It’s always fun when a boxing career takes an unexpected turn. For a long time Liverpool’s Tony Bellew looked to be one of those typical British fighters who would never quite deliver. High-functioning at domestic and European level, true world class appeared a step too far.
At light-heavy he put in a strange smorgasbord of performances, occasionally explosive – as when dispatching Ovill Mckenzie in eight rounds after tasting canvas twice himself – and occasionally dull and flat. His two fights with South African Isaac Chilemba will not live long in the memory, for example. Despite this inconsistency his mouth frequently ran away from him. His bombastic interview style, “these fists feed my kids, I’m going in there to destroy” became more than a little grating. When you listen repeatedly to a fighter talk big, then fail to deliver, it tarnishes your view of their abilities. Bellew, it seemed, was a loudmouth with a higher opinion of himself than performances justified.
Two world title defeats confirmed that appraisal. Nathan Cleverly outworked and outpointed him in 2011, before Adonis Stevenson made him look silly two years later. Once again Bomber Bellew had talked the talk, claiming that the champion was too small and needed to return to super-middleweight, but in that Quebec city ring, he singularly failed to make a fight of it. Tony put in a cautious, back foot, safety-first performance that imploded when he was TKO’d in round 6. Steve Bunce called him out on it and Bellew responded by throwing his toys out of the pram in a Talksport radio interview.
Following that mauling at the hands of Stevenson, Bellew elected to move up to Cruiser. This had the trappings of a cynical move. (Nathan Cleverly did the same thing after Krusher Kovalev destroyed him). It seemed that Bellew accepted that the light-heavy world champions were too good for him and a public reinvention as a cruiserweight could give his career a shot in the arm and earn him some final paydays before retirement.
Once again, those suspicions seemed confirmed when Bellew took part in the most tawdry of all the Matchroom / Sky PPV nights to date. His tepid, non-title rematch with Cleverly, in which neither man really turned up, seemed the very epitome of fan exploitation. A pointless, WWE style rivalry, between two mediocre performers, all ruthlessly hyped to rip-off casuals. It left a nasty taste in the mouth and meant that at that stage, only two years ago, Tony Bellew was a pretty hard fighter to like.
But then, somehow, it all changed. The cruiserweight wins kept coming, against increasingly impressive opposition, leading to the big one against fearsome Ilungu Makubu at Goodison Park in May. Bellew appeared different in the build-up, wiser, more reflective and less self-absorbed. It was as if he knew this was his last chance for credibility. Perhaps because of that, he absolutely smashed it.
Down in the first before pulverising Makabu in the third, he finally lived up to all the big talk from years before. Bellew didn’t just win, he entertained, against a very dangerous and avoided fighter. At last he had it – WBC world champ.
For a first defence BJ Flores was a reasonable choice. We’ve seen far worse. Although 36 years old, the American has operated around the upper levels of the Cruiserweight division for years and proved capable of giving top guys like Danny Green and Beibut Shumenov a decent argument. Most tellingly of all, prior to meeting Bellew, he had never been stopped.
It may be true that Flores started to unravel after being hit low, a point seemingly missed by the ref, but Bellew the cruiserweight destroyer is not one to let chances pass untaken. With the American in temporary disarray, Bomber went into overdrive, forcing 4 knockdowns altogether and taking a few big shots himself. It was, quite simply, another scintillating performance.
Bellew the Cruiserweight is an exciting fighter. He now finds himself in the position of being arguably the UK’s most watchable world champion. After his expensive, fan-fleecing bore-fest with Cleverly three years ago, that’s quite a turnaround.
Having got himself into this position, what the he now needs to do is build on it. Yet for some reason (I’m thinking pound notes) he has fixated on a match-up with David Haye. He needs to back away from that nonsense, sharpish.
Not only will Haye obliterate him, it won’t even be a contest. Bellew takes too many shots and Haye is a powerful heavy, but more than that, the whole thing stinks to high heaven in the same way the Cleverly get-up did.
Bellew is very good at playing the psychopathic, swivel-eyed loon and someone has obviously told him it’s the way to hype a contest to a general audience. The post-fight scene on Saturday was undignified and again, reminiscent of a lesser, more theatrical sport. All we needed was for someone to smack Bellew on the back with a folding chair, while female bodybuilders with huge, fake tits stood pouting at the camera.
As the embarrassing scene played itself out, Eddie Hearn, of course, hovered in the background with a faint smile. Already the interent is abuzz. The clamour has begun, but the Haye fight, if it happened, would take Bellew back to what made him something of a joke figure years ago.
It would doubtless end up on PPV. Tony would give it all the scouse mouth for months of tortured build-up. Then he’d get flattened.
As a man who holds the most valued belt in the cruiserweight division, he doesn’t need any of that. Bellew should focus instead on defending against viable challengers before looking for unifications. If he could topple Alexander Usyk, or Denis Lebedev, then real global superstar status awaits. Imagine that!
Right now Bomber has the chance to lead a British charge and like all of us he faces a choice. His is to be very well paid to do things the right way, or go all out to make millions in a one-off, farcical, PPV circus.
Let’s hope he picks the right path.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.