No contemporary fighter’s manner of self-presentation more obviously repeats the depiction of boxing in popular cinema than the British cruiserweight Tony Bellew. Every account that Bellew gives of his life as a boxer is sodden with cliché: the Liverpool-based fighter started a recent BBC column by saying that he “had one foot out of the door in this game but someone has drawn me in one last time”—mingling banality with solecism. It is only right that Bellew should have been featured in the most recent episode of the Rocky franchise, as the barely believable oddball “Pretty” Ricky Conlan. One of the far-reaching consequences of the cinematization of boxing has been to create a new kind of boxer, in the English-speaking world, that had never existed before, whose authenticity is wagered in script rather than action. Every time Bellew describes his hatred for an opponent or his loneliness in training or his relish for punching he sounds as falsely authentic as the fiction of his character is.
This form of self-promotion has not been without success for Bellew—he has “a beautiful wife, three beautiful kids, a fucking big lovely house, a couple of boss cars and a shitload of money,” as he told Declan Taylor in a recent interview with The Independent. With help from Matchroom Boxing, the Liverpudlian has become a PPV fighter almost by noise alone. The best name on his record is Adonis Stevenson, who blasted him out in six devastating rounds in November 2013. Until beating Ilunga Makubu in May 2016, Bellew’s biggest wins had all occurred against mid-tier fighters either nearing or very much on the slide—from Nathan Cleverly and Isaac Chilemba to Edison Miranda. Even Makubu remains a relatively unknown quantity to this day. Having beaten him in legitimately thrilling fashion, moreover, Bellew returned to normal in his next fight against part-time commentator B. J. Flores. His last two PPV outings have seen him retire a ragged and rickety David Haye at heavyweight.
All of which makes Bellew’s choice for his next opponent legitimately surprising. Having beaten Haye in a bout taking place somewhere between flimflam and sham, Bellew will return in November against none other than Oleksandr Usyk—by some distance the leading cruiserweight in the world. Usyk, from Kiev, Ukraine, was last seen in July, thrashing Murat Gassiev this way and that over twelve rounds in Moscow in the World Boxing Super Series final. Before unmanning the brooding Gassiev, he decisioned Mairis Briedis and thumped Marco Huck via tenth-round stoppage. Not since Bellew travelled to challenge Stevenson in 2013 has the Liverpudlian showed either such ambition or such nerve.
This makes the logic of their fight hard to fathom—at least from Bellew’s perspective. At no point in his career has Bellew been so publicly exulted, at least on home turf (whether such exultation is warranted or not). A fight with any decent cruiserweight would have made him richer than he already is, given the afterglow of publicity generated by the tedious rivalry with Haye. Bellew might even have waited to see if the WBA could cook up another title belt at heavyweight for him, without having to fight Joshua, Wilder, or Fury. Instead, he will line up against the toughest opponent imaginable.
Indeed, unlike Haye, whose body was so woebegone by the time he fought Bellew as to have entered into a state of irreversible decline, Usyk is a genuinely elite fighter, with the capacity both to run rings around his opponents and also to take them out. Usyk has incurred quiet critique for his only intermittently hurtful style in the WBSS, in which just one of his three fights ended before the final bell. But if the Ukrainian does not possess the pure power necessary to blast opponents out he is certainly equipped with other means to hasten a fight’s early termination—before the WBSS, all but one of his fights had ended by stoppage. It is surely this that tempted HBO into auditioning the Ukrainian on its airwaves in late 2016, before the WBSS and HBO’s already waning interest in boxing returned him to Europe. Usyk wins most often by reducing his opponent to a condition of exhaustion and despair.
It is hard to envisage a scenario in which Bellew might beat the Ukrainian in November. The Liverpudlian is not the same fighter that nearly lost to Bob Ajisafe in 2010 and Ovill McKenzie in 2011, yet nor is he radically improved from then: Bellew still relies on above-average power, decent timing and all-around ruggedness to compensate for what he lacks in quickness and guile. Usyk has advantages in most categories and deficiencies in none. Now managed as of September by Matchroom Boxing, this fight was surely a precondition for Usyk to give up his signature to Hearn. Bellew’s combination of fame with serious limitation makes him a highly attractive opponent.
Until then, Bellew is to be lauded for choosing not to parlay his public esteem into an easy payout, for deciding instead to extend his ambitions to their furthermost limit at the end of his career. If Bellew is to be believed, at thirty-five this stands to be his final fight. It is difficult to imagine a Hollywood ending against Usyk. But then it was difficult to imagine Bellew ending up in Hollywood in the first place.