IT takes a brave man to not be intimidated by Oleksandr Usyk. The chilling stare. The unnerving, quiet confidence. Not to mention the long list of accolades – European, World and Olympic gold medals in the amateurs, plus the World Boxing Super Series trophy and all four major world titles (WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO) as a cruiserweight in the pros.
But Tony Bellew was not intimidated. Respectful and well aware of Usyk’s brilliance, but not intimidated. After entering the Manchester Arena ring to an eruption of noise, his signature entrance music – Theme from Z-Cars – bellowing around the building one last time, the proud and pumped-up Liverpudlian awaited the arrival of the final opponent of his decorated 11-year career.
As Usyk began his approach down the aisle, Bellew eyed him with an almost feral intensity, thumping the top rope with both fists and howling at the top of his voice, “You’re mine!” His freshly shaved head only added to the ferocity of his demeanour.
The undisputed champion’s ring walk was understated, as he briskly strode to the battleground, his eyes facing the floor. After the introductions, the deeply religious Ukrainian kissed his rosary beads and crossed himself three times. Make no mistake, he too was ready for war.
Ever since the announcement of the contest, the exceptionally skilled Usyk – one of the top pound-for-pound boxers on the planet – had been regarded as a significant favourite. Bellew himself had stated during fight week that the only chance he had was “a puncher’s chance.” This made it all the more surprising when he boxed his way – yes, boxed, not fought – to an early lead. In fact, I gave him each of the first three rounds.
The opener was very cagey and tense. Southpaw Usyk, 31, bounced on his toes, moving his lead right hand in a circular motion, attempting to unsettle Bellew. However, the only two noteworthy punches of the round were landed by the 35-year-old challenger – a left hook downstairs and a jab up top.
Usyk got his own jab going in the second, hitting the mark on three occasions. Bellew responded by digging in a right uppercut to the body and a short right hook to the head. An arrowing left zoomed in from Usyk, but Bellew struck back with a straight right. It was a tight session, but Bellew’s shots seemed to have a bit more verve to them.
In round three, Bellew enjoyed growing success with sharp counter rights, timing Usyk’s attempted jabs perfectly, even when cajoled into a corner. In the fourth, however, the illustrious visitor began to find his rhythm. A sweet left hook buzzed Bellew, who then missed wildly with a hook of his own.
Usyk connected with a shooting left, followed by a one-two, but a Bellew straight right caught his attention. The Brit indulged in some showboating towards the end of the frame, casually leaning back on the ropes in an attempt to goad his rival. Nevertheless, it was Usyk’s round.
Although by this point his potent left hand was coming into play more, Usyk was still reluctant to let it go freely – seemingly wary of Bellew’s counter rights. The Scouser scored with a couple of single strikes in the fifth, yet was beginning to eat more and more jabs. This trend continued in the sixth, with Usyk’s range-finder zoning in on the Englishman.
Gracefully gliding around the ring like a star of Swan Lake, an increasingly confident Usyk snuck in a left hand as Bellew fell short with his jab. A stiff jab from Usyk knocked his foe’s head back, though the unbeaten Kiev man was forced to swallow a right hook. The fighters were now level on my scorecard going into the seventh.
Usyk stabbed at Bellew’s body with a spearing left to start the session, his fast jabs chipping away at the Merseysider. Yet arguably the best blow came from Bellew, who curled his honey-punch left hook around Usyk’s guard. It was difficult to separate the pair in the stanza – an even round seemed the fairest interpretation. This meant that, for me, the scores were tied heading into the eighth.
Usyk swiped at Bellew with a right, then made him stumble slightly with a left hook. The same shot momentarily froze the Evertonian, but this was only a prelude to the emphatic finish that was to come. Usyk pawed out his right before unleashing a sumptuous left hook that sent Bellew sprawling, his head bouncing off the bottom rope as he slammed to the canvas. Courageous until the end, a dazed Bellew attempted to regain his footing, but referee Terry O’Connor correctly waved the bout off at 2-00.
Now retired, Bellew – who, at the time of the stoppage, was ahead on two of the official scorecards and drawing on one – should look back with great pride on a career in which he won British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight belts, claimed European and WBC cruiserweight honours, and twice halted former two-weight world titlist David Haye at heavyweight.
For Usyk, his next stop will surely be heavyweight, where he believes a mouth-watering matchup with unified world champion Anthony Joshua “is going to happen.” It remains to be seen how the 200lb maestro will fare up in the land of the giants, but what isn’t in doubt is his status as one of the greatest cruiserweights of all time.