The trouble with trying to imitate art is that while an artist can make great things happen with a swish of a brush or a tap of a keyboard, real life hurts.
In Creed, the most recent offering in the Rocky franchise, Tony Bellew was asked to portray a fantastical mash-up of Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, a Frankenstein’s fighter who would surely be impossible to beat.
In reality, Bellew feels like Frankenstein’s monster only in the sense that he’s coming apart, stitch by stitch and limb by limb, as his big day approaches.
“I’m not feeling good, my body’s killing me,” says Bellew, who fights Ilunga Makabu for the vacant WBC cruiserweight title at Goodison Park on Sunday.
“Boxers always come out with that cliche: ‘I’m in the best shape of my life.’ And I am in great shape. But I’ve had a really hard, testing camp, I’ve been getting punched and I’m in a lot of pain. I’ll have to make the best of what I’ve got. But when I get in that ring, I’ll be prepared to do whatever it takes to win.”
Makabu, from South Africa via the Democratic Republic of Congo, hasn’t lost since his first professional fight eight years ago and has 18 knockouts from 19 wins. But the Goodison factor will surely help Bellew.
After all, Bellew has already defended a world title at the home of Everton Football Club. That was Hollywood, but Bellew’s successful transition into film has given his real-life shot at the big time added tang and ensured Goodison will be rocking and rolling when that first bell rings. The Grand Old Lady often gets carried away. Bellew could do with her losing herself completely on Sunday.
“The other day I woke up at 3am and tried to doze off again but I couldn’t. All I could think about was the Z-Cars music kicking in and walking to that ring.
“I spent a lot of good times as a child in those stands and now I’m fighting in front of those stands. There’s not a moment I’m not thinking about it, emerging from that tunnel, the music blaring, 20,000 Scousers going nuts. I’ve got to come to terms with it before Sunday. I’m getting there, I’m getting there…”
Win or lose, it’s not a bad scenario for a fat kid from Liverpool who used to stuff pillows for a living, the kind of job Rocky might have done. Up at 6, a bus to the factory, nine hours graft, a bus to Rotunda ABC, pour it all out in the gym, meet his childhood sweetheart Rachael, a kebab and a video at mum’s.
Even after Bellew won three ABA titles, a British title in the paid ranks was the height of his ambition. Bellew landed the Commonwealth light-heavyweight title in 2010, before adding the Lonsdale Belt by beating Ovill McKenzie in 2011.
But when Bellew lost a world title shot against Nathan Cleverly, a man he can only bring himself to refer to as “the Welsh fella”, it appeared as though he had indeed reached his ceiling. When Bellew was taken apart by WBC champion Adonis Stevenson two years later, some thought he should call it quits.
Instead, Bellew made a virtue of those big bones of his – he often refers to himself, in oxymoronic terms, as “that skinny, fat kid” – and moved up to cruiserweight. He gained revenge over arch-rival Cleverly in a ragged, anti-climactic non-title fight 2014. And instead it was a phone call from the most unlikely of matchmakers that paved the way for a third world title shot.
When a representative of Sylvester Stallone told Bellew he was wanted for the latest Rocky film, Bellew thought it was a wind-up. Having just seen his beloved Toffees get tonked 6-3 by Chelsea, he wasn’t really in the mood. Only when director Ryan Coogler got on the blower did Bellew think: “Hang on…”
A few months later Bellew was sitting on a film set in Philadelphia watching Stallone recite poetry, thinking: “How have I found myself here?” As you would.
“I was on the verge of saying: ‘Alright, Rock?’ Instead I called him ‘Mr Stallone.’ He said to me: ‘Son, don’t call me Mr Stallone, call me Sly. We’re friends now, I know who you are and I think you’re brilliant at what you do. I said: ‘I just need to go to the toilet for a second.’ I was looking at myself in the mirror thinking: ‘Have a word, lad, you are making a holy show of yourself’.”
Sly did actually know who Bellew was. Stallone, a friend of Everton director Robert Earl, attended a game in 2007 and subsequently expressed an interest in buying the club. And, as it turned out, Bellew wasn’t only brilliant at what he did between the ropes, he was pretty good when the clapperboard came down.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to put a camera on me but I’ve had this amazing story and it keeps going on and on. And I never want it to end,” says Bellew, who now lives with girlfriend Rachael and their three children.
“Kids I speak to tell me I’m their hero. That’s nuts, I’m not really hero material. They’ve seen me in Creed and it’s hard to make them believe boxing’s not really like that. They don’t see me running at 6am, the misery of losing weight, the pain of sparring, the arguments, the stress of being away from the family.
“I tell these kids: ‘You’re better than me, you have more potential than I do.’ The only reason I’ve got where I have is because I’m horrible and determined. I haven’t got great skill, I’m just driven. I always want more, no matter what I do. Drive can take you to some crazy places and make you do some crazy things.”
Drive will make you believe that dreams are not enough. Life for Bellew could be about to get even crazier. Great things are even greater when they’re real.