Big-fight build-ups normally flash by for Tony Bellew, the week spent in a whirl of sparring sessions and trash-talking press conferences. This week has been different. Britain's World Boxing Council world cruiserweight champion might be defending his crown against America's B J Flores in his home city of Liverpool tonight, but he cannot escape the shadow of a tragedy played out 200 miles north two weeks ago, when Scotland's Mike Towell succumbed to injuries sustained in a televised fight against Welshman Dale Evans.

Towell, 25, was carried out of the ring after Evans knocked him out in the fifth round and was taken to hospital with severe brain trauma: 24 hours later, he was dead. His funeral was held yesterday in Dundee.

The tragedy has cast a pall over the sport, and over Bellew, who offers a frank appraisal of how he and his fellow fighters are forced to rationalise their brutal artistry.

"People need to understand that what has happened to Mike Towell is heartbreaking, it truly is," Bellew says. "I hope people understand what us boxers put on the line every single time we step through those ropes. This isn't an easy sport. Every time we step through the ropes, lives are at stake.


"I have no issues about that. People can dress it up however they want to, but boxing is life and death. I don't agree with the trainer Joe Gallagher on everything but I agree with him when he says boxing is legalised killing."

To which the obvious response is, why do it? Towell's tragic fate is still mercifully uncommon, but he was nevertheless the fourth British boxer to die from injuries sustained in the ring in the past 22 years, a high enough mortality rate to surely strike doubt into the heart of even the boldest fighter.

Bellew's response borders on the brutal. "It's never a case of getting up for something. Every single time I step into a ring the same thing is on the line. Take away belts, take away money, take away glamour and fame. Ultimately I'm fighting for one thing and that's my life.

"You'll never see me go into a fight and struggle to get up for it. I understand first and foremost what's at stake. In the build-up to a fight I am scared, and I do worry about myself. But once I step into that arena, that worry has gone. A switch gets flicked and I want to do damage. All I care about is doing damage as fast as possible."

We are talking in Rotunda Amateur Boxing Club, the single-storey building on a Kirkdale council estate that has served as Bellew's training base since he was a boy. As he speaks, Bellew's hands are being wrapped for a final training session.

It is in these quiet moments that Bellew can reflect on his motivations for pursuing a career in the most dangerous sport of them all. Other athletes accept risks, of course, from the jump jockey hurtling over 5ft fences to the cricketers who fend off 95mph bouncers hurled at them from 22 yards. But only boxing rewards its protagonists for rendering an opponent unconscious.

At 31, Bellew has lost the romanticism that drives a novice. For him, a father of three boys, boxing represents the only way he can support his family, even if the thought that it may be his last fight is never far from his mind.

"It scares me when I look back at my fights on replay," he confides. "I can't give in. That's why it scares me. I know when push comes to shove, when the going gets tough, when you do get knocked down, I know I'm going to get up and keep fighting. A referee, for me, isn't there to score points or really judge fouls. I just need the referee there to protect us.

"I know for a fact, fighters like me need protecting from themselves. I will fight when I can't. I will keep going. That's the scary part for me. I know many fighters who get hit and hurt, knocked down, and say 'enough is enough'. You see it in their eyes. I haven't got that. And that's why it scares me."

Bellew pauses for thought. "I'm just a normal fella, a normal family man trying to provide for his kids and his missus and his family, and a happy-go-lucky person. But when it comes to a fight I'm horrible. My missus understands it but she also understands that there's no other way of life possible.

"I've been asked a couple of times this week about my next fight, and every reporter or journalist who has asked me that question is cut short. There is no other fight. This is the only fight that matters. The present is all that matters. You can't look past anyone."

There is another pause. "I'm not a nice person when I fight," he says. Perhaps that is what makes him a world champion. In May, at Goodison Park, home of his beloved Everton Football Club, Bellew finally claimed a world title at the third attempt. He was floored in the opening round by the dangerous Congolese fighter Ilunga Makabu, renowned as a knockout artist, but regained his feet and destroyed Makabu with a brutal barrage of left hooks in the third.

Bellew remembers the moment with exquisite clarity. "I'm talking to myself because I'm annoyed I've been knocked down. I have no thoughts like, am I safe here? What am I going to do? The only thought going through my mind is: 'I'm going to f------ get you back.' I can't give in. I have to keep fighting until someone saves me or someone saves him. It's crazy."

Personalising a fight, making an opponent an enemy rather than simply an obstacle in the path of victory, perhaps helps explain why boxers are able to do what they do. That is certainly how Bellew distils his attitude to Flores - treating him as the enemy of his professional desires, and the progress of his family.

"Here's a man who wants to take away what I've earned," he says. "The man is B J Flores. It's just a man who wants to take away something I've worked so hard to earn. It could be any opponent. They all drive me the same way. B J got this fight because of his mouth. Ultimately, once the fight's done, B J is going to get treated exactly the same as Ilunga Makabu was."

With that, Bellew appears to mark a return to the tribal, tub-thumping rhythms of fight week, the bravura and bluster, cat-calls and call-outs.

Yet he knows that this past fortnight will not be remembered for what happens at the Echo Arena tonight, or even Tyson Fury's latest troubles. Instead, thoughts will be in Scotland, where a family was deprived of a husband, father and son on the canvas of a Glasgow boxing club.

"I saw the heartwarming letter Mike Towell's missus wrote and it broke my heart," Bellew says. "All I can do is think about and pray for his family. It's such a sad time, but he will be remembered as a fighting man. He's gone doing what he loved doing. All I can say is Mike Towell, rest in peace."