Seldom has a fighter split opinion so vigorously in British boxing. Brash vs. honest. Arrogant vs. confident. Lucky vs. talented; fans and haters from each side of the fence spin the narrative of Tony Bellew’s career to fit their own beliefs.
Saturday night will expose the truth behind at least one of these contentious points surroundings the journey of Bellew as a professional boxer: how good is he really?
Making the step down to cruiserweight - in conjunction with a step up to Oleksandr Usyk - Bellew is about to embark on a legacy-defining fight at the 200lbs limit. The WBC, WBA, WBO, IBF and Ring Magazine titles are all on the line this Saturday night, as ‘The Bomber’ looks to cement his name in the archives of British boxing. Never before has Britain hosted a four-belt unification bout; never before have the stakes been higher inside the Manchester Arena.
A proud Evertonian from the city of Liverpool, Bellew’s no-nonsense personality has often defined him. Self-derogation in the run-up to fights, mixed with a hint of modesty, Bellew has always marketed himself as the “ordinary guy”. Reluctance to self-indulge in the hyperbole surrounding his achievements, ‘The Bomber’ has often played the Jekyll to the Hyde of his opponent - most recently in his successful attempts at getting under the skin of the twice defeated David Haye.
Claiming to be “just a fat scouser” in the run-up to these domestic back-to-back fights against the ‘Hayemaker’ allowed this perception of himself to be accepted in the boxing community; his lack of definition on the scales lends to his position as the underdog for most casual viewers.
This has all been choreographed from Bellew. A proud working-class hero, a proud father to his three kids and a proud fighter, have encouraged fans to stick by him through thick and thin, despite any shortcomings in the ring.
These shortcomings have been few and far between. A loss to Nathan Cleverly in their first of two bouts was the original dent in the Bellew armour, and what followed was a tough period in the career of the now 35-year-old. An underwhelming 24 rounds against Issac Chilemba (one being ruled a draw) set up a world title fight against the hard-hitting Adonis Stevenson.
Stevenson iced Bellew in Quebec, with the away fighter looking a skeleton of himself somehow making the 175lbs limit, however, this was to be the last blotch on the Bellew copybook.
Good wins against Nathan Cleverly (in a terrible pay-per-view headliner), Mateusz Masternak, and his infamous night at Goodison Park against Ilunga Makabu followed, before his most recent spat with David Haye.
On paper, his record is decent. Not world-class, but worthy of praise. His doubters, however, will look at his title scoops. Winning the Commonwealth, British, International Silver, WBC Silver, WBO International, European and WBC world title all in vacant bouts, the omission of a king-toppling win is obvious - in walks Oleksandr Usyk.
Questions were also asked of Bellew’s reluctance to join the World Boxing Super Series tournament. An eight-man tournament designed to sniff out the best in the division was won by convincingly by Usyk, with Bellew being tied up with the Haye fight in the process. Risk vs. reward would have kept him away from the WBSS, with a life-changing amount of money being made from his Haye sequel.
So can Bellew become undisputed on Saturday night? Probably not, but as has been said many times before, if you are going to back against anyone in boxing, don’t back against Bellew.
Usyk is superior in almost all departments. Speed, agility, footwork, ring intelligence, combination punches and working the angles. He’s a road warrior, going to Russia, Latvia, Germany, Poland and the US to beat up their hometown heroes. Bellew, arguably, has power on his side. His left hook is his big hope of de-throning Usyk in Manchester. With the Ukrainian fighting out of the southpaw stance, he’ll do well to find it clean.
Bellew has been written off plenty of times in his career but has always come fighting back. His heart is unquestionable, but against a fighter of Usyk’s pedigree, the question is whether it will be enough.
Like him or loathe him - as Brits especially - you’ll watch him. It’s been a fun few years following the career of Tony Bellew, with Saturday’s last ride his chance at history. Make no mistake: a win against Oleksandr Usyk inside the Manchester Arena would go down as one of the biggest wins in British boxing history.