By Daniel Cann
The Echo Arena in Liverpool was the scene of two highly exciting and absorbing contests as WBO world light heavyweight champion Cefn Fforest’s Nathan Cleverly defended his title against determined Liverpudlian and home fighter Tony Bellew. In the chief support Harlesden’s James ‘Chunky’ DeGale contested the EBU European super middleweight and WBO Intercontinental titles against tough Polish visitor and defending champion Piotr Wilczewski. It was a night of high drama and delivered premier entertainment to those sat at the arena and the television audience tuning in to new channel BoxNation.
The Cleverly v Bellew contest had quite a build up with plenty of verbal sparring and bad blood in evidence. The two fighters even had to be physically restrained from each other at a super charged weigh-in. It has to be said that on the night the fans behaved well apart from one incident that was quickly calmed down. Apart from that all hostilities remained in the ring.
During the preliminary introductions both boxers looked fired up and eager to begin. The atmosphere at the Echo Arena was electric and high in anticipation of a true ‘grudge match.’ It was straight off the blocks from the opening bell with no preamble or feeling out session. Both men started as they finished: in full attack mode.
Referee Richie Davies warned Bellew early for some dangerous head work as he came inside. Davies is a well known referee in British rings, renowned for his no-nonsense and authoritative approach. The two tall rangy boxers exchanged jabs and body punches. Cleverly’s looked the cleaner and he took the opening round.
Bellew drove Cleverly to the ropes in the second landing some impressive leather, Cleverly responded by wiggling his hips and dropping his hands, jutting his jaw out in defiance. Despite this machismo Bellew’s shots must have hurt. The Liverpudlian was showing steady educated aggression rather than the wild attacks many felt he would be attempting. In fact the fight was a revelation for Bellew as he displayed decent boxing skills behind a ramrod jab. If he looked heated and temperamental in the build up he was all professional calm and business in the event. He took the second in a dominant session.
Bellew continued his effective sorties in the third landing to the head and body. In the fourth referee Davies warned Cleverly to keep his punches up as a few were unintentionally (or intentionally!) straying low. Both men exchanged jabs and body shots. It was give and take stuff with no clear edge to either man. Instead of a war this was more about calculated, educated, steady aggression and it was a joy to watch. After all the bad blood I was concerned it could become a scrappy farce but instead the two men were putting on an excellent display of quality, fast-paced boxing.
Bellew ended the fourth with a slightly bloodied nose but he was on top with the better work rate coming from him. Cleverly had a real challenge on his hands with Bellew continuing to surprise and impress with his boxing skill.
The fifth saw plenty of body shots being exchanged with one eliciting a smile and a shake of the head from Bellew. Both were playing mind games. It was a psychological as much as a physical battle at times. After a faltering start Cleverly managed to step up the pace like a true champion and whipped in uppercuts through the middle. Bellew forced the champion to the ropes and Cleverly landed a low blow which was booed loudly by the crowd. Davies gave Bellew time to recover from the infraction which looked unintentional; there were a lot of borderline body shots being thrown by both fighters, Cleverly received a stern ticking off from Davies as well.
When the action resumed Cleverly landed a decent right hand followed by a body shot and an uppercut to edge another tough closely contested round.
Another low blow from the champion began the sixth and Bellew shook his head in disgust. Shoulders and elbows were being used as they wasted no time in working at close quarters. Another low blow from Cleverly landed which must have been on the referee’s blind side. Cleverly landed an uppercut and it was then Bellew’s turn to land a low one. Both were looking to wear the other down. It was another tough one but I felt Cleverly did just enough to take it.
At the start of the seventh referee Davies brought champion and challenger together and read them the riot act. Hostilities resumed with cleverly landing a good right hand. Neither man wanted to give any ground and they continued to exchange hard sapping punches. Cleverly landed a good left and Bellew responded with a good uppercut. It was that kind of fight: they were matching each other punch for punch.
Bellew drove Cleverly to the ropes for a prolonged exchange. The champion was happy to counter off the ropes and not all of Bellew’s punches were landing cleanly as Cleverly ducked and rolled. As the round progressed, Cleverly again raised the pace as Bellew opted for more single shots. Bellew’s mouth was wide open, an indication of how hard the pace was but he was hanging tough. The local fighter got a big lift from the home crowd and he landed to the body but also got picked off with some counters for his efforts. He kept working and took the round on sheer pressure alone.
The eighth had both men trading hooks and uppercuts with both content to keep things on the inside. Bellew got tagged with a big left and reverted back to using his jab. He landed a good overhand right and drove Cleverly back only for the champion to respond with an exciting two-fisted barrage which Bellew joined to close yet another desperately close and hard to score round.
The ninth saw both reverting back to their boxing with Cleverly showing good footwork and Bellew trying to land his quick short bursts on a slippery and elusive foe. Bellew took the round on my scorecard for his workrate but it all depended on your individual interpretation of the fight. It was a far more technical contest than I had envisioned.
At the start of the tenth everything was still up for grabs. Bellew kept surprising and impressing with his boxing ability, he was a top amateur but all the same with a nickname like ‘Bomber’ and his volcanic temperament it was a pleasant shock to see him utilising the jab so well. At times he was even outjabbing Cleverly. Bellew landed an explosive right hand with Cleverly’s back on the ropes. It was the best shot of the fight so far and the challenger pressed home his advantage landing a nice short left hook and another looping right that sent spray flying from Cleverly’s head.
Cleverly absorbed these hellacious shots well and held on, raising his right hand in a gesture of defiance and bravado. The crowd were going crazy but again Bellew kept a cool head and bided his time, nothing was forced or ragged about his work. It was an excellent round for him.
The eleventh saw Cleverly up on his toes and now looking to hold when the action moved on the inside. He managed to land a good left hook. All the higher workrate and effort was now coming from Bellew. An unintentional clash of heads made Bellew blink. In the last minute both worked the body. Cleverly then showed what a class act he is when he connected with good left hooks and uppercuts to close the round and perhaps just take it.
The twelfth and last round and everything was still open and either man could take it. It has been a long time since I last saw a contest of this intensity between two British boxers and things have been this close. (DeGale versus Groves in May this year was close but a non-world title fight).
It was great to see a little Corinthian spirit after all the previous hot headed animosity in the build up as the two boxers embraced before the bell to begin the last. It was clear that hate had turned into mutual respect. I believe that Bellew gave Cleverly the shock of his life as he was much more technically gifted than the champion and the pundits gave him credit for.
Both fighters stayed in mid ring and exchanged big wallops to the head and body. Cleverly needed to raise his game and he found a scintillating right hand when he needed it. There was understandably a lot of holding and wrestling after such a keenly contested battle and no one could begrudge the two a bit of a respite. It was a very intense and draining contest. They continued to trade bombs as they opened up again with Cleverly’s punches looking the cleaner. The fight ended with Cleverly landing some great punches that had the crowd on its feet in approval.
The scores were totted up and Judge Terry O’Connor’s tally of 114 – 114 matched my own. A draw would of course mean that Cleverly would keep the title. The next two scores were vital: Phil Edwards scored it 116 – 113 and Dave Paris had it wider at 117 -112 both for champion Cleverly. No one argued with the decision. I felt it could have gone either way and it all depended on your own interpretation of the fight.
One thing was certain: it proved that Tony Bellew is world class and much better than many gave him credit for. There was a discipline and maturity to his work that will win over more fans and plaudits for him and he should hold his head high. The defeated challenger did look devastated when the scores were announced with the champion Cleverly clearly and obviously relieved and delighted.
In the post fight interview both paid tribute to each other with Cleverly saying ‘He’s a brilliant challenger and very fit…I wanted to come to Liverpool and prove I was a worthy world champion.’
Cleverly also said that both of them had proved they had big hearts and took big shots. He called Bellew a ‘dangerous opponent’ and was pleased he had seen him off in his own backyard.
During the interview Bellew looked disconsolate. He admitted ‘I’m devastated’ and he apologised for letting down his two sons although everyone was quick to remind him that he had nothing to be sorry about and he had not let anyone down.
Bellew further said that he was ‘gutted’ and said of champion Cleverly ‘He’s got a great chin.’ In a touch of class rarely seen in boxers Bellew admitted that he felt ‘he (Cleverly) threw more punches than me.’ And further ‘He’s a good champion.’
After all the bad blood it was great to see both fighters showing mutual respect and they admitted that they got on with each other really and that the animosity was more to do with the business end of the fight. They both used it to motivate each other. It was such an epic contest that I would love to see them have a rematch and many of the ringside pundits and broadcasters said so. Promoter Frank Warren said both men were ‘world class fighters.’ That is a sentiment that many won’t argue with.
I agree with former world super middleweight champion Richie Woodhall that both men are still two or three fights away from the truly big leagues but it looks like Cleverly will certainly want to pursue a lucrative unification fight. Whether that is too soon is another story. For now credit must be paid to both men in the way they conducted themselves and in providing a stirring, exciting and desperately close title fight.
In the chief support Harlesden’s James DeGale did not take the easy route back after his close points defeat to arch rival George Groves when he took on Poland’s Piotr Wilczewski for the latter’s EBU European title and the WBO Inter-continental crown.
Wilczewski was a tough, upright European fighter with a strong right hand and excellent conditioning. With DeGale a southpaw and Wilczewski fighting out of an orthodox stance there was bound to be a clash of styles and it did at times become untidy.
Throughout the contest DeGale switched from orthodox to southpaw, moving well and throwing some very fast and accurate combinations. Wilczewski pushed him all the way and in the first round DeGale emerged with a red welt under his left eye. He was controlling things but got tagged with several hard right hands that shook him to the very soles of his boots. He showed a lot of heart and a strong chin.
After the fourth round DeGale also now sported a cut under his right eye and knew he was in a tough struggle. The fifth saw more desperate times for the Englishman as he was tagged again and had to hold on until his head cleared. At the bell as if to acknowledge the shots thrown by his dangerous opponent DeGale touched gloves and Wilczewski sportingly reciprocated.
In the sixth Danish referee Freddy Rafn warned both men for clashing heads. Nothing was intentional but DeGale was marking up and by the end of the contest Wilczewski’s left eye was puffed up as well. It was a hard, hard fight that was draining both men. The higher workrate was coming from DeGale who clearly had the better speed of hand and foot and the technical skill yet he kept electing to match the tough Polish fighter on the inside. Whether this was a show of machismo or not is unclear, but it was alarming to see the usually smooth DeGale getting tagged as often as he was.
The punches from Wilczewski brought ‘oohs!’ and ‘Aaahs!’ from the crowd and DeGale needed to keep things on the outside where he truly shines. The seventh saw some wrestling and DeGale looked physically strong. In the eighth he had to take another big right which stiffened him against the ropes. Again he showed a great chin and heart but he should not have got caught with the volume of shots he was taking.
In the ninth and tenth DeGale stepped the pace up and his work to the head and body was impressive. Wilczewski was now reduced to throwing just single shots and stalking. Blood still flowed freely down his right cheek but DeGale looked to be the boss now with his higher workrate and more accurate blows. He is a crisp puncher rather than a concussive one, but he showed a lot of grit as well as class in this fight.
The final couple of rounds saw DeGale landing uppercuts and hooks to the head and hurtful accurate body blows. In the eleventh round Wilczewski showed he was still dangerous when he connected with another fantastic right hand to DeGale’s temple. The Englishman looked stunned and these were anxious moments for him. He came back with some good body blows and referee Rafn warned Wilczewski for using his shoulder. The visitor was looking more desperate as the round closed, he must have known he was behind on points.
The twelfth saw a beautiful left hook from DeGale land but Wilczewski shook his head that he was not hurt. Their heads clashed again and they continued to trade shots with DeGale getting in the cleaner more effective work. The variety and workrate from DeGale took the round and the fight.
When the scores were announced there were some tense moments especially when the MC announced it was a ‘majority decision’ the scores were: 114- 114, and 115- 113 twice in favour of DeGale (I had it wider at 116 – 113 DeGale). It was a great fight and a big test of DeGale’s chin, fitness and bravery. He showed great poise and heart and took a deserved decision. Not only did he take the EBU and WBO Intercontinental titles he beat the WBO’s number two ranked fighter. As he said afterwards when interviewed for television ‘The doors should open.’
DeGale said of Wilczewski He was a ‘Tough seasoned pro’ he admitted ‘I got caught in the fourth round and my legs went a bit and I could not hear for a bit…I lost my balance.’ He also added ‘I had to show some grit in the eleventh and twelfth’ and ‘it was very tough.’
At least he knows he can go twelve hard rounds against a world ranked boxer. As DeGale’s trainer Jim McDonnell commented ‘He deserves a lot of credit for that – it was a tough fight…He dug in when he had to.’
DeGale could meet the winner of November’s contest between George Groves and Paul Smith in a British and European title contest or defend his EBU crown a couple of times. His ambition of contesting a world title (most likely the WBO version) by the Olympics next year does not seem that outlandish now. What is truly remarkable is that this was only his twelfth contest. Yet it must be said it was the kind of fight that is worth ten in terms of experience. He cannot be accused of taking the easy route to the top after this!
All in all it was excellent to see top quality boxing appearing at Liverpool again and there is a palpable buzz in the air in the UK with boxers like Amir Khan, Carl Froch, Ricky Burns, Kevin Mitchell, John Murray, Nathan Cleverly, Tony Bellew, James DeGale and George Groves among many others. That can mean only good news for fans and the sport in general. It is about time interest for the sport on UK shores rose once again.