Tony Bellew bows out a winner despite devastating Usyk defeat

Tony Bellew

Written by Jonathan Nagioff (@JonathanNagioff)

Tony Bellew’s dream of bowing out of boxing as the undisputed cruiserweight king was dashed by Oleksandr Usyk, as the Ukrainian star inflicted a devastating 8th round KO at the Manchester Arena on Saturday night.

The ‘Bomber’ was facing undoubtedly the toughest assignment of his 34-fight professional career and the challenge proved just out of his grasp. Usyk retained all four world title belts and the Ring magazine strap in emphatic fashion in the first undisputed bout on British soil.

However, Bellew can hold his head up high after a valiant effort. The Liverpudlian dominated the early stages and was leading on two of the three judges’ scorecards heading into the 8th round.

But Usyk charged back to change the complexion of the fight. As Bellew fatigued following eight gruelling rounds, Usyk powered in a late onslaught with a thundering left hook sending Bellew to the deck and through the ropes.

It was testament to Bellew’s bravery when he somehow managed to get to his feet after taking that heavy plunge. Despite appearing very concussed, Bellew was willing to fight on, before referee Terry O’Connor sensibly intervened.

An 11-year-career was seemingly over in a flash. The ‘Bomber’ had reached the pinnacle, fighting for all the belts, a scenario which seemed a distant fantasy just a few years ago.

Long way to the top

Bellew began his career campaigning at light-heavyweight, but his size was regularly brought into question.

After 15 fights, he found himself in a world title fight against British rival Nathan Cleverly. A fiery build up preceded the bout, but Cleverly proved too much winning by majority decision in front of Bellew’s home faithful at Liverpool’s Echo Arena.

Two years, four wins and a draw later and Bellew faced the king of the 175lbs division Adonis Stevenson for the Canadian’s WBC, Ring magazine and lineal light-heavyweight titles.

Bellew succumbed to a 6th round stoppage defeat and it was clear to see that his future belonged in the bigger weight divisions.

However, the size of the challenge Bellew took on cannot be underestimated. Stevenson, to this day still holds those belts and has had seven successful defences since his 2013 match-up with Bellew.

The ‘Bomber’ moved up to Cruiserweight and immediately looked more comfortable at the weight.

Talk of a rematch with Cleverly had been brewing ever since his loss in 2011 and Bellew claimed his revenge in 2014, edging past his bitter rival in a split decision victory. Despite calls for a third fight, Bellew was chasing that world title shot which eluded him twice before.

And after taking the European title against Mateusz Masternak, Bellew was handed a third world title attempt at Goodison Park, the home of his beloved Everton Football Club.

The dangerous Congolese, Ilunga Makabu stood in the way of Bellew and the vacant WBC title.

Disaster struck for home favourite in round one, as he was caught with a heavy left hand right on the bell, sending him to the canvas. But Bellew got up to his feet and launched a thunderous onslaught, knocking Makabu out cold to win a maiden world title.

Bellew was making noise in the Cruiserweight division and after beating BJ Flores inside three rounds – the first man to stop the American inside the distance – he turned his attentions to former two-weight world champion, David Haye.

‘The Hayemaker’, making his return to the sport after a three-and-a-half-year absence, agreed to the fight for March 2017. He was the outright favourite to blow Bellew away.

However, following a compelling build-up in which Haye promised to finish the bout with an early knockout, Bellew held his own and stopped the Londoner in the 11th round. Haye suffered an Achilles injury in the 6th round, which overshadowed the fight with Bellew perhaps not receiving the credit he deserved.

A rematch was eventually delivered 14 months later, following a postponement of the original rematch in December, with Haye suffering another injury – a torn bicep in training.

Bellew was again seen as the underdog going into the fight, yet the ‘Bomber’ put in an arguably career best performance to stop Haye in round five, following three heavy knockdowns.

These two pay-per-view fights against Haye were the money-spinner contests Bellew had always yearned for, securing his financial future with two, hefty pay cheques.

This time Bellew did receive the credit he deserved but cynics pointed to Haye’s age this time. Haye, 37 at the time was by his own admission past his twilight years but Bellew inflicted his most devastating defeat in 14 years, since his loss to Carl Thompson in 2004.

The defeat sent ‘The Hayemaker’ into retirement whilst Bellew marched on calling out former pound-for-pound star Andre Ward. Bellew also called out the winner of the World Boxing Super Series, Oleksandr Usyk.

The Ukrainian had just beaten Murat Gassiev to hold all four world title belts, the WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO and the prestigious Ring magazine strap.

Bellew had already proved the doubters wrong with his unlikely double over David Haye but the lure of becoming the undisputed king encouraged him to call out arguably the most formidable Cruiserweight since the great Evander Holyfield.

This courage and self-belief to take on the very best in the sport has put Bellew a cut above the rest.

He frustrated Usyk early on and even showboated to the crowd as he looked to be on the cusp of greatness.

Bellew, who appeared in the movie Creed in 2015, could not quite finish his career in Hollywood style but he managed to win over a nation in the end.

He enhanced his reputation as one of the bravest British fighters in recent times by chasing greatness. While his best was not good enough on the night, he can leave the sport knowing he overcame adversity and doubters to achieve his goals and, most importantly, with his health intact.