Every football fan dreams of getting to play on the hallowed turf of their favourite football team. Usually, those reveries involve scoring a hat-trick against their fiercest rivals or scoring the goal that seals the title. Not many, however, have the dream of winning a boxing world title at their field of dreams, but, for Tony Bellew, those dreams could well come true.
On Sunday 29th May, the Scouse fighter will walk out of the home dressing room, along the corridor, up the steps and onto the famous hallowed turf. The strains of Z-Cars, the anthem of his beloved Everton Football Club, will be ringing out.
Standing in his way is hard-hitting Congolese danger-man Ilunga Makabu, a fighter Bellew knows is capable of turning his Goodison Park dream sour.
‘I’m fighting one of the best Cruiserweights in the world and I know that I need to be at the top of my game to beat him. It’s why I’m leaving no stone unturned in this training camp.’
One advantage the Everton fan will have is trainer Dave Coldwell, a man who in his lifelong association with the sport has been involved in the game as a fighter, trainer, manager, promoter and cutman. Now under the tutelage of the Yorkshireman, Bellew is looking to add another world champion to Coldwell’s burgeoning stable and the Scouser is under no illusions as to how the Rotherham trainer has helped to improve him as a fighter.
‘If I’d been with him from day one, I’d be a world champion now, and that’s no disrespect to my previous trainers. I was with Mick McAllister as an amateur and a professional. I adore the guy but the knowledge from a professional point of view is entirely different from the amateur game.
‘The sad thing is, I wanted Dave to be my trainer when I turned over but I couldn’t afford the travelling to Sheffield and back. I am where I am now and I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from him. He’s a fantastic coach and he knows the sport in and out.
‘He’s been there at the top level. He was with Ryan Rhodes for the Canelo fight and also trained Kell Brook, and, of course, he also has the McDonnell brothers. He now has my mate Pricey too.’
That experience was vital in Bellew’s previous fight against tough Pole Mateusz Masternak. It was a gruelling contest, and after a tenth round in which he was almost stopped, his trainer’s vast knowledge was put to the test.
‘I honestly thought I was cruising the fight and when Dave told me to pull my finger out of my arse for these last two rounds, I listened to him and I did it. I was surprised because I thought I was winning but I’ve got such absolute trust in him that I went out and did it.’
The relationship between Bellew and Coldwell extends beyond the usual rapport between fighter and trainer. During those long, hard hours spent in the gym, mutual respect turned to friendship.
‘I know I can call on him anytime for advice on anything. He is my trainer but, first and foremost, he’s my friend and I don’t have many of them. So, for me to say someone is my friend is a big thing. I have acquaintances and people I know but it’s very rare I call someone a friend and that’s what Dave Coldwell is, he’s my friend.’
In August 2014, Bellew was on his way home from an Everton match and, to put it lightly, he wasn’t in a good mood. His beloved Everton had found themselves on the wrong end of a 6-3 drubbing at the hands of Chelsea, and, as he entered the house with an Indian meal for the family, he received a phone call that bemused him.
‘I thought it was Ross [Barkley, Everton midfielder] winding me up at first. I’ve come through the door with a curry after seeing Everton tanked at home and I wasn’t in the mood for a joke. I told the fella I didn’t believe him and he said that I didn’t sound too keen and, to be fair, I did come across like that. I told him that it’s not that I wasn’t keen, I just didn’t believe him.
Eventually, he must have phoned me three times in an hour and before I knew Warner Brothers were calling me. It was surreal. It just happened so quickly.’
‘I’d never acted a day in my life and I had serious doubts as to whether or not I could do it but Ryan [Coogler, Creed Director] convinced me I could and he got me through it. He was fantastic. He’s the hottest property in the States right now and he’s another person who’s become a close friend. He was married recently and I was invited. Because of the preparation for this fight, I couldn’t make it, but we’ll definitely meet up again soon.’
The experience of shooting a film like Creed, that was a commercial and critical success, has clearly made a huge impression on Bellew, who admits that the call of Hollywood is something that has crossed his mind.
‘Acting is something I’m looking at once I’ve hung up my gloves but at the moment boxing is my focus, and that means concentrating on this fight with Makabu and bringing home that green and gold WBC belt.’
In Creed, Bellew in his role as ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan defended his title against the titular Creed, played convincingly by current Hollywood man of the moment Michael B Jordan at Goodison Park. In a life imitating art situation, Bellew now finds himself fighting for a world title at a ground he considers sacred. The road to the Old Lady, as the home of Everton is known, was a tricky one fraught with more obstacles than an ‘It’s a Knockout’ circuit.
‘It’s been a long time coming and the meeting we had about Goodison hosting the fight was almost very short. The date I wanted was the 28th May but apparently Matchroom had already organised Ricky Burns’ fight for that night; the next date was 4th June but the Everton pitch was being re-laid.
Eventually, we settled on the Sunday and, as anyone in Liverpool knows, Bank Holiday Sunday is a big thing in the city and we’re going to make it work.’
‘We haven’t had much time to sell the tickets and by the time fight night comes around it’ll have been just under four weeks. So far we’ve sold 15,000 and I think that eventually we’ll sell 20,000. If I’m being honest though, it doesn’t matter if there’s 20 there or 20,000, I’m going to win the WBC title at Goodison Park and that’s all that matters to me.’
Bellew and Everton are now synonymous. He’s is a regular visitor to Everton’s Finch Farm training complex and has used the exceptional facilities that are available there. The link-up between the fighter and the club occurred about seven years ago, when former director Robert Earl introduced him to then Everton player Tim Cahill. From there the relationship grew.
‘Tim introduced me to [Everton chairman] Bill Kenwright and [then Everton manager] David Moyes. From there it developed and eventually I was able to train there. I met Dave Billows [former Everton fitness coach] and he helped put me through my paces and use the ice bath and, then, eventually, I was able to use the other facilities too.
‘I’m a huge Everton fan so it was a real treat to be allowed in the dressing room and be around them. Now we’re friends. It was a long process, for obvious reasons footballers take a long time to trust others. Now I’m in that circle of trust in the dressing room and we always share a laugh and a joke.’
Promoter Eddie Hearn has billed the show as ‘Real Life Rocky Story’, a reference to both the fighter’s appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster and also the romantic aspect of an Everton fan facing his destiny at Goodison Park. As the bout approaches, Bellew admits he is finding it difficult to distance himself from the hype as I mention the emotions he’ll feel as Z- Cars blares out across Goodison Park.
‘It’s going to be surreal. I’m excited just thinking about it, but I’ve got to be careful not to get caught up in the hype. I hate the phrase, but I’m trying to keep my distance and not get caught up in the excitement. I’ve done it before and Makabu is the type of fighter who can see my dream turn quickly into a nightmare. Adonis Stevenson aside, he is the best fighter I’ve fought.’
Goodison Park has played host to many a special night for Evertonians, and they are now hoping that on 29th May, Tony Bellew can make his dream come true and ingrain another fantastic night in the history of the famous Old Lady.