In boxing, football stadium fights have a certain dizzying appeal. Funnelling an army of 20 000 or more diehard fight fans into an open-air stadium creates an electrifying atmosphere, one that, dare I say it, isn’t a million miles away from the Coliseum. When two men meet in a ring constructed at the halfway line, it usually signifies one of two things: either the fight itself is colossal or the participants involved are household names.
Wladimir Klitschko, the recently-deposed heavyweight king, is more familiar than most with trading blows in the centre of the pitch. He has fought under the stars at numerous stadia through the years, including three title fights at Düsseldorf’s massive Esprit Arena.
In the UK, football stadium fights are a rarity. Since 2010 there’s only been a few, with Froch vs Groves II representing the pinnacle. Before that Wembley showdown, David Haye and Dereck Chisora settled their own well-publicised beef at Upton Park. I was there that night, and though rain started pouring from the sky before the main event, it was a glorious occasion. Before the card got underway, keyed-up fans necked bottles of beer in the sun while japing with police officers patrolling on horseback. In the Boleyn Ground itself, the atmosphere was supercharged, the air of anticipation mounting with each passing minute. The fight, when it arrived, delivered the foretold fireworks: five rounds of high-octane action that culminated in a spectacular knockout, the perfect end to a genuine feud and one that satisfied the bloodlust of 30,000 punters. Epic.
This Bank Holiday Sunday, Everton season ticket holder Tony Bellew takes part in Liverpool’s first football stadium fight in 67 years, facing off with dangerous puncher Ilunga ‘Junior’ Makabu for the vacant WBC cruiserweight belt. It’s a dream come true for the Scouser, who’s hoping he’ll be third time lucky in world title bids, having come up short twice at light-heavyweight.
Bellew, who recently starred as ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan in the hugely popular Rocky spin-off Creed, might have to rely on the Goodison Park faithful to create such an intense and foreboding atmosphere as to discompose Makabu. On paper, the Congolese KO machine starts as the bookmakers’ favourite, having won 19 on the bounce since losing his pro debut in 2008.
Makabu is a short, pyknic southpaw whose goal will surely be to chop the taller Bellew down inside the distance. The Evertonian, who at cruiserweight is much fleshier than he was at light-heavy, won’t be hard to find. When Bellew grinningly describes himself as “a fat racehorse” it’s an allusion to his cast-iron belief in his own vitality and power. And though his knockout ratio is just 55% to Makabu’s 90, Bellew is making all the right noises. To hear him speak, he’s going out to make a statement, to load up his howitzers and let fly. Can he hurt Makabu? Can he knock him out? Is he liable to walk onto a decapitating blow himself?
While Makabu’s record is impressive, watching him fight it’s not terribly difficult to envisage Bellew springing an upset. The Congolese fighter is relatively flat-footed and one-paced and boxes mostly behind a high guard. His style reminds me a little of Lawrence Clay-Bey, the gifted but lethargic American heavyweight. Makabu’s arsenal of punches is impressive with a solid right-hand jab, compact hooks, excellent uppercuts and decent body punches, but when fielding incoming blows, his tendency is to cover up and wait for the storm to pass. Bellew has always looked good pounding stationary targets; when Makabu is in the pocket, Tony should aim to bring hooks around the side of his guard and test his mettle.
Makabu is a small cruiserweight who can be hurt. Eric Fields buzzed him with a right hand counterpunch in the third round of their 2013 fight, before being laid out with a sweeping left a few rounds later. In his last outing, just over a year ago, Makabu was also shaken by Thabiso Mchunu, again in the third. Oh, and that lone pro defeat? It was by way of first-round TKO.
If Bellew wants to provide evidence of his crippling power, now’s the time. World title fights on your beloved team’s hallowed turf don’t come around too often and even Froch missed out on a swansong at Nottingham’s City Ground. Bellew will likely need a career-best performance to get this job done, but it’s not out of the question. Tony has more big-fight experience than his opponent, having headlined a PPV and shared a ring with ‘Superman’ himself, Adonis Stevenson. He also has a better jab than Makabu, not to mention quicker feet, and one senses that he considers it his destiny to claim the world title at Goodison.
One thing’s for sure, Makabu deserves to start as favourite. He’s a few years younger and he’s been a cruiserweight for longer. He appears to be the heavier puncher. And he’s eight years removed from his only defeat. But though Bellew is not a buzzsaw like Joe Calzaghe, something tells me Makabu might do his best Jeff Lacy impression and freeze under the stadium lights. Most of his fights have been in South Africa, with a few cameos in sedate settings like Luxembourg and Monaco, and he’ll never have experienced anything like the tiger pit awaiting him on Sunday night. At Goodison, with a partisan crowd cheering his every punch, Bellew can feasibly rise to the occasion, deliver a career-best performance and claim the famous green-and-gold belt.
Whatever the result, let’s hope the action is fit for a stadium! — Ronnie McCluskey