Tony Bellew: Risk taker
Tony Bellew knows he’s facing danger against David Haye but, he tells Phil Kirkbride, he’s ready to get hit harder than at any time in his life and battle back—and he doubts Haye has the same mindset...
Tony Bellew would love nothing more than a quiet life but admits he can’t turn down a tear-up.
He yearns only for the peace of spending time with his family yet he is a man with a Hollywood profile.
Bellew is gentle and considered but also explosive and controversial. He speaks with a softness but can be foul-mouthed. Though courageous, he admits that boxing scares him.
A purist who wants to see the best fight the best, Bellew still sells a show like few can and despite his self-professed limitations the 34-year-old is a reigning world cruiserweight champion.
In so many ways, the Liverpool man is a melting pot of contradictions that, he’ll concede, makes him one of boxing’s love-him-or-hate-him characters but, equally, one of its most fascinating.
Those who know David Haye may say he is the same but on 4 March, at London’s O2 Arena, Bellew comes face to face with someone he would consider his opposite in almost every way.
Bellew believes his is a “success story”, whereas Haye, he feels, is filled with regret, chasing former glories. The Scouser says the pair are driven towards victory for very different reasons because of it.
He holds his last opponent, BJ Flores, in similar regard to the way he feels about Haye. It was after Bellew’s three-round demolition of Flores last October that the prospect of a fight with Haye gathered pace.
“'Flores is Haye’s mate, but I’d always said I’d never fight him because I think he’s a gobshite and refused to give him a payday,” Bellew explains.
“I'd always disliked him because he’s a tit, he’s everything that’s wrong about boxing. He lives the playboy lifestyle but doesn’t want to live the life. He pisses me off.
“He’s fame hungry, very similar to David, but a lesser version of him.
“They love fame and the cameras. I hate the cameras. I hate fame. I just want to go home to my kids and for no-one to know me.
“I wish I could fight in a mask like Jack Black in Nacho Libre, just a fat wrestler who fights with a mask on and nobody knows who you are.
“But [Flores and Haye] love the fame.”
However, Bellew knows the glare of publicity is inescapable here. A fight on pay per view requires serious promotion. There’s a spotlight on the feuding rivals, too.
Bellew is serving a suspended four-month ban with the Boxing Board of Control for his theatrics at the Echo Arena, where he made threatening gestures to Haye after stopping Flores.
Haye, having thrown a punch at Bellew when they met at a heated press conference in November, will be watched closely as well in the build-up.
They don’t like each other, of course, but Bellew admits his show at ringside was more of a final sales push than anything sinister. Yet, he says, Haye’s actions at the press conference at London’s Dorchester Hotel have soured their once-cordial relationship.
The regular exchange of to-the-point text messages has now stopped.
“Hate is too strong a word in this instance,” Bellew says.
“I think he’s a wanker. I think he’s a tit. He really pissed me off when he threw a punch at the press conference. It’s personal now.
“Before, to a certain extent, it was just business. I wanted to get the fight. I kicked a toblerone [advertisement cushion] at him. I made the gestures towards him because I wanted to back him into a corner where everyone watching was left saying: ‘You’ve got to fight Bellew.’ And it worked.
“I’ve never been a man who relies on promoters to make my fights for me. I go out and make them.
“I’ve done it my whole career. I either beat contenders to get the title fight or I just cause a shit storm and go nuts — I'm good at either way.”
But Bellew, thinking more like a fight fan, needed the counsel of Eddie Hearn and his trusted advisors to convince him that having won the WBC title at Goodison Park against Ilunga Makabu in May, it made more sense to defend his belt against Flores than explore the route he’d planned.
“Not even the money would make me soft,” he said. “I could be a billionaire and I would still get in the ring and fight.
“There is something fucked up in my brain. I can’t control it. I love fighting and I can never, ever give in or back down.
“I have people around me who are there to save me from myself because I am a danger to myself, because if I had my way I would have gone from Goodison to [Denis] Lebedev, to [Murat] Gassiev, to Haye.
“Eddie told me I was crazy. I’m not. That is how boxing should be. But these people, like Haye, have watered the sport down so much that we’re at a point where it’s fucked. No TV stations want it. The only chance you’re getting of big pay per views are these freaky matches.
“Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev did something like 150,000 PPV buys. Me and that clown from Wales [Nathan Cleverly] did 300,000 in a country a fraction of the size. Me and David will do a ridiculous amount. But this is what I’m saying: People like David have diluted the sport.”
Bellew claims Haye has been negotiating with him since December 2015, before he outpointed Mateusz Masternak to win the European cruiserweight title, and that lucrative offers were made to him to fight Haye away from Matchroom and Sky Sports.
“Before this fight was made, I got a phone call offering me a huge amount of money to fight David Haye on another channel,” he reveals.
“I’m talking more money than I have seen in my life but I said no because I gave a man my word.
“Eddie couldn’t believe I’d done it but I’m a man of my word, always have been, always will be and until you do harm to me I’m the most trustworthy person you could ever meet.”
Bellew admits he is putting himself in its way by facing Haye.
At light-heavyweight, and drained, he felt the brute force of Adonis Stevenson but at cruiser he has looked natural, heavy-handed and also physically big enough to absorb the punishment.
But what about at heavyweight?
“Listen, I’m under no illusions — this fight could be over in 20 seconds,” he says, sharpening his focus.
“If it goes past four rounds, it’s only going one way, but up until that point this fight is on a knife edge.
“If he clocks me clean on the button, inside the first four rounds, then I am going.”
He acknowledges the fear factor. “I love fight nights but, now, I turn up to the arena and I’m scared,” he said.
“I’m a dad. I’ve got the three most beautiful kids in the world and the best missus you could hope for, but I turn up to the arena and pray to God that my opponent doesn’t want it as much as me because then I’m in danger, because I will never back down.
“But what I am meeting here is the most dangerous fighter I have ever faced. His one-punch power is off the scale.
“I'm expecting him to hit me and being sick to my stomach. The thing is, he doesn’t think that of me. I’m expecting to get hit and feel something I’ve never felt before. He’s not.
“I’m mentally tuned that no matter how hard or fast he hits me, I am expecting more than he’s got. I am over-estimating him.”
But — and Bellew says this is important.
“People might not like to hear it, but if I was fighting the Haye who was searching for his first world title, I’d have it all to do. It would be like mission impossible.
“But a decade has passed and I’m not facing that. I’m facing a version of David Haye that has gone soft, doesn't like to train as hard and has left his mentor and best friend in Adam Booth.
“Certain trainers and fighters are made for each other and Adam and David were a perfect match.
“People can say what they want about Adam Booth but the thing you cannot dispute is that he is a world-class trainer.
“The greatest trainer to ever live is Emanuel Steward and Andy Lee had spent his whole career under him [until Steward’s passing] and I’m sure he’d seen, and talked to, a ton of other coaches but he came and stayed with Adam Booth.
“With Booth, he won the world title and that speaks volumes. People miss these sorts of things.
“David’s still a crazy puncher, but he’s slower, he’s easier to hit, his head doesn’t move as much, his athleticism does not look the same.”
If having to deal with a first fight at heavyweight, against a former world champion, wasn’t enough, boxing still demands that Bellew already knows his next move.
“Everyone is asking what happens when I knock him out, the best heavyweight in the world outside of the champions,” he said.
“For me, there is only one place to go and that's Joshua — if he beats Klitschko.”
Yet, Bellew being who he is, concludes: “I have no real desire to face the giants. They are big men. But, never say never.”