By John J. Raspanti
Not many fighters improve with age. It goes against the law of physics. Aging, along with wear and tear, corrodes the reflexes although an argument could be made that the great Archie Moore was better at 35 then 25. Same goes for former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott. Bernard Hopkins also comes to mind.
But there’s more to it than just a mere number. All three of the Hall of Famers, tweaked their games-either knowingly or unknowingly-and were exceedingly talented.
Moore, “The Old Mongoose,” knew every trick in the book. Walcott found a new manager and more confidence late in his career. And Hopkins went from a student of boxing to a professor.
Then there’s Tony Bellew. Nobody has ever confused the Liverpool native with greatness. Good for sure. Amateur record of 40-7, with 32 knockouts. Turned pro at 24. Captured the Commonwealth light heavyweight title in his 13th fight. Three fights later, he added the British Boxing Board of Control light heavyweight belt. Lost to Nathan Cleverly by majority decision in his first bid for world title.
Was stopped by Adonis Stevenson in his second attempt within two years. Many, including the always honest Bellew, wondered if he’d retire. He didn’t-instead moving up to the cruiserweight division.
All of this went down four years ago, and Tony Bellew hasn’t lost since.
In 2016, in front of his hometown fans in Liverpool, Bellew stopped Ilunga Makabu to finally win a world championship. He starched B.J. Flores five months later. Then he went on what many considered a suicide mission. He called out former two-time titleholder David Haye.
“You see him?” Bellew hollered at Haye who was working the Flores fight as a ringside commentator. “He’s been conning the British public since that pathetic comeback of his."
Haye had scored two knockouts while barely breaking a sweat. It looked impressive to some, but not to Bellew.
"David, let’s be totally honest brother," shouted Bellew. "Those two guys you just fought, they’re in town now. They’re either working on nightclub doors or they’re putting the bins away. Those two guys you fought last were a joke."
As the fans in the arena booed, Haye, with a bemused look, locked eyes with Bellew.
Soon after, Haye accepted the challenge. But that’s just it. He didn’t consider Bellew much of a challenge. He fired insults and talked body bags.
Haye, with an ego the size of his native country, figured all he’d have to do is tag Bellew, and the Livorpudilian would collapse.
Not so. After Haye got off to a lead, using his jab and superior athleticism, Bellow battled back. Haye was ahead on points when he tore his Achilles tendon in round six. Bellow took advantage and stopped a bewildered but courageous Haye in round 11.
Many in the boxing world were shocked, except of course Bellew. He met Haye again 14 months later, dusting him off with ease. Bellew accomplished all of this at 35. He looked better than ever in both Haye fights, fighting with a fierce determination.
Bellew again talked retirement. It seemed like the perfect time. But then something happened.
"I was retired until this guy called my name,” Bellew told Nick Parkinson of espn.com a few days ago. “Many could call my name but not one person could call my name while holding on to four belts being the universally recognized best cruiserweight in the world, he had too much to bargain with for me to turn down."
“This guy” is undefeated. His amateur career was sparkling, culminating with the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic games. He picked up a world title in his 10th pro fight. He added another belt to his collection by defeating Mairis Breidis nine months ago, and two more by defeating Murat Gassiev in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series.
Oleksandr Usyk is "that guy.”
Usyk, a Ukrainian native, is the ultimate road warrior. He has no fear of fighting in his opponent’s backyard. He picked up his first title in Poland, and has made all five of his defenses on the road-in Germany against Marcos Huck, two in the United States, in Latvia against Bredis, and recently, his one-sided domination over Gassiev. He’s knocked out 12 of his 15 opponents. His right jab is quick and strong. Sone call him a bigger version of pound-for-pound candidate, Vasyl Lomachenko.
Bellew knows what he’ll be facing this Saturday at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, England.
“I will find a way to defeat the monster,” Bellew told www.skysports.com. I don’t how or when, or what stage it will happen. But I will get to him. I’ll get him. He will feel something he’s never felt.”
Bellew will have an edge in total fights and knockouts. His record stands at 30-2-1, with 20 knockouts. He believes his deep-rooted confidence will propel him to victory.
“I have one hundred percent belief that I’m going to take him apart. Out of all the guys he’s faced, none of the other guys believed that. They just don’t believe it, and I’m crazy enough to believe it.”
Crazy like a fox.
Usyk is a mute compared to Bellew, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t heard some of Bellew’s words on the fight.
"He talks a lot,” Usyk said. “He says he will beat me and I love his attitude, but you cannot beat-up somebody who is invisible in the ring.”
If Usyk thinks of himself as the “Invisible Man,” Bellew likely wakes up to the theme of the classic film Rocky. He’s the underdog for sure, but Bellew has proved his worth.
Perhaps the key to understanding Bellew’s late career rise is this: He was always a better fighter than most, including this writer, realized. He thrives on competition and loves to challenge himself.
Has he bit off too much this time?
I believe he has, Usyk has far too much game, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.