He’s as good as he’s ever been. He’s on the verge of making history. His body, he says, feels fantastic.
And yet, win or lose on Saturday in Manchester, England, 35-year-old Tony Bellew plans to walk away from boxing. He’ll fight undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk for the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO belts in a bout streamed to the U.S. by DAZN, then insists he’ll retire.
There can be no greater moment than to leave one’s sport at the absolute top, which Bellew will do with a victory. Usyk, 31, is one of only three undisputed cruiserweight champions in history, along with Evander Holyfield and O’Neill Bell, but he’s the only one to do so in the four-belt era.
Usyk, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, is one of the elite fighters in the world, and Bellew harbors no illusions about the task in front of him.
“This guy is a fantastic fighter,” Bellew said. “That’s what makes this a compelling fight, though. He’s not going in there against a guy who is at the end of the road. I’m not doing this because I need that one last paycheck. I’ve always strived to be the best and I’ve always pushed for more, chased the better fights. Now, I have the chance to go out by being the king. What could be better?
“Five years ago, I was chasing a financial dream, to be honest. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’ve learned so much about myself and this business. I’m a lot smarter and it has helped me so much. If the me of right now were to fight the me of five or 10 years ago, I’d destroy that guy and it wouldn’t be close. So when I’m at the top, it makes sense to fight the guy everyone else thinks is on top. I’ve come a long way.”
That journey to the top began with the second of his two losses in his career. On Nov. 30, 2013, in Quebec City, Canada, he was dominated by Adonis Stevenson in a WBC light heavyweight title fight and stopped in the sixth round.
He had great difficulty making the 175-pound light heavyweight limit, and has never fought at the weight again.
While the weight cut was extraordinarily difficult and sapped him of his strength, Bellew is bluntly honest: The weight cut was only one of many problems he faced. He wasn’t prepared for a fighter of Stevenson’s skill at that point.
“Definitely, it broke my heart, that loss, it really did,” Bellew said. “It made me evaluate everything I was doing. It caused me to break up with my coach. It opened my eyes to things I needed to do going forward to be successful. I just had to evaluate every aspect of what I was doing, because that was so tough on me. I was never a true light heavyweight, in all honesty. I’ve always been a small heavyweight, but I tried as best as I could for as long as I could to do it.
“I finally worked my way to be the No. 1 fighter and the mandatory challenger, and when the chance finally came, even though I knew how hard it was going to be, I couldn’t pass that opportunity. It was a nightmare for me and I couldn’t be fit for more than three or four rounds. I take nothing away from Adonis, because he’s the greatest fighter I’ve ever faced, but I wasn’t physically up to competing at that level on that night at that weight.”
He moved to cruiserweight and rebuilt himself on the fly. Not only was he consistently in better shape, he showed dimensions in his game that he hadn’t shown early. He could fight off either the front foot or the back. He could lead. He could counter. Bellew was punching accurately and crisply and he developed a great sense of timing and distance. Since losing to Stevenson, he’s gone 10-0 with eight knockouts and looks like he could go on fighting at a high-level for several more years.
He thought the rematch win over David Haye, a fifth-round stoppage at the O2 Arena in London, would be a wrap on his career. He was on his honeymoon in July and knew his wife, Rachel, didn’t want him to box any more.
At that time, Usyk was fighting the power-punching Murat Gassiev in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament for all four belts. Bellew couldn’t help himself.
He pulled out his phone and watched. And while he was impressed, he didn’t put the phone away believing Usyk was unbeatable. He felt that Usyk had shown vulnerabilities not only in his win in the final over Gassiev, but in his majority-decision win over Mairis Breidis in the semifinals.
“His fight with Breidis, one judge had it a draw and the other two scored it for him, 115-113,” Bellew said. “That means that if they had each scored one round for Breidis instead of Usyk, the fight would have been a draw. Usyk is fantastic and it starts with amazing footwork, I believe. But he’s not unbeatable. Without a shadow of a doubt, he’s got some weaknesses. He’s never faced anyone who could exploit those weaknesses the way I believe I can.
“I am a fighter who is not going to tire at any stage in this fight. I will be dangerous every moment of the fight. People have said I can’t hit like Gassiev, but I don’t need to punch as hard as Gassiev. I just need to land more punches than Gassiev was able to do. And I don’t need to be at that crazy pace Mairis Breidis was at for the first six rounds [against Usyk]. I just need to be slightly smarter than Breidis was. The thing is, over these last five years, I have reinvented myself and I’m confident I’ve never been better. I believe you will see that in this fight.”
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