The inside of Tony Bellew’s head must have been a wild place on Monday morning. What’s real? What’s fantasy? Did that actually happen?
Certainly did. Ask any one of 17,000 fellow Everton fans who screamed you to victory. Or ask Ilunga Makabu, the poor bloke whose head you almost took off. Come to think of it, maybe not.
“I honestly never even dreamed it was possible, the movies was the closest I thought I’d get,” said Bellew, after knocking out Makabu in three rounds at his beloved Goodison Park to win the vacant WBC cruiserweight title, a year after ‘fighting’ for a world title at the same ground in the latest Rocky film.
“I usually dream of flattening people, but even in my dreams I couldn’t figure out a way to beat this fella. But I’ve done it, won a world title against all the odds in front of the Gwladys Street Stand at Everton, where I had my season ticket – row KK. It’s no longer about dreams, although it still seems like one.
“I don’t drink much and since I bought the new house I haven’t spent five minutes in the garden. But I’m going to wake up in that garden tomorrow with an empty bottle of champagne, on the trampoline I built for the kids.”
Champagne and trampolines would have been a long way from Bellew’s thoughts as he was sat on his backside in the opening round, having been caught with a doozy of a Makabu left hand. Nose broken, crowd hushed, all a bit embarrassing. That old seat in row KK was far more comfortable.
But, by his own admission, Bellew is a horrible man between the ropes. And to extricate yourself from that kind of predicament, you have to be. People don’t like hearing boxers talk about their willingness to die in a ring. But there’s no point sanitising things, because that’s what winners in boxing are willing to do.
“I scare myself sometimes because of how far I’m willing to go,” said the 33-year-old, who had lost two previous world title challenges at light-heavyweight and whose training for the Makabu fight was hampered by a detached rib.
“I’ve given everything to boxing, my whole life. It’s not a sport to me, that was my life on the line. There was no way I was losing at Goodison Park. If I’d lost, I wouldn’t have been able to show my face here again. So when I went down, all I was thinking was: ‘When I get up, I’m going to take your head off’.”
As Bellew spoke with matter-of-factness about a fighter’s prerogative, one of his two boys was perched beside him. Bellew said the sight of his son in the dressing room beforehand reduced him to tears. His trainer Dave Coldwell wanted to send him home. But while prize fighting may not be deemed a place for small boys, knowing his son was watching was another good reason to climb off the boards.
Starring in the latest Rocky film alongside Sylvester Stallone was all well and nice, but it didn’t make Bellew a millionaire. In fact, when he received the call from the film’s director, Bellew was wandering off into the boxing wilderness.
In 2013, he was taken apart by Canada’s WBC light-heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson. The following year, he won an uninspiring rematch against Welshman Nathan Cleverly, who had beaten him in a world title fight in 2011.
Bellew, to quote promoter Eddie Hearn, had earned a reputation as a “Scouser with a big mouth who says he’s going to do things”. Too often, he didn’t. Luckily for Bellew, Hearn had earned a reputation as a man who says he’s going to do things and does.
Hearn, who now has seven world champions on his books out of 13 in Britain, called Sunday his “best night in boxing”. And he’s already had a fair few. But things wouldn’t have looked great from his ringside seat during that first round.
Hearn somehow managed to put the fight on in three and a half weeks, thus delivering what he described as a “perfect union between fans, football club, fighter and city”. Ricky Hatton might have something to say about that, but Coldwell was onto something when he called Hearn a “boxers’ dream-maker”.
Not all of Hearn’s gambles come off but many do. And before anyone complains about the quality of Bellew’s opposition at Goodison, they should be reminded that Makabu came with a record of 18 knockouts in 19 wins, was ranked fifth by Ring magazine and was the favourite with British bookmakers.
“It had everything, it was one of the most dramatic nights in British boxing,” said Hearn, who was wiping away tears in the ring after the fight.
“It was like a movie but you can’t make stuff like that up. It wasn’t just a bloke fighting for his career, it was a bloke fighting for his people, for his football club. The pressure was unbelievable.
“But now he’s a Scouser with a big mouth who’s world champion. He’s number one in the division and might be the biggest character in British boxing. And he’s going to make a lot of money.”
Standing at the back of the press room was Bellew’s girlfriend Rachael, who was quick to pounce on Hearn’s promise: “Great, I can get my new staircase done now!”
Green belt draped over his shoulder, looking forward to some strenuous trampolining and doing his best to ignore the pecks of his partner, Bellew called out former cruiserweight world champion David Haye. Wishful thinking.
Haye has been campaigning at heavyweight since 2008, weighed 224lb in his last fight (24lb above the cruiserweight limit) and is targeting a match with Anthony Joshua, which would make him a fortune.
Russia’s WBA and IBF cruiserweight champion Denis Lebedev is a rather more realistic target, as is Poland’s WBO champion Krzysztof Glowacki.
“No silly defences, no wasting anyone’s time, I’m the best cruiserweight in the world and I want to unify the division,” said Bellew.
Not many people manage to surpass in real life what they’ve done in a movie. Not bad for a self-proclaimed fat kid from Liverpool. That poor trampoline.