“When I watch myself on tape, I think he’s s***! I look easy to hit, slow. I don’t look a big puncher. But I know I can beat him. He will not expect what I’m going to do. I want to tell you, but I can’t.”
Tony Bellew with typical radical candour fused with confidence. For me, the punchline of an absorbing conversation the week before he challenges Oleksandr Uysk in Manchester for all the Cruiserweight belts.
His physical appearance, Bellew’s often observed, has been one of his most potent weapons - he says he looks like a “fat boy,” and that inevitably lulls his opponents into a false sense of security. The subterfuge slips only when the first bell dings and the opponent finds himself in water way deeper than expected.
David Haye was a strong favourite twice and wound up ending his career with back-to-back losses to Bellew. But the bookmakers have been unconvinced of the Liverpudlian’s ability to write another underdog story. The undefeated Ukrainian was 7/1 ON in most quarters at the time of writing.
And, as Bellew told me, Usyk has more persuasive reasons to underestimate him - they’ve sparred, albeit a long time ago; “And if you’ve seen that sparring you’d have probably thought he’d beaten me up,” he told me with no hint of apprehension or self-doubt in his voice.
Maybe that’s because Bellew says he gets beaten up “constantly” in sparring. He doesn’t like camps, finds it hard to get motivated. This one has gone well though - not that he has any intention of banging on about ‘the usual best camp ever stuff.”
But he said 11 days out he weighed four pounds off the Cruiserweight limit and even had the hint of a six-pack. He was leaner than ever before and had unprecedented muscle mass. Not bad for a 35-year-old man who’s been trading up at heavyweight for the past couple of years.
Would the appearance subterfuge tactic be ruined though? No, he assured me, Usyk would look much better on the scales!
Still a good camp for Bellew has again involved being beaten up a bit, but his mood is growing as fight night looms; “The fight is my favourite part.”
Not that he expected to be here. He thought he was done; “I only fought David (Haye) again because I gave him my word. But when Usyk called me out, I spoke to Eddie and said I’d do it if all the belts were on the line. I’ve been studying this game since I was 10 years old. This was my dream (to be undisputed). There’s nothing else for me to do after this.”
This is no fanciful lottery ticket of a challenge though. Bellew wouldn’t share the technical tactic he feels will unravel Usyk. But he freely talks about his most powerful tool; “I just believe in myself.”
Psychology is at the heart of Bellew’s success. Especially since Adonis Stevenson ended his long and often torturous toil at light-heavyweight nearly five years ago. Superman stopped Bellew in the 7th round in Quebec - the only man to stop him - and so brought the curtain down on his campaign at 12 1/2 stone.
The move up to Cruiserweight wasn’t really a choice at that point. “(Former Everton footballer) Leon Osman trained with me today and was saying that when he’d see me at Finch Farm (Everton’s training ground) before light-heavy fights, I looked like I was going to pass out!”
Anyone who’s met Tony - and he towers over most of us - might wonder why he opted to pursue light heavy glory for the first six and a half years of his professional career. Especially as since he’s moved up he’s won a world title at Cruiserweight and done the double over a former Heavyweight world champion.
So, any regrets for the light-heavy campaign? No, because he says had he started at Cruiserweight he may not still be going today - “too many wars,” Bellew suggested. “It’s all been part of the story.”
But what a story over the past four and a half years since moving up — one that included avenging his light-heavy world-title loss to Wales’ Nathan Cleverly at Cruiser and winning the WBC belt at his beloved Goodison Park.
Surely Usyk’s too good though? He’ll ruin the fairytale? His bedazzling beating of Murat Gassiev last time out won him ‘all the marbles’ at Cruiserweight and the admiration of the boxing world.
“Amazing fighter. Nothing bad to say about the lad. Of course he’s looking past me. Fair play to him, he’s got big plans. He should have big plans,” Bellew said, referring to Usyk’s ambition of continuing on to heavyweight and challenging Anthony Joshua.
As we talked, he swung between praising Usyk and reaffirming his belief he would beat the Ukrainian. A contradiction? Well, not when you explore Bellew’s viewpoint.
Bellew and his trainer Dave Coldwell have studied Usyk and believe there’s a pattern; big performances against opponents he respected and feared - far less convincing showings against those who he was expected to beat.
“He was great against an unbeaten, big-hitting Russian like Gasiev. But had problems against Mairis Breidis, a lesser name from Latvia," Bellew said. For him, those problems didn’t stem from technical issues, but motivation.
“That’s why I put Vasiliy Lomachenko (three-weight world champion and Usyk’s fellow Ukrainian) above him. Because he prepares the same for every fight, doesn’t underestimate anyone - he’s the same every time, Usyk isn’t.”
Surely at this stage though opponents wouldn’t underestimate Bellew? “They can’t help it. They look at me and somewhere inside they relax and think they’ll win easily.”
The problem for Usyk is one of vision, the Bomber explained. “You can’t see heart and determination and you can’t see belief. If you could, maybe people wouldn’t underestimate me.”
So, what happens, win, lose or draw at the final bell? His family has wanted him to quit for some time. Bellew concedes that the financial pressure is off after the PPV tussles with Haye, although he says money doesn’t solve all problems - an allusion, I think, to the loss of his brother-in-law, Ashley Roberts.
I tend to believe him though when he says this is the last dance.
“I’m in a happy place. I have a beautiful family. I will retire from boxing. Boxing will not retire me,” he assured me as our conversation drew towards a natural conclusion.
When you consider the career, amateur and professional, when you listen to the man, could Oleksandr Usyk really come in nonchalant and complacent? Bellew was convinced.
“He will underestimate me.”
At 7/1 ON for Usyk, the bookmakers may be underestimating Bellew. Are we?
For a man who sucks the ammunition from the critics by regularly declaring he looks “s***”, you sense he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He says he has self-belief. And it’s hard not to believe that.