even going into the last round. I thought you won the last round. I’ll be honest, I thought you won it, champ’,” insisted Bellew. “That was enough for me on the night, but, as I said, that’s the past and it means nothing now. I have to go in there and beat him a lot more convincingly this time, which is what I’ll do.”
Chilemba has vowed to remove any doubts as to who is the better fighter. Early pre-fight sound bites indicated that the 20-12 (9), visitor would strive to establish superiority early in order to ensure that the judges pick the right winner. Although Bellew, 19-1-1 (12), believes that “Golden Boy” will approach the return in exactly the same way he tackled the first fight.
“That’s absolute bollocks because I think he’ll try to do it on the back foot, but if he does go on the front foot then I’ll hold my hands up to him and say ‘Fair play’ to him when he’s on his way out on a stretcher,” stressed Bellew. “I am very happy with it all. We’ve come a long way and just have to get on with it. It is a quick turnaround, 10 weeks since the last one, and I just have to do this job.”
Bellew has had a rollercoaster relationship with boxing fans, especially the online community. They love his open, almost raw, honesty yet this candor is turned against him when he has a bad night at the office. Admissions that he made mistakes last time, coupled with the perception that he lacked grace when the result came in, have seen his online stock plummet in some quarters. Bellew has been here before; he feels that the fans will get back on the bandwagon if he performs on Saturday night.
“That’s the way it is, you know it yourself and have seen it for a long time,” he said. “You’ve just described what I’ve said before, this is a very, very fickle sport and you get called a shit fighter just for putting in six shit rounds — it is what it is. Like I said in my last Tweet, you stand by the people that stand by you. I look at every comment, I see everything’s that said — after this fight I’ll be standing by the people who stood with me. You get used to it. I’m a lot quieter this time, I haven’t said much. We’ll just come and have a fight and make it happen. Without a doubt, once I’m rid of him tomorrow then he’s gone from my life.”
Most of the criticism of Bellew stemmed from March’s live post-fight interview. Bellew insisted that he had won the fight, especially when home advantage was taken into account, and this adamancy was seen as a show of disrespect towards the visiting fighter. Ironically, “Bomber” feels that he showed his opponent too much respect.
He said: “I feel that sometimes I don’t get it (the respect) back, so I might be done with that because it doesn’t come back my way. These things aren’t appreciated or thanked — you don’t get respect for them. Maybe I am too soft after a fight, maybe I show too much respect — it won’t happen again. I can be that nice guy when I go home or around the people who are close to me. I don’t need to be that nice guy in a fight, so that’s something that’s been indentified.”
Carl Froch tops the O2 bill; his rematch with Mikkel Kessler has stirred emotions for months yet Froch hit the headlines earlier this week with his ‘I’ll kill him (Kessler)’ comment. Bellew was criticized ahead of his first fight with Chilemba after stating that he would not back down to anyone and was therefore willing to die in the ring. Cue a wave of comments about the inherent honour of the sport, and condemnation of Bellew for showing a lack of consideration for the serious nature of boxing and what it entails.
On the other hand, fans routinely call boxers ‘bums’, denigrate anyone who fails to win titles, and even those that do, and we always call for great fights and brutal wars — well, people got hurt and injured in wars. Can we seriously call for a great fight in which no one gets hurt? Why was it OK for Mike Tyson or Roberto Duran to make outrageous statements in their primes and to have these missives enter our folklore as part and parcel of what made them such compelling characters?
Fans want blood, they want to see as many brutal head punches as possible, they bemoan the lack of clean KOs and, when stomachs are empty and emotions run high pre-fight, boxers come out and make the kind of close-to-the-knuckle statements that fans, journalists and broadcasters instantly condemn, but which sell papers, PPVs and stimulate Twitter’s eternal boxing debates.
“The whole world’s gone a bit PC mad,” said Bellew when asked about the responses to Froch’s comment. “I’m not saying it is the correct thing to say, but you can understand why he said it. Carl’s not saying he wants to kill Mikkel, or anyone, so it was taken out of context. Things have gone a bit crazy.
“People say boxing is a great sport, honourable and stuff, but take it all away, the glamour, the glitz and that, and you’ve just got two fellas having a fight. If Carl had said: ‘Me and my mate are going to have a bit of a boxing match tomorrow then shake hands’, people wouldn’t get excited. The fans, the journalists, the media — they loved what he said. They give him stick for it or say he is bad for saying it, but only because he said what people wanted him to say.
“Everyone’s saying they want to see a brutal fight and a war. What do you think happens to our bodies after a brutal fight? Where does that pain go? If you have a war, and I’ve been in them, then there’s only one place you end up, the hospital. You have a banged up face, cuts over your eyes, hands smashed to bits, your body is sore for days and you piss blood — that’s what happens after a war, and that’s what people ask for. You’re kidding yourself if you think we just fight, shake hands and then go home afterwards. People are very deluded by this sport.”
He added: “I’m the one who gets in there and fights. I say things like ‘I’m prepared to die in the ring’, and then it gets taken out of context. What I really mean is that I’m not willing to back down or give in during a fight. Ultimately, you’re willing to die (as a fighter). I’m not saying I want to die, because I don’t want to die in the ring, but if I’m not willing to back down then where could that leave me if the other guy doesn’t back down?”
It would leave Bellew in a firefight, which is what everyone asked for after a tepid first phony war. The viewing public will settle down hoping for a torrid back-and-forth battle, rather than a tickling contest, and that means no quarter asked or given on either side. We’ll do their moralizing in retrospect if and when the loser is scrapped off the canvas or learns of their fate via the scorecards after being dragged through the mill for 36 minutes.
We send boxers out there to hoping that they’ll be beasts then expect them to return to being rational men the moment a mic is stuck in their faces. The bottom-line is always our enjoyment, and Bellew often fulfills this bottom-line, in and out of the ring.
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