JOHN WHARTON caught up with British boxing’s man of the moment Tony Bellew, fresh from his win over David Haye at London’s O2 Arena to discuss his passion for Everton FC.
Itâ€™s fair to say the last few years have been somewhat surreal for Tony Bellew. A little under three years ago, he was returning home from seeing his beloved Everton suffer a heavy defeat at the hands of Jose Mourinhoâ€™s Chelsea. On arriving home, the Toffees fan received a phone call that would change his life. A Hollywood producer had been given his number and was interested in casting him as the main villain, â€œPrettyâ€ Ricky Conlan, in the Rocky sequel/spinoff film, Creed.
The movie opened in early 2016 and the main fight saw Michael B. Jordanâ€™s Adonis Creed try to topple Conlan in a bout at Goodison Park, the home of Everton. Four months later, in a bizarre case of real life imitating reel life, Bellew was ready to challenge the heavy hitting and much avoided Ilunga â€˜Juniorâ€™ Makabu at Goodison Park.
The bout was a three-round slugfest. It was a nightmare start for the Scouserâ€™s dream night, as the â€˜Bomberâ€™ suffered a knockdown in the first round following a straight left that broke his nose and floored him. Two rounds later, however, a barrage of shots from Bellew stunned Makabu and a left hand concussed him; a shot that many have quipped was the best at Evertonâ€™s famous Gwladys Street End since Barry Horneâ€™s rasper against Wimbledon twenty-two years before. I interviewed Bellew after the fight and he told me his memories of the night were hazy. Surely the passage time must have made things clearer?
â€œDo you know what mate? Itâ€™s still a blur to be honest, but the past eighteen months have been like that. From the win, over [Polish cruiserweight contender] Mateusz Masternak to the release of Creed and then the win over Makabu, it feels like Iâ€™ve been watching it all from outside my own body. Itâ€™s mad but the last couple of years have just been amazing. Iâ€™ve worked hard for it and Iâ€™ve dedicated all my life to it; but I know Iâ€™m very lucky that it’s all fallen into place for me.â€
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It took a reminder from a Liverpool fan, of all things, to prod Bellewâ€™s memory of a prophecy that he made as a young amateur boxing for his club, The Rotunda.
â€œIt was big Pricey [Liverpool heavyweight, David Price] who reminded me that Iâ€™d once told him that Iâ€™d fight for a world title at Goodison. Even though no-one believed me, he knew that I believed it would happen. And yes, there were times where I wavered and thought that it might never happen, so when it did come around, I knew I would take the chance.â€
If Creed and that famous night at Goodison opened avenues that had been previously closed for Bellew, the night of Saturday March 4th really propelled him into the public eye. In the opposite corner was a fighter many boxing fans and experts believed had more than a puncherâ€™s chance of being the main man at heavyweight â€“ David Haye, or SpongeBob SquarePants as Bellew had mistakenly christened him. Getting his cartoon Bobâ€™s muddled up, Bellew had mistaken sea-dwelling SpongeBob for The Simpsonâ€™s very own scheming Sideshow Bob.
Most fight observers believed Bellew had Bob Hope and no hope of defeating the Londoner but, at a packed O2 Arena, the Scouser did just that, as he bludgeoned Haye into submission.
Since that night, Bellewâ€™s profile has sky-rocketed and appearances on Soccer AM and ITVâ€™s new nightly chat show saw the Wavertree man exposed to a wider viewing audience.
â€œIf Iâ€™m being honest, Iâ€™m happy and Iâ€™m safe. Even though, at times, itâ€™s hard work, life is good at the minute.â€ I mention that it has been four weeks since the bout and Bellew quips, â€œThree and a half mate! Don’t kill my buzz!! Itâ€™s been crazy and some people seem to think Iâ€™ve only been boxing since that night. Iâ€™ve been boxing all my life and anyone who knows me knows Iâ€™m not into all that celebrity shit. Iâ€™m just a normal lad who fights for a living.â€
Whilst the man himself isnâ€™t overly excited with the increase in profile, thereâ€™s no doubt Everton have benefitted from the World Championâ€™s increased public image. Bellew wears the clubâ€™s famous tower logo on his trunks and enters the ring to their iconic anthem, Z-Cars. Both club and fighter have become closely linked over the past few years and the Scouser is keen to emphasise how fortunate heâ€™s been to be helped by his idols.
â€œThe relationship came about thanks to David Moyes and [former Everton fitness coach] Dave Billows, who allowed me to train at the club and it grew from there. I got close to a few of the lads and then Bill Kenwright looked into helping me. The chairman has always looked out for me and always helped me, so I class myself as a very lucky lad.â€
Despite having a high profile himself, Bellew admits he has, at times, been a little star struck in getting to know and being around those he would class as idols. Friendships with the players and being able to use the top-class facilities on offer at Evertonâ€™s USM Finch Farm training complex are just two of the things the Cruiserweight king believes separate the Toffees from the rest.
â€œTo be around the club is such a boost and, as I said, Iâ€™m such a lucky man. If I’d been a Liverpool fan, I would never have had this opportunity. I’m not slagging them off but they’re not like us. I know it’s become a clichÃ© but Everton really are the people’s club. Hand on my heart, I really believe that.â€
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The last week has seen the news that Everton fans have been looking forward to hearing for many a month now. On Thursday 23rd March, it was announced the club had agreed a deal to buy Bramley-Moore Dock from Peel Holdings. For Bellew, like many other Evertonians, the news was exciting but tempered somewhat by the realisation the club must leave their home of 125 years.
â€œWhen we do leave Goodison, I’ll be a little bit heartbroken. Itâ€™ll be like a family member whoâ€™s sick. You know at some point the inevitable is going to happen but you also know they’re going to a better place.â€
The one concern for many Everton fans is that the new stadium doesnâ€™t kill the atmosphere Goodison Park is renowned for. Many Evertonians level the accusation at their neighbours Liverpool, that their fan base has become diluted by the tourist fans who spend their money at the club shop but could be blamed for a marked decrease in atmosphere at Anfield.
â€œThe ground move is certainly going to open up the club to a new and hopefully larger fan base, and hopefully it will be for the benefit of Everton. It certainly wonâ€™t be to the club’s detriment. Can we recreate the atmosphere? Will it be as good as Goodison? Thatâ€™s for the future. Iâ€™m not going to lie and say itâ€™s going to be better. Iâ€™d be a fool to say such a thing.â€
After our interview, Bellew spoke at an Everton Football Club fan event at The Camp and Furnace, in Liverpoolâ€™s trendy Baltic Triangle area. One of the comments he made is that he is a fan first and foremost and that he finds it bizarre that he is now a good friend of Everton chairman, Bill Kenwright. The theatre impresario is a figure that has sometimes split the opinions of the Goodison faithful but the Wavertree man is a staunch defender of the chairman.
â€œWeâ€™re very lucky to have Bill Kenwright. Heâ€™s a chairman that has always put the needs of the club first and heâ€™s the most important person at the club in my opinion. He gets a lot of criticism at times and the level of it confuses me. He doesnâ€™t deserve it. I understand that people get angry but believe me when I say, there is no bigger Evertonian than Bill Kenwright. Thereâ€™s not a person who loves Everton more than him. I love the club and I mean, I really do love the club, but I couldn’t do his job. I couldnâ€™t put up with the stress that heâ€™s had to endure. He loves Everton so much that he wouldnâ€™t sell the club to the wrong person. It could have been sold ten times over but it could also have been sunk ten times too.
â€œHeâ€™s waited for the right person and the right opportunity, with the perfect plan. That has allowed him to stay at the club and offer that guiding hand so that others can work in the background, doing the amazing things they’ve got planned. Itâ€™s allowed him to ensure that Everton still operate with the same community focus. Weâ€™ve got the best of both worlds; a billionaire backer and a man who has the heart and soul of the club. To me, thatâ€™s a massive thing and, to me, it seems a lot of the stick he was getting was because he wasnâ€™t a multi billionaire.â€
Bellew went to his first game in the early 90â€™s and, like most youngsterâ€™s first foray into the world of football, his memories of the day are a little hazy. The 1990â€™s are a dark chapter in Evertonâ€™s history; mid-table mediocrity and two dicey clashes with relegation were counterbalanced only by a solitary FA Cup win in 1995. Bellew admits it wasnâ€™t exactly the easiest time to be a Blue, especially for someone who has Liverpool fans in his immediate family.
â€œIt certainly wasn’t easy supporting Everton then and, in fact, my dad is a Kopite but I was always a rebel so I went with my older brother, who thankfully is a big blue. That was it for me, I was hooked.
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â€œI canâ€™t quite remember who my first game was against. Iâ€™m not sure who scored the winner but Iâ€™m certain it was either Peter Beardsley or Mo Johnston, although Christ knows how Iâ€™ve managed to mix them two up. I remember being on the pitch after both the Wimbledon game [Everton beat the Dons 3-2 in May 1994 to secure their top-flight status] and Coventry [in 1998 Everton needed to better Boltonâ€™s result on the final day of the season]. I was elated after the Wimbledon game but the Coventry game was a different level of tension. I cried on the pitch that day. Itâ€™s funny when I look back on it. Iâ€™ve been on the pitch tonnes of times at Goodison but the first two occasions were somewhat illegitimate!â€
Seeing as I was talking to a World Boxing Champion, I couldnâ€™t let the opportunity pass without asking the question that many people would like to know. Just who at Everton would make a good boxer?
â€œTony Hibbert could have been a good boxer and he could have a go but, sadly, heâ€™s no longer at the club. Iâ€™d have to say Seamus Coleman. Heâ€™s just so determined and I know that heâ€™ll come back as good as ever from that horrific injury because of his strength of character and how driven he is. The things that would make him a good boxer are also the characteristics that will help his rehab.
â€œIâ€™d like to say Rom but Iâ€™m not sure heâ€™d like being hit in the face, heâ€™s too vain for that! If I could spend a few months with him, I reckon heâ€™d be a force to be reckoned with and heâ€™d be ready to wipe out 90% of the amateur scene. Heâ€™s an absolute monster but heâ€™s also a really nice lad.â€
One of the questions Bellew has answered repeatedly over the past three and a half weeks is about his next step and, whilst the man himself is still undecided, one thing heâ€™s looking forward to in the future is a little more anonymity and a lower profile. With that lower profile, the Scouser knows one thing that heâ€™d love to do.
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â€œIâ€™ve got so many Goodison memories. I remember my old season ticket seat in the Lower Gwladys Street, Row KK 178, just to the left of the top corner of the goal. Iâ€™d love to go back there but I think if I went there now, Iâ€™d miss most of the game. One day, when all this fame thing has gone, Iâ€™ll go back and sit there again before we leave Goodison.â€
Itâ€™s been a crazy couple of years for the â€˜Bomberâ€™ but with things at Goodison starting to look up, the next few years may also be happy ones for Tony Bellew the Evertonian.