On Sunday, May 29, Liverpool's Goodison Park, home of Everton F.C., will host a world cruiserweight title bout between hometown hero Tony Bellew and Junior Makabu, the vacant WBC belt on the line in the main event.
It's a big event for the city, with loads of local name fighters -- Callum Smith, Stephen Smith, Paul Smith, David Price, among others -- on the bill just to say they fought on the card, but the main attraction is definitely Bellew-Makabu.
Here's a look at that fight, my choice for Fight of the Weekend.
Tony Bellew vs Junior Makabu
Record: 26-2-1 (16 KO) ... Streak: W6 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 8-1-1 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6'3" / 74" ... Age: 33
Thoughts: This fight is being billed with Bellew as "Real Life Rocky," a reminder to everyone that he was in the acclaimed hit film Creed. This is the latest in a long history of pro fighters being compared to or promoted as a real life version of Rocky Balboa. It's never that good a comparison. Rocky was a club fighter who lucked into a world title fight and suddenly became good. He had, like, 21 losses or something before he ever fought Apollo Creed. When we first saw him, he was struggling through a shitty fight in a Philadelphia basement against Spider Rico, one where the referee stopped the fight because it was such garbage, a practice I wish would continue during some fights we have the misfortune of sitting through.
Bellew, on the other hand, has been a carefully managed and protected professional since his first fight in 2007. I'm not saying that to call him out or slam him or anything, or to say he's never taken a risk (he has taken some, and has taken tough fights for level in the past), it's just how boxing works. Prospects get taken care of, and other fighters don't. The path you're presented with in the sport is often determined before a fighter even turns professional. On occasion, we see someone break the mold they were cast in from the beginning -- Gabriel Rosado, for instance, springs to mind as a recent example. He never became a world champion or even a really top contender, but the way Rosado started with two losses to .500 fighters early in his career, then he started getting matched as an opponent by 2009, he wasn't supposed to rise to HBO and Showtime airwaves, certainly not for six straight fights as we've seen between 2013 and 2015. (Rosado, who is closer to a "real life Rocky" than Bellew can ever be, was in Creed.)
Win or lose on Sunday, Bellew's story is not "real life Rocky." A former British and Commonwealth champion at light heavyweight and European champion at cruiserweight, Bellew has had big opportunities before. In 2011, he faced Nathan Cleverly for the WBO 175-pound title, losing a majority decision. He drew in a fight with Isaac Chilemba in March 2013 in a WBC eliminator, then beat him two months later in a rematch. Six months after that, he was absolutely blown out of the ring in Quebec City by WBC champ Adonis Stevenson, who stopped Bellew in six rounds.
Since moving to cruiserweight, he has continued to look pretty much like he's always looked, just heavier. That's not a bad thing, really, because Bellew is a solid fighter. He beat Valery Brudov and Julio Cesar dos Santos in tune-up fights at the new weight, then won a split decision in a rematch with Cleverly, who fit the cruiserweight division worse than Bellew has, physically. Three more wins over Ivia Bacurin, the sub-.500 Arturs Kilikuaskis, and Mateusz Masternak followed, and now we're here, with Bellew fight for the vacant WBC cruiserweight title, most recently held by Grigory Drozd, who never lost it, he has been stripped, or he's "champion in recess" while dealing with injuries.)
The good news for Bellew is that he's getting this shot at Goodison Park, home of Everton F.C. in Liverpool, Bellew's hometown. That was the venue where "Pretty" Ricky Conlan faced Adonis Creed in the movie, so if anything this is "real life Ricky Conlan," and this is the first outdoor boxing event in the city since 1949. The bad news is that Makabu is a big puncher, a top contender, and frankly should perhaps be the slight favorite just on the boxing alone, which doesn't account for a million other things, but to be entirely clear, Bellew is not getting some puff opponent for a manufactured moment at the big stadium. If he's going to win this fight, he's going to have to earn it, and I would say it would be the best win of his career to date. Which is why this is a good fight.
Record: 19-1 (18 KO) ... Streak: W19 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 6'2" / 75" ... Age: 28
Thoughts: Makabu lost his pro debut on June 20, 2008, knocked out in 29 seconds by Khayeni Hlungwane, also debuting, in Hammanskraal, South Africa. Hlungwane fought into last July, will probably fight again, and has a current career record of 7-10 (4 KO). Five of his 17 pro fights have been against Deon Coetzee, a fellow South African club fighter.
Makabu, meanwhile, has gone on to become a world contender, stopping 18 of his last 19 opponents inside the distance, 10 of those inside the first three rounds. The only time he's gone all the way was, helpfully, in a 12-round fight in July 2013 against then-unbeaten Dmytro Kucher of Ukraine, when the two met in Monaco. Makabu won a majority decision, in what was really the fight that established him as a fighter that needed to be paid attention in the division.
Since beating Kucher, he's toppled Eric Fields (KO-5), Ruben Angel Mino (KO-2), Glen Johnson (TKO-9), and most recently, Thabiso Mchunu (KO-11), which came a year ago in a big fight in South Africa, a fight that Makabu was trailing on the judges scorecards at the time of the knockout (95-95, 95-96, and 94-97).
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire, if you get confused about African geography), Makabu has fought 15 of his fights in South Africa, where he lives, three in Monaco, once in Luxembourg, and once in Kinshasa in his native country, where he beat Glen Johnson in 2014. This will be his first trip to the United Kingdom, and will almost surely be the most hostile crowd he's ever fought in front of, and you never know exactly how any fighter will respond to a trip abroad like this one, even if it's not their first time fighting on the road. This is a truly big fight in a truly big venue for a truly big reward, a chance to become world champion, which may not mean a lot to you or me in these days of diluted paper titles, but means a ton to the fighters who eat, sleep, and breathe boxing in order to win those belts.
Makabu's win over Mchunu, who was and is also considered a legitimate contender, is the real difference in the cruiserweight résumés between he and Bellew. Bellew does have some decent wins, though he's also labored to victories over Cleverly and Masternak, his two best cruiserweight opponents, and he didn't end them definitively the way that Makabu did against Mchunu.
Matchup Grade: B. It will be a unique atmosphere at Goodison Park, and I'm a sucker for a big or at least different atmosphere, so that gives this fight a slight grading bump for me. Plus, it's well-matched, and Bellew, despite being at home and the A-side of the fight, is going to really have to earn this belt if he's going to become world champion for the first time. That or he could win a robbery. I mean, it is boxing. There's always that chance. And since it may be abnormally high in this instance, let's take a look at the judges in particular.
Officials: If you're curious, the referee is Victor Loughlin of the United Kingdom, and the judges are Jack Woodburn of Canada, David Sutherland of the United States (Oklahoma), and Jun Bae Lim of South Korea.
(Following stats according to BoxRec.com)
Woodburn has judged 24 world title fights: 12 in the United States, eight in Canada, two in Japan, and one each in Monaco and Bermuda. He has a habit of getting assigned to world title fights that come in somewhat unusual locations in the U.S., such as Oregon, Michigan, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Ohio. Two fights of his stick out to me. One was the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr vs Marco Antonio Rubio fight, which I had closer than most, and so did Woodburn, scoring it 115-113 for Chavez. The more important is the Carl Froch-Jermain Taylor fight. At the time of the 11th round knockout, Woodburn had Froch ahead, 106-102. He was the only judge to have Froch up, and it was a reverse of how the other judges had it, both scoring it 106-102 for Taylor, which is around what most folks had. That fight was considered an almost desperation rally for Froch to score the late stoppage, but Woodburn hadn't seen it that way.
Sutherland, from Oklahoma, has judged 15 world title fights: six in Japan, six in the United States, two in Mexico, and one in Germany (counting interim title fights). He's a veteran judge, but I have a healthy distrust of all boxing officials from Oklahoma and Texas.
Lim has judged 12 world title fights, 11 of them in Japan, and one in Thailand. In all of them, he had scorecards that lined up with the other judges.