A look back at the first time Nathan Cleverly and Tony Bellew squared off ahead of their PPV rematch Saturday.
On October 15th 2011, two undefeated light heavyweights met at Liverpool’s Echo Arena with the WBO world title on the line. The Champion, Nathan Cleverly (22-0), one of the then rising star of British boxing and the unbeaten former British Commonwealth and European champion. The challenger, Tony Bellew (16-0), a popular, charismatic, big punching and big talking local lad who was becoming a reliable ticket seller in the area.
As the UK’s two leading light heavyweights, a match up between the pair was a logical step business wise and had already been in the works for some time prior. The trouble was that the gap in levels between them appeared to be widening. Cleverly was growing into his role as championship – improving fight on fight and starting to look like the genuine article. While Bellew, the older man, was seemingly beginning to plateau – pushing his maximum against domestic level opposition. The feeling for many at the time was that this would be ‘one and done’ competing at the higher level for the Liverpudlian, and if the fight was going to happen, it would have to be now before Cleverly had pulled away further.
On the night, Bellew performed way above the expectations of most; producing a showing which far eclipsed anything he had done previously in his pro career. However, it wasn’t quite enough to get the job done, as the judges (not without controversy) deemed the young champion to have done just enough to hold on to his belt via close majority decision.
It was a great all British world title fight first time around, On Saturday, the fighters will be the same, the arena will be the same, but the division has changed, and this time there’s no championships up for grabs. They instead compete as two more knowledgeable and more experienced boxers for cruiserweight credibility.
That’s what’s ahead of us, but this is about how we got there. Here we’re taking a look back at their first encounter to see where it was won and lost, and what can be learned from it going into Saturday’s headliner. Did Bellew have a case or was Cleverly able to just outlast him? I have re-analysed and re-scored it with today’s eyes and included my round by round breakdown and full scorecard.
Rewritten: Cleverly vs Bellew 1
I have included fight footage from the original BoxNation broadcast next to the corresponding rounds, so you can follow along as it happened and score the fight for yourself.
This is one of the least cautious opening rounds to a major fight you will see. Neither guy is being reckless or defensively negligent, but it’s straight down to business. They’re each standing their ground, big shots firing in both directions, and some pretty clean connections too for early doors. On Saturday, when there’s an extra 25 pounds on the scales, I’m not sure they can really afford to take those risks cold. The best shots came from Cleverly, but there’s more variety to Bellew’s work. Tough round to score.
The first round was debatable, this one wasn’t. Huge session for Tony Bellew. This is the round where most people realised Tony had a real shot in this fight. In the opener, Nathan’s jab went unchallenged. Here, Bellew was able to get his own going, and it opened up way more attacking options for him. Cleverly was visibly rattled a couple of times in Belew’s big flurry. He recovered well though. Nathan’s chin has been underrated in the aftermath of the Kovalev wipe-out. The guy has always taken a shot well.
The fight has settled now and has become more tactical. In The Gloves Are Off show this week Bellew flat out refuted that Cleverly is a more versatile or technically superior boxer than he is. If you’re looking for evidence to back up his claim, this is it. Bellew’s timing is superb here. He’s using the distance to draw Cleverly’s jab, land with his own, and then step in and target the right to the body. Excellent round for the Liverpool man.
It’s again Bellew controlling the fight with the double and triple jabs. He’s finding a home for it right down the middle by punching straight through Cleverly’s guard. I know that that defensive weakness is something his team are again game-planning to target in the rematch. If there is one correction you are looking to see Nathan make this time around, it would be tightening up that gap. Bellew completely outboxed him in this one.
If you feel Cleverly took this fight, this is probably the round he did it in. Bellew showed the first signs he was starting to breath heavy, and when he stepped back, Nathan followed him in close and forced him to continue working. Bellew was able to answer back, turning him against the ropes and having a strong spell of his own, but it was all draining action, and the Welshman was the one who finished the round on the ascendancy. The sly low blow late probably didn’t help Bellew’s stamina issues none either. This was a close round, but it changed the pattern of the fight and stopped the rot for Nathan.
This is the first round I can say I strongly favoured Cleverly. He worked over the body well here, and it caused openings upstairs for him to slip in the uppercut. Bellew started to look very ragged and heavy legged. He was leaving his head up and breathing through the mouth, and it made him an easy target for Nathan to pick off. Cleverly is setting a pace his opponent can’t match and just pressuring his way back into the fight. He was perhaps a little fortunate though not to get pulled up for continuing to stray low here.
Bellew looks absolutely spent coming out of the corner, but he turned in an incredible work-rate for this round. Cleverly looked the much fresher and stronger, but Tony just kept forcing out the punches one after another. I was still hesitant to give him the nod in this session because for most of the round it was just pure volume; there was absolutely nothing on the shots, but he did find one big shot to the body right on the bell which just about clinched it for him.
I liked Bellew again in this one. Cleverly was just marauding forward and trying to force work from his foe, but he had completely forgotten his boxing. Every time there is an inch of space between them Tony finds a couple of clean strikes and circles out just piling up the points and outscoring the champion.
There’s no question to me that Tony Bellew won the boxing contest part of this fight. He’s out-jabbed Cleverly all night. This round was fought entirely at range. The slower pace suited Bellew and he was able to just nick it again with the cleaner connects. I have The Bomber up by three with three to go.
This session was close. The difference between them was two big Bellew rights though. Taking them out of the equation, it was nip and tuck round for Cleverly, but Tony found the best couple of punches he’s thrown since the second round and stole it all away. If he had more left in the tank, they might have been show closers.
Cleverly came out with the look of somebody chasing a fight in the eleventh. There’s urgency to his work. He’s getting in at close quarters, pushing the pace, and Bellew can’t match him for output. He’s also able to pick some shots off while moving around on the outside. Something he had no success doing earlier. A good frame for the champion.
Cleverly produced the goods in the last round. He was the one who still had something left to give in those final three minutes, and although Bellew tried his best to hang with him, he’s been running on empty for a few rounds now. Nathan landed his biggest shots of the entire fight here as the clock wore down. Big looping right-hand haymakers catching Bellew clean on the jaw. A terrific effort from the younger man, but on my card, it shouldn’t have been enough to hold on to his title.
Result: Cleverly by majority decision
Terry O’Connor – 114-114 even
Phil Edwards – 116-113 Cleverly
Dave Parris – 117-112 Cleverly
On my card
My final score was 115-113 Bellew. This was a close fight so I couldn’t call it a robbery either way. When I watched it live, I had them split at six rounds a piece – the same card as Terry O’Connor had on the night – but my gut was that if I did have to give it to somebody, it would have been Cleverly based on the balance of the contest as a whole.
On second viewing though, I was surprised by that stretch from rounds 7 to 10 where I had Bellew running out a commanding lead. I really feel after watching this back that he should have had a world title reign to his name. There are five rounds which I see as very debatable: 1, 5, 7, 9 and 10. The first two of those I gave to Cleverly and the later three to Bellew, so there’s enough leeway there to swing the fight in either direction. Phil Edwards card I believe falls very much within that range. Dave Parris’s score I feel is just a touch wide.
Final thoughts ahead of the rematch
Conventional wisdom going into the first fight was that Bellew was the brawler and Cleverly the boxer, and conventional wisdom got turned on it’s head here. There’s no doubt that Bellew won the boxing match first time around. Nathan had his best success when it was fought in the trenches, battling away on the inside and just staying busier.
Going into the rematch, the prevailing line of thought has been it’s either Bellew by KO or Cleverly on points, and perhaps, that again is missing the mark. Bellew is the bigger banger for sure, but he’s also the weaker chinned. Cleverly at cruiserweight may have the power to do him damage. On the other-hand, Bellew clearly outscored Cleverly when he was fresh first time of asking and Nathan only got back into the fight as he faded. A none weight drained Bellew may have enough in the tank to see out the job over twelve.
The weight is obviously going to have a role to play. The jump between light heavy and cruiser is bigger than any other in boxing. Who can handle it better? Bellew is the naturally bigger man. There’s no doubt that in his last fight at 175 against Stevenson, he looked weakened by the weight. Will not having to cut nearly two stone off his frame mean he holds up better over the distance this time around?
What about Cleverly? Does he belong this far up the scales? Will being that bit heavier erode from his workrate which was so crucial in the first fight. Cleverly’s head trainer for this camp has been a strength and conditioning coach and not a renowned boxing expert. Has there been too much of a focus on building him up physically rather than keeping the skills sharp? I’m sure we will find out.
Cleverly/Bellew 1 was the first real twelve round war of either man’s career. Had they re-matched six months on from it, I think what they each had learned from the first fight about their opponent and about themselves, would have completely changed the dynamic of the match up already. Now three years on, it’s a different story again. They’ve both had the big fight experience, they’ve both dealt with major defeats, and they’re both now looking to re-establish themselves in a new division. Who has learned more on that journey and who can make the better adjustments? The first time there was controversy, this time I think it will be conclusive.