“I TRIED my best and gave it everything I’d got,” said Tony Bellew after Oleksandr Usyk sent him spraying through the ropes and clinging to consciousness in round eight. “Make sure you clap him, he’s a great fighter. He’s a better fighter than me, he’s the best I ever fought.”
It was a brutal ending yet Bellew – in a way that only Bellew can – decorated that savage conclusion with elegance and honesty. It was the night that “Bomber” finally went full circle. Once the angriest of young men, Bellew exits the sport as a gentleman whose sportsmanship and determination should act as inspiration to all.
We saw the real Tony Bellew so many times over the last few months. We saw him when he accepted the challenge of Usyk, a formidable world cruiserweight champion who almost every neutral observer picked to win. At 35, Bellew – a heavyweight since 2016 – entered a gruelling training camp designed only to shock the world.
As always, Bellew was a reporter’s dream as he put his body through hell in the build-up. Few other fighters in recent years have been as generous with their time, accepting that the media have a job to do, aware also that a few words from him would shift more tickets and pay-per-views. Bellew understands the boxing business. As his canniness in the ring increased so too did his savvy outside the ropes. The career turnaround he orchestrated after losing to Adonis Stevenson in 2013 deserves so much praise.
The reinvention at cruiserweight alongside coach Dave Coldwell, the WBC title won at Goodison Park and the two against the odds victories over David Haye turned Bellew from nearly man to all-conquering hero. But still he wanted to test himself against the best fighter out there.
He spoke honestly about the size of the task he was facing and of his will to win. He was obsessed with victory but always realistic, always respectful of his opponent. And, of course, he spoke about the end of his career. But boxing has been an obsession for Bellew. He will not find it easy to say goodbye. And neither will we, the public he charmed and entertained.
By the time the showdown started, inside an electric Manchester Arena, Bellew looked anything but a fighter who had retirement in mind. He started the bout impressively, taking the fight to Usyk. Looping right hands scored, his excellent jab on target. Problem was, as the Englishman went full pelt and took the lead, Usyk – not once flustered or ragged under fire – was just getting started. Happy to take his time, the Ukrainian, behind some devilish counter lefts, upped the pace in the fifth and took over in rounds six and seven.
The finish in the eighth was brilliant. Usyk’s southpaw left hand was scoring more and more regularly. Bellew was losing his shape and fitness as he tried to keep his rival off him. The final left hand, short and accurate, sent the former WBC champion down in a heap. His eyes rolled as promoter Eddie Hearn, visibly distressed, leapt from his feet and instinctively went to his fighter’s aid. At the last moment he resisted helping “Bomber” to his feet, knowing Bellew would not have thanked him for that. But it was all over. The referee called it off as the proud Scouser, with a snotty stream of blood dribbling from his nose, struggled to his feet.
The day has come for Tony Bellew to walk away from the sport of boxing. There will be moments over the coming weeks and months when he will wonder if he’s doing the right thing by retiring. He must resist the urge to fight one more time when that urge arrives, because it will, it always does. In many ways the loss to Usyk, which came after what might have been Bellew’s best performance, is an even better way to leave the sport than those victories over Haye.
It’s onwards and upwards for Usyk. The heavyweight division has been put on alert, the world will watch what happens next with interest.
For Bellew, a man always adored by his family, his city of Liverpool and now his country too, there really is nothing left to prove.