The boy from Rotunda: Bellew revels in victory
In the wake of his dramatic and unexpected victory against David Haye at the O2, Chris Williamson caught up with Tony Bellew for a wide-ranging and in-depth interview which touched on his analysis of last week's fight, his plans for the future, his views on David Haye and George Foreman and much more besides...
A few days removed from his unlikely eleventh round TKO victory over heavyweight contender David Haye and Tony Bellew, the current WBC cruiserweight champion, is in reflective mood. He notices a social media message from former world heavyweight champion George Foreman offering congratulations and describing the 34-year-old 'Bomber' as a "breath of fresh air".
"It doesn't even feel real at the minute, I can't even believe he [Foreman] knows who I am in all honesty," says Bellew incredulously, pausing to reflect that the giant who once treated the great Joe Frazier like a rag doll can be counted as a fan. "He's George Foreman - an iconic, legendary figure in this sport - and he knows who the little fat scouser is!"
Of course, it hasn't always been this way and in a week when everyone wants to be his friend, Bellew takes care to remember those who helped him reach this improbable status. Most prominent is Jimmy Albertina, the coach at Rotunda ABC who instilled in the young Tony a belief that he could achieve something. Albertina died aged just 53 in 2003, with Bellew acting as a pallbearer at his funeral. Tony now wears a tattoo on his arm and patch on his boxing shorts bearing the nickname 'Albo' as a tribute to his mentor. One wonders what Albertina would make of the success Bellew is enjoying.
"I know Jimmy had plans. I know Jimmy knew that I could go really far in this sport but I don't think anyone envisioned this," Bellew says emotionally. "He predicted I'd be ABA champion and I won that first ABA title before Jimmy died. I look back on my career and I dedicate it to Jimmy Albertina. He's probably the one person in the world who I miss - and I've lost grandparents - but I miss that man more. I have his name on my shorts, I have his name tattooed on my arm. The best tribute is his children [James and Michael], his lovely wife Bernie [Bernadette] who I speak to all the time still, his friends like John Doolan and Mick McAllister [both of whom served as understudies to Albertina at Rotunda], people who knew him. But I was one of the trusted few who carried Jimmy at his funeral. I'm told he always believed in me. Jimmy would never ever tell you how good he thought you were, he would never say it."
One of the more remarkable aspects surrounding the win against Haye was just how composed and relaxed the lighter man seemed. Bellew once told me that the pressure of walking out at Goodison Park last May the night he was crowned WBC cruiserweight champion was so intense that he couldn't repeat the experience. One wonders how facing a fierce heavyweight puncher, an overwhelming favourite to swiftly and publicly separate him from his senses could be any less stressful. It can sometimes seem impossible to rationalise the thoughts of these remarkable fighting men and Bellew explains that the danger present in Haye's gloved fists produced a single-minded focus which somehow helped relax him.
"There was no pressure on me, so I was really composed," he recalls. "I was happy and knew not to get myself riled and pumped up because I knew the performance I had to put in and the game plan I had to stick to. Listen, it was a fight where I couldn't switch off from the game plan for literally one second because he had the power to just turn your lights out. I knew that going into the ring and that's why I was so relaxed, so calm and focused. Against the likes of your BJ Flores [Bellew's first defence of the WBC cruiserweight title last October], I could literally do what I want because he's a natural cruiserweight. Once he hit me clean I didn't feel he could hurt me - well, unless he landed two or three on the spin - so I knew I could get away with it and do what I want. But with this fella it was a whole different ball game. I knew this fella could take me away with one shot. That made me focus even more."
London's O2 venue had housed Haye's previous two comeback opponents and a blood thirsty crowd was eager to learn whether the Londonder would back up his sinister pre-fight boasts. Bellew vividly describes the white-hot environment. "I went to his back yard in the O2. He said that's the lion's den and that's his stomping yard. I went there and I owned him on his spot," he states proudly. "I got a pint of lager thrown on me just before I walked to the ring and I actually thanked the fella for doing it and offered him a pint as well. It was very hostile at the start. It wasn't until I showed the people that I wasn't telling lies with my game plan and what I was going to do that they began to cheer for me."
With the beer drying on his newly crafted heavyweight body, Bellew took to dancing in the ring as Haye's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" ring-walk music boomed from the speakers. "I was quite shocked at the horrendous reception he got, because he got booed - I didn't see anyone throw a pint at him - but he did get booed," Bellew remembers. "I was too busy dancing to his music. I was raised on that music playing in my house when I was a youth, so I've been listening to all that stuff. Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, all that nonsense. He could have played it all night and I'd have probably ended up breakdancing at some stage. I had a great time waiting for him."
Once the first bell rang, it was a surprise to many that Bellew won the first round. The scouser tells BM that he decided to temporarily discard trainer Dave Coldwell's strategy in order to gain Haye's respect from the outset. "Let me tell you it wasn't in the game plan to trade up with him in the first round," Bellew explains. "But I traded up with him so I got his respect immediately."
Through the remaining early rounds Bellew moved well, generally circling to Haye's right, boxing neatly and drawing the Londoner into making wide swings which Bellew would counter. "Everything we planned on doing, dipping after the shots, coming in and out of range. Making him reach - that was a big, big factor in this fight - making David Haye reach," Bellew explains. "He wants a man basically in range all the time, with a straight back. The fighters he's fought have always been straight back opponents with hands up in the air. Very easy targets to hit. My plan was to make him miss and be very hard to hit and I was. He struggled with the range massively. The reason he struggled with the range is also due to his long inactivity and also the fact that someone was now punching back."
There has been much debate in the days following the fight about the physical condition of Haye, but there can be no doubt that - even pre-achilles injury - Bellew executed his pre-fight strategy perfectly and remained firmly in the fight after the first few rounds.
"I used my boxing brain, I used my skills in the first three or four rounds, and then - like I said before the fight - once we got through those three or four rounds we'll start to break him down and in rounds four, five and six he was feeling it," Bellew adds. "Just look at what I say to him at the end of round five. If you watch the fight back - and I've watched it back twice now - at the end of round five I said 'you're blowing out your arse, boy'. He shook his head at me and he went back to his corner. The next time I spoke to him in the fight was when - I think it was the end of round seven or eight - and I just said to him: 'you're finished' and he just kept shaking his head, banging his heart and then it wasn't until the eleventh round when my words were: 'stop David,' and he banged on his chest and said 'come on' and waved me in. Then I looked at Shane McGuigan and said: 'stop it Shane; I'm warning you, stop it.' Then I unloaded that last combination that put him through the ropes and that was all she wrote. I just got the job done."
Of course, Haye had ruptured his Achilles' tendon in a dramatic sixth round which also saw the Londoner take a count, severely limiting his movement in the rounds which followed. Bellew maintains he was on course to win the fight regardless and that what happened before the injury supports that.
"There can't be [any excuses]," Bellew asserts. "Let's say he's saying 'oh I'm injured' and this and that. You've got to remember: he was firing on all cylinders in the first half [of the fight]. I took the best he could possibly hit me with in them first few rounds and he was shocked I took it. It's the same with anyone in this game. Anybody who takes what David Haye can dish out, he will always fall apart. And I took what he had and he fell apart."
With the pre-fight promotional machine painting Haye as a jet-setting playboy, many close to the game viewed this as a ploy to hoodwink casual fans into believing the match was more even than the odds suggested, but Bellew suggests the two rivals' respective lifestyles did have an impact on what happened in the ring.
"There was two men in there," Bellew states. "One was prepared for a fight and the other one was prepared to win by quick knockout. The man who was prepared for the long hard fight won, and that was me. My body's been through an awful lot of these camps. You can't treat boxing as a game. You can't take these long periods of inactivity and breaks, flying back and forth. Your body can't do it. You've got to stay in the zone, prepare properly and you've got to keep fighting back-to-back. That's the only way your body can keep going through it.
"If I took two years out and came back, I guarantee you my body would break down six weeks into camp. David's been going up and down, up and down and he's also been at a weight that isn't his natural weight if we're being totally honest here. David is not a sixteen stone fighter. David Haye is a fourteen-and-a-half or fifteen stone fighter at the very best. But what he's done is he's bulked and pumped himself up so much and filled himself with so much water that his muscles are now more like that of a bodybuilder than a boxer. That's come back to his detriment. He's finished."
If that assessment sounds harsh, the physical and mental armour built for battle during the long camps are not easily shed and in many ways - even following victory - Haye remains Bellew's enemy. "We'll see how he's going to come back," the victor states. "If he does come back we'll sit down and talk, but the salt and pepper is on my side of the table now. If he'd have done me in one or two rounds as he predicted, he'd have ridiculed me. He'd have made a fool of me, laughed at me, said I'm crap.
"All the things he said beforehand, he'd have said 'I told you so'. Exactly what he done to Enzo Maccarinelli. He ridiculed him as well. He said 'how dare he be in a ring with me, he's not even on my level'. He'd have done all the same things to me, so a part of me kind of regrets embracing him."
Social media seemed to constantly replay the scene at the end of the fight where a victorious Bellew spurned his emotional promoter Eddie Hearn to embrace a stricken Haye. Bellew recalls his thoughts at the moment of victory.
"You know what? It was a natural moment for me and that was just me being me, but when I look back and think about it, I just think he would have laughed at me on the floor if he'd done me in two rounds. He'd have ridiculed me, mate, and that's not me saying something that could have happened, that would have happened," says Bellew with defiant emotion in his voice.
"I should have taken the moment to celebrate with my trainer and promoter who've worked really hard with me. Instead, I saw a man with no one around him who really cared. A man who was hurt and couldn't get back to his corner because he was in that bad of a way. And that wasn't just because of his achilles - let me tell you right now - when he had that achilles injury he was still swinging bombs, he was still swinging before he got stopped.
"He was gone. He was dazed and he was hurt when I done him. And I carried that man. I moved Shane [McGuigan] - you know, the cheerleader - and I carried him back to the corner. Actually I had all of his sixteen stone on me and I carried him to his corner."
Bellew still winces at the memory of Haye's pre-fight words and their impact on his loved ones. "This moron was saying in the build-up he's sending me to hospital. He's saying this is the last licensed fight I'd ever have," Bellew says as his thoughts move - as they often do - to his family. "When your kids are going to school on Monday morning and the first words out of my eldest boy's mouth was: 'Dad, I'm going to tell these lads now: 'I told you he'd win''. You know my boys had to go to school, mate, and defend me in school because his mates are saying his dad's getting knocked out. What kind of thing is that?"
The pre-fight rhetoric became so heated that Bellew sent his family to Dubai to avoid the unpleasantness. "They loved Dubai but they got woken up at a ridiculous o'clock in the morning to find out about the fight and what happened," he says. "But you know what? I had to send them away, with the way this fight was going and the build-up was horrendous, what was being said, so I just don't need my kids being around that and the schools understood, which was important to me."
As it turned out, of course, it was Haye who went to hospital in what some have viewed as poetic justice, but Bellew outright refuses to take this view. "I don't condone that. I don't encourage it and I pray to God that no one ever gets hurt in the boxing ring again, especially by my hands," he emphasises. "I do not want blood on my hands, but in a way karma has come to him in a roundabout way. I think it [the defeat] will ground him a lot more now. Hopefully he'll start remembering where he's come from, how he's got there and what it got to get there, instead of playing down the achievements of others and belittling people. But like I say, whatever he wants to do. It's gone full circle now. If he does want to dance again then he's going to have to come to me, because, believe it or not, I bent to some ridiculous terms in that fight, I really did."
The contract demands which Haye demanded be included still rankle with Bellew and one suspects the tables will be turned in any potential rematch. Bellew tells BM the financial aspects of the deal were fair because of the relative power of the television networks.
"In terms of the financials he knew I had power there because I had Sky Sports on my side," Bellew explains. "Without me, there was no Sky Sports Box Office - for him anyway. I brought that to the table. Him on his own, he's fighting on Dave, which I love because I'm a big fan of 'Bullseye' and I always watch 'Bullseye' after watching him," Bellew says wryly. "He brought Dave to the table and I brought Sky Sports Box Office, so ... I knew where it was going with that [the financial splits] mate."
The clauses which still rankle with Bellew are those he perceives as petty and belittling. "Things like I should be seated when he enters the press conference room and I should be in the red corner. I've been in the red corner three times," Bellew explains. "That was the third time, and I've finally won in the away corner, which I'm happy about, although the first time I still think I won against the Welsh fella [Nathan Cleverly] in the first fight, but I was in the red corner against Adonis Stevenson and I got my arse smacked that night. So that was the third time and all these things go through your mind [although] I'm not a superstitious person. So I just thought: go in there. It's a ring, it's a fight, just get on with it and do it."
Trainer Dave Coldwell has played a huge part in Bellew's resurgence. The trainer was formerly employed as Head of Boxing for Hayemaker and was on the inside for many of Haye's training camps, including the aborted Tyson Fury bouts. Coldwell is present during our interview when I ask Bellew just how important his trainer's input has been.
"You know what, mate? He was instrumental. I think about four or five in my inner circle really believed I could do this and let me tell you, had he have not even got the injury, mate, it would have gone the exact same way because he was tiring and gassing as the rounds went by and then the fitter, more prepared man was going to win, but it went exactly how we said. I kept asking him in this build up: 'David, no excuses. David, are you ok, are you fit and healthy?'. He said it all through camp, it's the best camp he's ever had. He's gone on record as saying that afterwards, now I'm being told he's said if he could do the camp again like he did he would do it again."
Bellew and Coldwell enlisted heavyweight contender Dereck Chisora in training, to help his body get used to having a much heavier man leaning, scrapping and punching back in his direction. Tony's tongue remains firmly in his cheek when recalling how the opposing corner (i.e. Shane McGuigan) had suggested they'd had the better camp.
"Shane said he had better sparring partners than me. I'm sure he did. Bryant Jennings. It showed on the night," says Tony with deadpan humour. "I'm just happy my coach was brilliant from start to finish. I don't create the game plans, I just do my best to try and follow them. And I'd like to believe I followed his [Coldwell's] game plan.
Bellew had been vocal in his disdain for Haye's two previous comeback opponents [Mark de Mori and Arnold Gjergjaj] and wanted to make the Londoner feel the jump in class. "I wasn't those two buffoons who he faced last time," says Bellew. "I had to express that and get that across to him: 'You are going in now against a current world champion, someone who has no fear of you and someone who is going to crack you back the minute I see an opportunity'. And those last two morons; they weren't good enough to carry his jockstrap. It was an abuse of the boxing fraternity in my opinion. He had a channel that was free to air in Dave, he had a big audience to showcase to ... so why not bring some decent opponents, because he's good enough."
Bellew admits that Haye hits incredibly hard. "Listen, he can wipe out any heavyweight in the world if he catches them clean. I'm telling you that now," Bellew says firmly. "He hits extremely hard, he's very fast for a heavyweight - he's not fast for a cruiserweight, but he's fast for a heavyweight - and he's an exceptional fighter, but he's let his ego run off now and he's built himself up to be this monster and this man who can defeat anyone, but the fact of the matter is, if you don't prepare, you will lose to lesser men than yourself.
"Preparation is everything and I take my preparation very seriously. He obviously didn't and as the weeks go by he will show his true colours and make excuses of how he underestimated me and how he done this and how he done that, but you know, I got the victory and that's all that matters. I went home to my three kids and met them the next day like I promised them I would."
Haye has been respectful of Bellew in his post-fight comments, describing the Liverpool man as having the heart of a lion, but Bellew remains unconvinced of his motives. "He's playing the nice card because I think he was very, very shocked at the reception [booing] he received."
As a reigning world cruiserweight champion and with such a high-profile heavyweight victory under his belt, Bellew now has a number of attractive options. He is very conscious of the proud history of WBC champions from Liverpool like John Conteh and Paul Hodkinson and one feels he won't give up that green belt easily.
"The stance with the WBC is I'm a very proud WBC champion and I'll sit down with the WBC and we'll address it," he says. "I'm going to wait to see the winner of [Mairis] Briedis vs [Marco] Huck which is happening in April [1st] and then we'll go from there. I'm the champ, so I've got nothing that I need to prove or do. I earned it the hard way. Ilunga Makabu was a fantastic fighter and was on a 20-fight win streak with 19 by knockout. Let's not forget that. He's a brilliant fighter and I'll address the WBC situation when the time is right."
With this victory, Bellew will, of course, be ranked at heavyweight and with the most prized title in boxing currently fractured, there will inevitably be offers for a heavyweight title challenge of some sort.
"To put into firm context here, there's three heavyweight champions of the world at the minute: Deontay Wilder [WBC], Joseph Parker [WBO] and our very own Anthony Joshua [IBF]. Not one of them boys has a win of the calibre of a David Haye on their record. So what does that make me?" he adds rhetorically. "I'm not calling any names but all I'm saying is none of those champions have got a win as good as David Haye. They have got some great wins, I'll be honest, for me I think Anthony Joshua is the best heavyweight in the world but I tell you something, mate, I'm stepping on all the other toes, that's what I'm doing. We'll see where it goes, we'll see where it leads, you know?"
One challenge he does rule out is the aforementioned matchroom stablemate Joshua. "I've got no intention of fighting an Anthony Joshua whatsoever - he's just too big - he's a guy who looks like my dad when I'm sitting next to him," Bellew laughs.
One man who Bellew will consult is Everton chairman Bill Kenwright. "I'm going to catch up with him next week," Bellew confirms. "The chairman and me have got a really good relationship. We speak regularly and he's always looked out for me from day one. He's someone who I trust and who I confide in and he's a person I'll be going to before any decision gets made on me and my future or whatever, he'll be one of the people who help me make that decision."
The way Bellew has turned his career around since that light-heavyweight reverse in Canada against Adonis Stevenson in 2013 is remarkable and he's now on a nine-fight winning streak. On the crest of this wave, the 'Bomber' can be permitted some hyperbole, and he points to one of his heroes as an example of how to win ugly. "If you watch the fight again - and I'm not comparing myself in any way to this man I'm going to say, and I don't think I'm on the same level as him - but I just find a way of winning all the time and it doesn't look great but I do it. Very similar to how Bernard Hopkins did it. Once again, I'll say I'm not comparing myself to him in any way, but I win and I get the job done. It might not look great, it might look a bit ugly but I get the job done mate and I done the job on Saturday."
It's ten years since Bellew's professional journey started by facing Jamie Ambler in the Nottingham Arena and one wonders how this movie-like career might end.
"Is that how long it is, ten years?" asks Bellew.
"Jesus Christ, I didn't even know. It'll take some time to sink in I suppose but you know what? I'm happy we got it done and where I am in my career and the life I'm giving my children. I'm really happy and pleased. That [the Haye fight] could be it. It could be over now. I'd be telling you lies if I said I knew. What I will say is I'm just going to enjoy it for now. If it goes according to this guy [Haye] we could be seeing Hayemaker 3.0 couldn't we?
"I'm telling you mate, I'm just waiting for John McClane to knock on the door now but he's got a big fuzzy head. I said this from day one. These people make these silly things up: 'Hayemaker 2.0 is better than Hayemaker 1.0' and I just said 'listen lad, you're not John McClane in Die Hard. I'm Tony Bellew, you're David Haye and we're going to have a fight and that's the end of it.'"
As a fellow Everton supporter, I've occasionally observed Tony and his sons cheering the team at games home and away. They're always dressed in the team's football shirt, the same as everyone else. There was a touching fifteen-minute pause during our interview as Tony passed by a school and happily posed for photographs, chatting with children who'd enjoyed his most unlikely victory.
One senses that however his unlikely and inspirational story ends, the boy from Rotunda ABC will remain bonded to what is really important in life.
"I don't know how my story ends," Bellew says in closing. "All I do know is I'm enjoying the moment, I'm enjoying being home with my family and spending time with them again and living life like a normal person. I was happy, just going for a meal last night, chilling out and relaxing with them just makes me realise that there's more to life than boxing. Boxing is great while I'm in it. It's nice to take part in all the things that are happening around it, but there's more to life than this and that will be a big thing that I take into consideration when I make my next move."