Arguably the most eagerly anticipated clash of the British boxing season is now official. Two domestic rivals will collide as WBO light heavyweight world champion Nathan Cleverly travels to the lion's den on the banks of the Mersey to defend his crown against the undefeated British and Commonwealth champion Tony Bellew at the Echo Arena on 15th October.
Life-long Evertonian and proud Scouser, Bellew has a long standing history with the Welshman from Cefn Forest. Both men fight under the same promotional banner and have appeared on the same bills over the years. Next month they will finally share a ring as both boxers put their unbeaten records on the line with the WBO light heavyweight championship of the world at stake.
Blue Kipper was given exclusive access to the renowned Rotunda ABC to catch up with 'Bomber' and to hear his thoughts ahead of the biggest fight of his career to date. Interview by Matt McCormack
You made the switch from Arnie's gym in Manchester to train closer to home with Mick McAllister and Mark Quinn. How are you finding training back in the familiar surroundings of the Rotunda ABC?
To be honest when I first turned pro if I was allowed to do it at the beginning then I would have done it, but because amateurs and professionals were not allowed to work together I had to find a location to move to. The sought after one was Manchester and I took the advice of my coaches who told me to get out of Liverpool to get focused. So I took their advice and went to Manchester, but as soon as the rule was changed so that amateurs could work with pros I left Manchester right away. And straight away it was on my mind. Between three and six months before, the rule got changed and then I fought Bob Ajisafe and I was going to come back to Rotunda then but I'm a little bit too loyal at times.
And you were reluctant to leave?
Yeah, I was reluctant to leave Manchester because everything was going well. I was on a winning streak even though I'd fought a bad fight, I didn't box too well but I was staying loyal. The Ovill McKenzie fight in December was the final straw. Certain things went wrong and I just thought 'enough is enough, I've got to put myself first' and you know, luckily for me I have a fantastic team around me and my family. I sat down with them all, they supported me. Mick McAllister has always been like family to me and I've known Mark since I was a baby. But Mick has always been like a secondary father figure to me, so I just wanted to try and bring him around. At first I don't think he was keen because he doesn't like the pros, he loves the amateurs. But because he's known me since I was a kid, I talked him around in the end and I got what I wanted when I got the two of them to come together. I've been with the two of them since December and I'm really happy with how it's going.
What type of work does your training at Finch Farm involve?
Strength and conditioning work. Everything based around non-boxing work I incorporate with Dave Billows and I'd be lost without him to be honest. He's been a vital part of my team and so have Everton Football Club to be fair. The gaffer gives his go ahead and I can't thank him enough, I'm so thankful to him. And all the players back me, the chairman even backs me and Robert Earl backs me 100% and I'd be lost without the support I get from Everton Football Club and the facilities that they allow me to use.
How did training there come about?
Well, Robert Earl is involved with Frank Warren, they're friends in some way and Robert Earl is on the board of directors at Everton so that's how it came about at first. But before that I'd been down to Finch Farm to do a photo shoot for the national papers with Tim Cahill and I got to meet him and a couple of the lads. Then I got speaking to Dave Billows and I always stayed in touch with him after. Then I lost my strength and conditioner about six months after meeting Dave Billows so I contacted Dave and said 'have you got any ideas of what I should be doing and when I should be doing it?' stuff like that and he said 'I tell you what, I'll train you' and it's been two and a half years now and it's been the best decision I've ever made. To be involved with someone who is such a high class athlete. Dave Billows is like a twenty five year old man, he's in better condition than 90% of boxers.
Any chance of getting him on the wing on Saturday?
I'm telling you mate, he's a brilliantly conditioned athlete and as I say, I'm in debt to him. I owe him the world and I'm really thankful to him because without Dave, I wouldn't be in the condition that I'm in so I've got to thank him for that. When I was up in Manchester, it was great - the boxing work - but the strength and conditioning side was always lacking and Dave should take big credit for the way I've come back from knockdowns and things like that. All these things help and strength and conditioning is a massive part of the boxing programme.
There seems to have been a real resurgence in recent years with the city's fight scene flourishing with a really talented group of boxers. Why do you think that is?
We've always had a good amateur base and I always remember a lot of Cockney people saying 'Scousers always produce the best amateurs but they don't produce the best pros' because they seemed to believe that we had a cheating mentality when it come to making weight. So at first I used to listen to it and I used to just think they were talking a load of shite, but to be fair they were half right because when we were producing amateur after amateur champion and then they'd go pro and never seemed to fulfil their potential. So I looked into it in a little bit more depth and that seemed to be the deciding factor. We could win fights over four rounds but then we'd start dying when it came to eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve rounds. That's a little bit of the factor but now they're all coming through and realising you've got to be dedicated and boxing has got to become your life. It's all about hard work and conditioning. You can be as talented as you want but that talent and skill factor will only get you through the first six rounds. The next six rounds is going to come down to conditioning, hard work, preparation and all that is going to come into play. Now these kids that are going pro are starting to realise that. I've got friends who've turned pro, like David Price - he's the best conditioned heavyweight I've ever seen. The man is a monster in the gym, he's brilliant on the track and can run up hills forever. So people are starting to come round to the way of thinking were you've got to be, not just a boxer but an athlete and that's what I had instilled in me through Everton and Dave Billows. It's not just about boxing anymore, it's about being an all round athlete. Football is the same, you wouldn't believe the things Sylvain Distin is capable of doing. The guy is one of the best athletes I've ever seen. If he wasn't playing football, he could easily be an American footballer. He's so physically strong, fast, he lifts crazy weights. Them things are incorporated now into the way people train. People are becoming athletes not just one dimensional footballers or boxers, it's the all round game now. The better athlete you become, it might add 5% to your football. Sylvain might be the faster runner at the club, that's 5% extra on his game. Everybody in sports is now taking the view that strength and conditioning is very important.
There's a bit of a rivalry developing between Liverpool and Wales. We've got yourself and Cleverly, the upcoming fights between Stephen Smith vs Lee Selby and Derry Mathews vs Gavin Rees. Rocky Fielding beat Tobias Webb in the Prizefighter final. These types of rivalries can only be good for boxing can't they?
They are, yeah. It's crazy because as well as all our local fighters I'm friends with every other Welsh guy, I'm friends with Gavin Rees, and a good friend of Enzo Maccarinelli. As I say there's only one Welsh kid I can't stand and that's Cleverly. So you know, it's mad these rivalries that are coming about. I'm friends with Tobias Webb, I've done lots of sparring with him. All these Welsh guys are fighting Liverpool guys and I'm friends with all of them bar one clown from Wales. That's boxing. Rivalries are good for boxing, you get the fans in and everybody enjoys it.
What would it mean to you to lift a world title in your hometown at the Echo Arena?
I keep saying, it's a lifetime's worth of work that comes down to thirty six minutes. It all happens in one night. I've worked my whole life towards this and I've got a lot riding on October 15th. It'll mean the world to me and my fans. I'll be going in there trying to please them, my kids and my missus.
Do you see it as an advantage to be fighting him on home soil here in Liverpool?
It'll mean the world to do it in front of my home fans. They all want to see me do well and I want to do well for them. October 15th is going to be a big thing, not just for me but for my family, the city and hopefully becoming a legitimate world champion.
I thought you took a lot of unfair criticism after the McKenzie rematch - was it important to show that you can box to instruction and there's more to your game than just punch power? You don't win 3 ABA (amateur) titles without being able to 'box'...
We went into that fight and we knew what we were going to do from day one. I kept saying I'd stop him and don't get me wrong after 3 or 4 rounds I wanted to stop him but I listened to the corner. At the end of the day, you can make people happy sometimes but you can't keep all the people happy all of the time. So some people are going to like it, some people are going to dislike it but it is what it is. Sky Sports condemned me for just producing what boxing is about.
The Sweet Science...
Exactly. I went into the ring, I hit and didn't get hit. If you look at boxing at any level, it's about hitting and not getting hit and I did it to a tee. I came out of the ring without a mark on my face and it was really easy to be honest. A win is a win and going into the ring that night I knew what was on the line. I knew this fight [with Cleverly] was in the pipeline and I just thought 'come through, safety first' - I didn't want any hand injuries, or any kind of niggles and it was easy.
I don't expect you to reveal your game plan, but I imagine there's one in place for Nathan Cleverly?
Seek and destroy. Search, seek and destroy - that's the game plan.
And the message to him is..?
He trades, he sleeps. I keep saying it and I'll say it again, he can only fight one way. I don't claim to be ready for Bernard Hopkins or Chad Dawson. What I do claim to be ready for is one dimensional fighters who fight with their face, and that's Cleverly.
Do you think the fact that you've been into the trenches and got up of the canvas to win before will stand you in good stead - it's not something's Cleverly's experienced before and there's always a question mark over how a fighter will react when they're faced with adversity?
I've dealt with that adversity my whole life. I've been knocked down and built back up. I've been through so many things within life that he wouldn't even have the first clue about. It's a bonus for me knowing I can get up off the floor after being hit with as good as a sledgehammer on the side of the head. I know what I can do and what I'm about and I know I can adapt and adjust in fights now. Does he know he can do that? Does he know that he can get up off the floor after being hit with something that you haven't laid eyes on or you've never felt before? He doesn't know he can do that. I know I can, so come October 15th, I'm going to prove that he can't do it.
How does it feel walking to the ring to Z-Cars ...and are you worried that it might alienate boxing fans from the red side of the city?
To be honest, I've had that many fans saying that they clap and they sing to Z-Cars. So it's crazy seeing Reds and that jumping up and down to Z-Cars but I always say it's not about Everton or Liverpool, when the boxing happens we all come together. Some things go bigger than football. Like the Hillsborough campaign for Justice for the 96 - I've backed it. I was one of the people that signed the petition. Some things go beyond football and boxing goes beyond football for me. Supporting a Scouser before supporting someone from the valleys and I think they'll see that side of it too.
And how much of a boost was it having Liverpool light-heavyweight legend John Conteh accompany you to the ring?
John is great. I've always looked up to him since I was a kid. He's a perfect role model for the youth of today. He's a legend and no matter what I achieve in boxing, I'll never be looked at on the same level or the same stature as John Conteh, not in my eyes anyway. I'll always look up to him and idolise him.
But you'll be looking to follow in his footsteps come 15th October...
Yeah, to win a title and to be put in the same bracket as him would be a fantastic achievement. I'll forever cherish him walking me to the ring when I won the Commonwealth title that night. I'll forever be in his debt and I can't thank him enough.
You got a taste of fighting in a stadium on the undercard of Calzaghe-Kessler at the Millennium Stadium.
Yeah, in front of 50,000.
Any ambition to fight at Goodison? Would that be the ideal venue?
That's the final dream. That's my ultimate goal and dream. And Frank says one day it can happen. I'd love an... I don't know if I can say all Scouse showdown because there's no-one left in Liverpool for me ...but I'm sure we could find a Kopite somewhere! I'd love to fight at Goodison Park, that's the final dream.
Best/Worst part of being a boxer?
Worst part - dieting and running and half past five in the morning. And the best part... seeing him on the floor and walking to the neutral corner. That's the best feeling in the world. But to be fair, I've got two great feelings. That last fight was the first time I ever enjoyed a ring walk. I was composed and relaxed. Usually I want to get in the ring and just smash people's heads in. But for the last fight, I knew everything was going to go the way it did and I listened to Z-Cars for the first time. Instead of kicking off in my mind thinking 'I'm going to get you, I'm going to rip your head off', Z-Cars kicked in and I thought I'm going to enjoy this and I looked around the crowd and could see everyone screaming and jumping. One fella had his top off, smacking his chest where he had an Everton tattoo over his heart. I just thought, this is great. So I've got a couple of great feelings in boxing - knocking them out is one of them and definitely hearing Z-Cars on the way to the ring is another.
CLEVERLY-BELLEW BIG FIGHT TICKETS NOW ON SALE!
Tickets are now on sale for Nathan Cleverly's blockbuster showdown against Tony Bellew on Saturday 15th October at the Liverpool Echo Arena.
Cleverly defends his WBO World Light-Heavyweight for the second time against the Liverpool "Bomber" in what is sure to be one of the most explosive fights of the year.
Not only are both fighters putting their unbeaten records on the line, but there is also plenty of pride at stake.
A top quality undercard featuring the best in young talent will be announced shortly.
Tickets are priced at £40, £50, £100, £150 and £250 and are available from: Liverpool Echo Arena. Box Office: 0844 8000 400 www.echoarena.com
Frank Warren Promotions www.frankwarren.tv
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