Feature | Jan 30 2019

EXCLUSIVE ‘Tony Bellew changed my life’

In an in depth interview Dave Coldwell reflects on his extraordinary journey with Tony Bellew. He speaks to Matt Bevan
Tony Bellew
Oleksandr Usyk & Tony Bellew Weigh-In  |  Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

TONY BELLEW lying on the canvas after he was stopped by Adonis Stevenson in 2013 is an image that has been seen and shared many times. But, it’s safe to say that no one could have predicted what would happen next for “The Bomber”.

The Liverpudlian’s world title dreams were on hold, but he would soon embark on an incredible run which saw him reach the summit and then continue to defy the critics with high profile wins which saw him become a household name in the UK.

Alongside him every step of the way on that journey was Dave Coldwell, who looks back fondly on memories that will last a lifetime. The Rotherham based trainer recalls how the pair battled against the odds and gave his thoughts exclusively to Boxing News.

“It was an amazing journey and something that I’m very privileged to have been a part of. You can be in this game 50, 60 years and you don’t get to experience anything like that, so these five years have been unbelievable. The big fights, occasions and nights, winning the world title and then it culminating with every belt on the line against one of the pound-for-pound best fighters out there,” he said. “We didn’t get the ending that we wanted but fairy tales aren’t real and sometimes you don’t get that happy ending. But I’m immensely proud of him and what he has achieved in the sport. From being that kid who came to my gym to spar one of my fighters at the time, which was the first time we ever met, and bashed him up to becoming a really close friend, who changed my life, it has been a great ride.

“It all started in his kitchen after we had come back from Canada. I was working in his corner for the Stevenson fight and he’d been told by me and Eddie Hearn that he needed to move up to cruiserweight. I’d been out of the game in terms of training fighters and didn’t really have any intention of doing it again, but he was my mate and I decided to help him out. Turned out to be a pretty smart move in the end.”

Bellew relocated his training to Rotherham, staying in a local hotel during the week, to train at Coldwell’s Masbrough base. It was move that was kept under wraps and only became truly apparent on fight week, as Bellew took his first steps in a loaded cruiserweight division.

However in true Bellew fashion, rather than a straight forward test he took on Valery Brudov in front of his home crowd at the Echo Arena. Brudov had already challenged for world titles before Bellew had even turned pro and would not be coming to lie down.

It wouldn’t be an easy night for Bellew, who started well and had the Russian down in the second and sixth. However, he had to overcome a big scare in the seventh, before finally ending matters in the final round, dropping Brudov for a final time. Brudov also suffered a broken foot. He got the all-important win but the seventh round was a stark reminder of the dangers that could lay ahead.

Coldwell recalled: “There was always pressure when Tony fought and the Brudov fight was no different. People were saying he would be too small and as ever there were plenty who have never rated him and were just waiting for him to lose again. He got the job done, in what was a tough night against someone who was no knock-over.”

What immediately lay ahead for Bellew was the fight he craved the most. A rematch with his bitter rival Nathan Cleverly, who had recently signed with Hearn and Matchroom, who had previously got the better of him in 2011 at the Echo Arena.

It was a fiery build-up to their first clash and with Cleverly also moving up to cruiserweight, after losing his WBO light-heavyweight title to Sergey Kovalev in 2013, the rematch was a very realistic possibility.

The two both fought and won that July, as Cleverly stopped Alejandro Emilio Valori in four, whilst Bellew got the better of Julio Cesar Dos Santos in five and the rivalry was reignited with Bellew referring to the Welshman as a “plastic world champion” in his post-fight interview.

Bellew got his wish in November and the revenge he was desperate for, but it was a poor fight that failed to live up to the build-up. Coldwell explained: “It was a massive occasion and the personal animosity between the two of them captured the imagination, not just of British fight fans, but plenty of the general public as well.

Tony Bellew

“We did two press conferences on the same day, one in Liverpool and one in Cardiff, which was madness and a great laugh. We trained for a tough night and expected Nathan to come looking for another big win, but after just one left hook early doors, he went into survival mode.

“He simply never threw the right hand and there was nothing even wrong with it. They just said there was a problem after the fight. It wasn’t a great fight but that wasn’t down to Tony, as it’s hard to look good against someone who is just trying to survive.

“Nathan never opened up that night, so we had to grind him down and beat him up. However in the aftermath, probably because of how Tony is, Nathan got a free pass. It was a convincing win and despite talk of a third fight, the rivalry was over that night. We were able to move on and Tony got that win.”

2015 was expected to be the year where Bellew looked to push on towards a world title fight. However his career took an unexpected turn as his next fight was at his dream venue, albeit on the silver screen, as Bellew found himself cast as “Pretty” Ricky Conlon in Creed, the latest addition to the revered Rocky franchise.

Coldwell laughed: “That was nuts! When he told me, he said he’d turned it down and I told him he had to do it. It’s so surreal that my mate is in a Rocky movie with Sylvester Stallone. I went to the premiere with my daughter, which was brilliant, meeting Michael B Jordan and then seeing Tony fight on the big screen was so good.

“It’s still funny now. I remember we were going to Chicago and sat next to each other on the plane. I look across and someone is watching Creed and Tony was on the screen at that point and the guy had no idea that sat next to me was the actual Ricky Conlon.

“But once it was over, he was back in the gym, as professional as ever and looking to get back to winning that world title. Boxing is his job, so he hadn’t earned much and had taken time out for the movie, so it wasn’t a problem to get him re-focused.”

Bellew rattled off wins over Ivica Bacurin in June and Arturs Kulikauskis in September, both stoppages and also the first time since 2009, when he wasn’t scheduled for a 12 round contest. In December though he was back in the deep end, taking on Mateusz Masternak for the European title at the O2 Arena in London.

Coldwell is adamant that the victory over the Pole, a unanimous points decision on the undercard of Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte’s grudge match, was the moment where the rest of Bellew’s team truly saw that Bellew could go all the way and win a world title.

He remarked: “This was the key win. This was the night where Eddie and Barry Hearn decided to go all in with Tony Bellew. It was a tough night and proved to everyone that he was for real at cruiserweight and Matchroom began to genuinely believe he could actually do it.

“There were plenty in the sport who thought he was all mouth and no substance, so he had to prove that night that he was more than that. I remember the reaction after he won, where he was in tears on the apron and delighted he had won a massive title like the European. People forget how big a title it is.

“Before his critics said he was just a domestic fighter and he proved that he was way beyond that level. He showed what was in his locker and that he was ready to test himself.”

May 26 2016. A Sunday at Goodison Park. The staunch Evertonian was handed his opportunity and the chance to fulfil a childhood ambition. Not just winning the WBC world title, but to do it at the home of his beloved team.

In the opposite corner, the feared Ilunga Makabu, who was 19-1 at the time, only losing in his professional debut. He had also only gone the distance once, when he got the better of the respected Dmytro Kucher in Monaco. The odds were once again against Bellew and he has right up against it.

The outside pressure was enough, but nothing compared to the pressure “The Bomber” put on himself. If he lost, he questioned how he could ever come back to Goodison Park. In the end he needn’t have worried.

Bellew was down in the first. For a moment Goodison was silent. But, there was something in the air that night and he refused to be beaten. He got through the second before trapping Makabu on the ropes and finishing matters in devastating fashion. It was a moment that those that were there will never forget.

Coldwell added: “Goodison was a legendary night. I still get messages from people who were there, telling me how special it was and how much it meant to them. In the build-up people were stopping me on the street and asking me about the fight, so the pressure was immense.

“For Tony to fight there, at the home of Everton, who he is nuts, probably more than someone should be, about was huge. Then we had the situation where he spotted his son in the crowd and he was so emotional and crying in the changing room. He was in bits, so it just added even more on to the occasion.

“So for him to get it together and go out and perform the way he did, under that fire, was amazing. I will never forget it for as long as I live, so I can’t begin to think how much it genuinely means to Tony. Those seconds before it was stopped were breathtaking and it was one of the most brilliant nights of both of our careers.”

After the highs of Goodison, Bellew was soon making the first defence of the WBC title against BJ Flores, in what turned out to be his last fight in front of his vociferous Liverpool support. Bellew stopped him in three and from out of nowhere, his next feud began with David Haye, who was a pundit at ringside.

Flores was a close friend of Haye and Coldwell recollected: “Tony wanted to make a statement and smash Flores to pieces. I don’t mind him exchanging, as long as he thinks about what he is doing, which he didn’t do that night. He got a bit of a rollicking after the fight from me, but also did himself a favour as Haye signed up for the fight.”

Bellew was in familiar territory as the underdog. He was also moving up to heavyweight to take on the “Hayemaker”, a former heavyweight and cruiserweight king, who had returned after a four year absence in 2016 to pick up two straight forward wins.

The two traded verbal and physical barbs at press conferences and in interviews and there weren’t many who believed that Bellew actually stood a chance with Haye, who was anything but respectful in the build-up.

But on the night, Haye looked a shadow of his former self and Bellew suddenly went from cannon fodder to actual threat. Then Haye suffered an achilles tendon injury in the sixth and he was eventually stopped in a farcical ending in the 11th. Bellew’s performance became an after thought.

“It became very personal in the build-up and what David said and how he behaved helped us in hindsight. Yes, he got injured but if you look at everything we said before, it was actually going how we said it would. We were pressing the action and David was missing, but you can’t possibly prepare for what eventually happened,” Coldwell said.

“But, after it happened Tony reacted in the worst way. He lost his head and his shape. David was stuck on the ropes and just trying to defend himself, so it’s very hard to land a clean shot on someone doing that. The rematch had to happen because that was not the way we wanted to win and didn’t show Tony in the best way.”

The rematch took place a year later, after the original December date was postponed and Bellew got his win in the fashion he desired. He put on one of his career-best performances to stop Haye in the fifth and appeared to be ending his in-ring career on a massive high.

Coldwell said: “We knew David would leave gaps for us to exploit. He had to open up and go for the win, so in doing that it gave Tony the chance to look very good in the process. He delivered that night.”

Bellew looked to be settling into his role as an analyst for Sky Sports, but it was in a bar on his honeymoon when the call of the ring reached out to him once more, this time in the shape of the formidable Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk.

Usyk, a gold medallist at London 2012, had recently cleared out the cruiserweight division. He held every title after winning the World Boxing Super Series final in Russia against Murat Gassiev and had garnered a reputation as a “road warrior”. On that night in Russia, the first name out of his mouth, as he stood there draped in belts and a trophy, was Tony Bellew.

Usyk signed a deal with Matchroom and the deal was struck for November in Manchester. Bellew performed admirably on the night but he was stopped in the eighth by Usyk, who could now turn his attention to the heavyweight division.

As for Bellew, it was the end and Coldwell can give himself the opportunity to look back on his time with Bellew, knowing that no matter the result, the now 36-year-old would be calling time on what turned out to be a memorable career.

Coldwell said: “I’m quite emotional as it is but when I look back at it all, we were under pressure every time we stepped in the ring. I don’t get to take a second to step back, take stock and enjoy what is happening to me right now. I’m doing everything I can to help my fighters win and guiding them through all their other obligations, so it all goes so quick and you forget what you’re actually involved in.

“I’m thinking about it all now, whilst I’m talking to you about how mad it all was, fighting on Box Office or that fight at Goodison Park, which was unbelievable. The only time I ever took that moment was when I knew it was the last fight and we were done, so it was fight week against Usyk at the public workout.

“I decided to take my family to it, which I never do as I like to keep work and family separate, so I took my wife and two kids to Manchester to that. With those workouts you can have a bit of fun with them, as the hard work has already been done, so we were doing whatever we were doing and I told him they were there, so he made a point of looking for them and waving at them whilst they were on the balcony.

“That sort of moment is priceless. It was so nice to enjoy that moment and I remember Ed Robinson at Sky saying to me once, when we were going into the first fight with Haye, to enjoy where I am right now, as these are the things that people dream of, but me being me I never did. So when I finally took that moment in the workout, it was great.

“We didn’t get the ending we wanted like I said, but what a career he has had. It’s been great to see how he’s grown in the hearts of the fans, who have really taken to him over the past couple of years, and how they have taken to both of us actually. It really has been brilliant.”

Coldwell rates the Bellew journey as the best episode of his time in the sport, but it is just one in the series. Coldwell has been there and seen it all before, recalling his days with Ryan Rhodes and Curtis Woodhouse as two of his other favourites. But there was something about the Bellew and Coldwell partnership that will be remembered for a while yet in this fascinating sport.

“Without doubt the time with Tony will be the number one moment in my career in boxing. I’ve had some great journeys in the sport before that. I remember when Ryan Rhodes came to me and he was seen as finished, hidden away on Hennessy undercards with no one aware he was even fighting and considering him retired,” the trainer said.

“People were saying then that he won’t do anything with Coldwell and he’s just gone for a pay-day, but the whole point of that was to earn the respect of the fans and win the British title. He beat Gary Woolcombe which was brilliant, but I always wanted the fight with Jamie Moore, as I believed that would be the one for Ryan and to win against him to get the European title was unbelievable, before going on to fight Canelo in Mexico, so it was a great run.

“Like a lot of great stories in this sport, it ended on a loss, but it was mission accomplished after seven amazing years. The Curtis Woodhouse story was incredible. The work that went into him, both as a trainer and manager, was unreal. We had setback after setback, but we kept coming back, so to see him win that British title was brilliant.

“I’ve had some really good stories, which as I’m sat here talking to you, are great to look back on, the sort of experience that money can’t buy, however the best of the best is the five years with Bellew. It was similar to those other two episodes I just spoke off, in that we weren’t suppose to have that success.

“People were ridiculing him for getting beaten by Stevenson and memes of him lying on the floor after he was caught before every fight we had, but he kept winning. It has been an unforgettable journey and one I will always look back on with pride.”