June 15, 2013

KO Digest Spotlight on Boxing's Up and Comers - Tony Bellew

Up and Comer Bomber
By Terry Strawson - Tony Bellew was born on November 30, 1980 in Liverpool, England. He is a former British and Commonwealth champion and his impressive victory over contender Isaac Chilemba last month cemented him as the mandatory challenger to the WBC light heavyweight title now held by Adonis Stevenson. His flight to the upper reaches of the light heavyweight division was not without moments of turbulence but his attitude and persistence have expedited the upgrade to first class. His journey in boxing began as a teenager at the Rotunda ABC under the keen eyes of Jimmy Albertina and Mick McAllister. The pair formed a solid foundation of fundamentals and support for Bellew to build upon, and the building is still under construction. Sadly, Albertina passed away in 2003 but his impact on the young Bellew was profound and, aided by McAllister, appears everlasting.

"My relationship with Jimmy was great. He was someone who really changed my outlook on boxing. I used to be a bit of a know-it-all and Jimmy really opened my eyes and made me realize how hard it was and what it entailed to get to the top. He changed me in every possible way, he made me realize the seriousness of boxing and how dedicated you have to be. If I never met Jimmy I wouldn't be where I am today," said Bellew. "Mick was there too, from day one at Rotunda with Jimmy. He was Jimmy's right-hand man, someone who he confided in. I call Mick the Gaffer. He picked up everything off Jimmy and being with the Gaffer now is just like being with Jimmy. He's got a big brain, a great eye for the game and I'm just lucky to have him in my corner." Bellew's spell as an amateur saw him register 40 victories with only 7 defeats and while there is nothing terribly jaw-dropping about that, he did stop a whopping 32 of his opponents en route to three ABA titles, and he did it campaigning as a heavyweight.

His achievements in the unpaid ranks far exceeded his own expectations, according to Bellew, and his love for the Rotunda and McAllister was showcased, oddly enough, by his departure from the gym. "I moved to Anthony Farnell when I very first turned pro. McAllister was the amateur coach at Rotunda and amateurs and pros couldn't mix, they were not allowed to work with each other. So, I just wasn't willing to jeopardize Rotunda's head coach by asking him to turn pro with me because it would have been detrimental to the gym, and the kids."  

Bellew at home in the gym
There is an honesty about Bellew, in the ring and out. His application and commitment to the sport are beyond question and his exploits thus far can be credited to his unwavering self-belief. His jab is more than useful and his right hand has fight changing qualities. Operating primarily on the front foot, Bellew, known as "Bomber" by his growing legion of fans, has knocked out over half of his opponents. He is a self-proclaimed "gym rat" and a firm believer in hard work and dedication. His first professional fight, which came under a promotional contract with Frank Warren, ended in explosive fashion. "My professional debut? It was great. It was like a gimme fight against a guy named Jamie Ambler. A notorious, surviving journeyman and I just went in and hammered him in two rounds. I battered and bullied him and it was a nice introduction to the professional game, it really was."

Having rattled through numerous journeyman and other unfortunate foes, Bellew went undefeated through sixteen fights as a professional. Relying heavily on his right hand to dispatch of those in front of him, Bellew appeared to neglect the fundamentals at times and it almost proved costly. During two of those victories, against Bob Ajisafe and Ovill McKenzie, he had to come off the canvas in order to get the win. "Of the knockdowns I've had, I'd say only two were legitimate and they were in the McKenzie fight. If you watch the one against Ajisafe, it was a balance thing, I was caught square-on and it was more like a push. The first Mckenzie knockdown was as good as it looked, he hit me on the top of the head and I tried to step away and went down. The second one, I was flat on my face, and I don't remember much about it. It was a huge shot off a big puncher, that's what McKenzie is."

Bellew survived two knockdowns to stop McKenzie
In what was considered a 2010 Fight of the Year candidate on British soil, Bellew was on his back twice before rising to drop, and ultimately stop, Mckenzie in the eighth of a scheduled twelve. The much anticipated rematch between the pair was slated soon after and, with the British and Commonwealth light heavyweight titles on the line, Bellew left no doubt on the scorecards, winning by wide margins. "When I came out for the Mckenzie rematch, which was my first fight back with the Gaffer, my defense was improved and it's the little things that make a big difference in this game. I'm fighting to my strengths again but I'm happy I've been knocked down. It's another string in my bow, I'm happy that I proved I can recover from a knockdown. If someone is gonna beat me they better literally nail me to the canvas."

The sole defeat on Bellew's record came at the hands of rival Nathan Cleverly in October of 2011. His challenge for the WBO light heavyweight title in just his seventeenth fight as a professional surprised many and it was a terrific performance at a fairly premature stage in his career. In a fight that one judge scored even, Cleverly appeared to have a little more in the tank during the championship rounds but opinion was divided at the Echo Arena in Liverpool. "To be honest with you, there was no real pressure on me that night. I think everybody thought I was going to get blown away and that I wasn't on his level. I was just a British champion who was getting knocked down at the domestic level. No one expected me to do anything and I went in there and beat him, in my opinion. Some people think I lost, some people think I won, but nothing was expected of me."

Cleverly getting under Bellew's skin
Bellew, now 21-1-1 with 12 KO's, had been a late replacement to face Nathan Cleverly earlier in 2011 but failed to meet the contracted check-weight a few days prior to the fight. Having replaced former WBO champion Jurgen Brahmer, Bellew was himself replaced at the eleventh hour by Aleksy Kuziemski. The press conferences before both scheduled fights threatened to explode and the bad blood is evident still. "I just despise Cleverly," said Bellew. "I've never disliked my opponents [in the past] but he's just someone I can't even stand the sight of. His face, his name, I just despise him and out of eighty-odd fights in my career, he is the only person to get under my skin. I can't even bear to hear the wanker's name to be honest."

Bellew's career has gained momentum since the loss and his 2012 stoppage of Edison Miranda (35-7) demonstrated everything that is positive about him. He boxed and then battered the seasoned Colombian into an 8th round submission, making a statement along the way. In his next fight, against the highly rated Roberto Bolonti (30-1), Bellew suffered a terrible cut above his right eye in the opening round, yet went on to dominate the fight, dropping the Argentine twice early on and working his way to a shutout on all cards.

The win led Bellew to a final eliminator, ordered by the WBC, against once-beaten Isaac Chilemba which brought invaluable experience. "I learned a massive amount about the way to approach a fight and I learned to not get caught up in things. You have to separate yourself from things and I learned that in the first fight. I done too much in the build-up and I was exhausted in the end. I don't remember anything after the seventh round. I'm lucky to have not been knocked out." Despite the exhaustion gripping him late in the fight, Bellew managed to escape with a draw but could have come away with the win. According to Bellew, Buddy McGirt, the head-trainer of Chilemba, went on record to say Bellew had done enough to win. However, neither fighter complained too much after what was a competitive, yet messy affair that ultimately led to a rematch just two months later. "I'm happy it came through. Nobody knows that I didn't have to take the rematch if I didn't want to. I would have been named mandatory WBC challenger at the end of May anyway."

Bellew bombs Chilemba to win the rematch
The second fight, which was the chief support to Carl Froch and Mikkel Kessler's rematch, started out at a healthy pace. Bellew pressed the action in the first round and although the work wasn't always the cleanest, he certainly found the target with the right hand. Chilemba, a crafty counter-puncher from Malawi, is hard to excel against. Besides being extremely tough and unorthodox, Chilemba (20-2-2) is also a quality fighter with a solid reputation and record. The two were producing another good fight, with some decent exchanges, but Bellew appeared the more creative.

"Nobody else has really beaten Chilemba," noted Bellew. "He lost a six round decision early on in his career and avenged it straight away and he's been unbeaten ever since." (And that includes a victory over highly touted Maxim Vlasov and a draw with hot-shot Thomas Oosthuizen.) "He's a guy that no one wants to fight and I've been in with him twice in ten weeks. He couldn't keep up with me."

With the final bell at the O2 Arena in London came a deserved victory for Bellew and an opportunity to contest for the WBC light heavyweight title. In Montreal last weekend, Adonis Stevenson became the new WBC champion when he knocked out Chad Dawson in just 76 seconds. The crushing left cross that dropped the former RING and WBC champion paved the way for a showdown with Bellew later in the year. "You've got be able to adapt, and that's one of my strong points. I can deal with any style that is put in front of me and that is what I plan on doing. Stevenson has that equalizer in his left hand and he is very powerful but he is also vulnerable himself. As we saw, he got knocked out by Darnell Boone who is essentially a journeyman, a high-class one, but a journeyman. Stevenson is a double-edged sword. He's either getting knocked out or he's gonna knock you out. Its as simple as that," said a candid Bellew.  

Now on course for his second world title challenge in just over twenty fights, Bellew will be more than ready should the Stevenson fight materialize. It may have seemed inconceivable six months ago that a fight between Stevenson and Bellew could headline an HBO card but it might not be such crazy talk now. Everybody loves a knockout and the pair have thirty between them. Bellew, now under the promotion of Eddie Hearn, is also in favor with Sky Sports and is capable of selling out in Liverpool. Stevenson, an adopted Canadian, has been a draw in Montreal for some time now. The fight makes sense any way you slice it - on HBO or not.

Will Bellew go on to become a world champion? Can he beat the power-punching Adonis Stevenson? He is not short of doubters and critics who will tell you he cannot. They have been a constant source of inspiration throughout his career but he is gradually thinning out the naysayers. His strengths as a fighter outweigh his weaknesses and you can do worse in this sport than to possess a tireless work ethic and a never-say-die type of attitude. Fellow Briton Carl Froch has surpassed the expectations of many at the world class level and a similar minded Bellew can do the same.
His goal is simple. "I just want to be a world champion."  

Written by Terry Strawson ~ exclusively for KO Digest

Look for a new KO Digest Spotlight on Up & Comers on the 15th of every month!