By John Evans
After the endless press conferences and slanging matches, the contracts are finally signed. WBO light heavyweight champion Nathan Cleverly and challenger Tony Bellew can now disappear from the limelight and prepare for what has become the most talked about domestic clash of 2011.
Almost a year to the day since this writer first spoke to Bellew about the possibility of fighting Cleverly, it seemed an opportune time to catch up with the Scouser and gauge his thoughts on the clash. Now that the fight he has craved for so long is finally here, is there an added sense of excitement and purpose for the 16-0 British and Commonwealth light heavyweight champion?
“No, I’ve got no different feelings. I’ve got no bitterness or nastiness. All I’m gonna do is go in there on October 15th and treat it like the job that it is. It’s a business and since I was 15 years old I’ve know I was gonna be crowned world champion. The fight’s been brewing for a while to be honest. It’s a clash that’s been destined to happen for twelve months and one which I’ve known has been going to happen for two years. Ever since he beat Tony Oakey he’s been in my sights and I’ve known it was gonna happen in the end.”
The pair may be seen as polar opposites of each other but there are more similarities than may first appear. Whilst the bombastic Bellew has been cast as the villain of the piece, maths graduate Cleverly hasn’t exactly been shy about voicing his opinions on his rival either. The champion from Cefn Forest has also shown a recent propensity for standing and trading with his opponents whereas it is Bellew who is seen in most quarters as the crude slugger. Bellew agrees that there may be some who have slightly twisted perceptions of the two.
“People are gonna label me that way because that’s how they think I am from television. When they do speak to me they realise I’m a humble person who’s easy to get along with. I’m a nice person outside of boxing but when the bell goes I’m vicious, nasty and intimidating. He’s finding out just how intimidating because anytime he’s near me I can feel the fear in his eyes,” stated Bellew.
“He’s loved by Sky Sports because every time he fights he’s in a fantastic war. This is why he gets the acclaim he gets. At the end of the day, I’ve said nothing unjust and nothing disrespectful. I’ll give respect and credit where it’s due, I’d like the same back but he hasn’t given it. It’ll come to blows on October 15th and not before and we’ll see where it takes us from there. I’m gonna be crowned WBO light heavyweight champion of the world.”
Whilst they are unlikely to be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon, if you look beneath the surface it is clear that the combatants do have a modicum of respect for each other, however grudging it may be. Bellew has said that the bout is a step up in class for him and praised Cleverly’s fast hands whilst the champion has acknowledged that Bellew is extremely dangerous. “He admitted it at a recent press conference” says ‘Bomber’.
“They asked him, ‘Is Tony Bellew the best fighter of your career?’, and I cut him short and said, ‘He knows I’m the best of his career’. What he went on to say was that, ‘Everybody has different strengths. Tony’s powerful, [Karo] Murat was powerful, [Nadjib] Mohammedi was awkward’, but it doesn’t matter what he says. Deep down in his heart he knows that I’m the best opponent he’s fought.
“I’m better than all his opponents at their best things. Murat’s greatest strength is his strength. I’m stronger than him. Mohammed’s best strength was his defence and avoiding punches. I avoid punches better than him. If you wanna draw on our opponents strengths, look at Danny McIntosh. The guys a pumped up clown who went in there looking for attention. Boxing - in my terms - you don’t go down unless you get knocked down. When he fought Cleverly, McIntosh was getting put down for eight counts from body shots and getting up at six and laughing. That in my eyes is a guy who’s looking for attention.”
Having acknowledged that he is taking Bellew’s challenge very seriously, is the Liverpudlian expecting Cleverly to deviate from his recent form and try to box more when the pair clash?
“No, no no. He’s not gonna try and avoid standing with me because that’s all he knows,” interjects the 28-year-old. “He knows one way to fight. He’s good on the front foot, he’s got fast hands and good combinations but when you couple that with the piss poor defence he’s got and the piss poor footwork and he’s not all he’s made out to be. They talk him up on Sky Sports to be the second coming of Floyd Mayweather when in reality he’s a domestic level, one dimensional fighter who fights with his face.”
In a recent interview with Boxingscene, British trainer Joe Gallagher extolled the virtues of conquering your own country before moving onto the world stage. “Becoming king of your own castle” as he put it. With big money fights with the likes of Bernard Hopkins being touted for the winner is there the danger of either boxer overlooking the task in hand? Not on Bellew’s part.
“Joe Gallagher’s words are wise ones. I personally think my boxing knowledge far exceeds Cleverly’s. While he might have a brain, the only thing he can teach me is maths. I’m not claiming to be ready for the Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson’s of the sport, those are guys with great footwork and defence but what I do claim to be ready for is domestic level fighters who fight with their faces.
“He’s talking about Bernard Hopkins, getting very carried away with himself and he’s looking at other fights. With me it’s quite simple. I’m looking at him and him only. Come October 15th I’m gonna be crowned a world champion in front of ten thousand of my own people. Bernard Hopkins is gonna be a long way from his mind. The only thing Cleverly’ll be thinking of is teaching kids maths”.
Many boxers preparing for a big fight in front of a passionate home support stress the importance of taking the crowd out of the fight, reasoning that getting caught up in the emotion and expectancy of the crowd could force them to deviate from their fight plan. Throughout the build up to the bout Bellew has constantly made reference to the support he can expect to receive on the night. Is he hoping to buck the trend and use the crowd’s energy to help him crank up the intensity even higher come fight night?
“No, the crowd’s not gonna come into it,” he quickly states. “It won’t be nice for him when he can’t even hear his own name getting announced and his national anthem or whatever they wanna do. At the end of the day though I’m the one who goes in there throwing punches so while it’s nice to have the crowd on my side the pressure is all on him. Bookies don’t lie. I’m the underdog. Not just a normal underdog but an overwhelming underdog”.
Bellew is the most high profile character of the burgeoning Liverpool fight scene. The likes of Joe Selkirk, British featherweight champion Stephen Smith, European lightweight challenger Derry Mathews and heavyweight hope David Price could all be set for big years. Does Bellew feel any additional pressure at being at the forefront of such a talented group?
“I wouldn’t say I’m the leader. I look at us all as one big team in Liverpool who are striving to succeed and better ourselves in the fight game. It’s coming together bit by bit. October 15th is gonna be a defining moment, hopefully not just for me but for my city and family. More so my family. They go through what I go through. It’ll be a fantastic achievement and something that I’m relishing.”
As is usually the case the final word goes to Bellew and he is deadly serious in stating his intentions. The jovial manner falls away and the seriousness in his voice is clear when he lays his ambitions bare. This is one man who won’t spend his life wondering.
“For the first time Cleverly is fighting somebody who is willing to go to the well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Come October 15th - I’m not joking when I say this - I’m willing to die in that ring. I am willing to do anything possible. I will leave it all in that ring. There will be no second-guessing myself, no questioning myself on whether I did enough. I’ll do everything possible to be crowned a world champion.”