Tony Bellew's brave and heroic career ends in brutal knockout as he is out-classed by Oleksandr Usyk
This is the way Tony Bellew's extraordinary professional career ends, with the bang he had promised all those who cared to listen.
With the wide-eyed conviction of a travelling priest Bellew had insisted the only thing more glorious than his inevitable victory would be a crushing defeat, laid out on his back with the constellation of ring lights boring through his eye-lids. It came. Bellew was too brave, Usyk too brutally brilliant.
This devastatingly entertaining fight painfully confirmed what we have always known to be sadly true: there are no fairytale endings in boxing.
In reality, Bellew was quite possibly the only man who ever seriously believed the great Oleksandr Usyk could be toppled. And to his great credit, he showed absolutely zero deference to the undisputed cruiserweight king, beckoning his rival forward and hurting him with well-timed hooks from either wing. It wasn't enough. The finish came in the eighth: a straight left from the heavens which saw Bellew collapse to the canvas and fail to beat the count.
Just inches away from the panicked glares of promoter Eddie Hearn and trainer Dave Coldwell, Bellew peeled himself up from off the canvas before breaking into tears on his stool. As expected, by both bookmakers and boxing fans alike, Bellew did not have enough in the arsenal to ascend the empyrean occupied by Gene Tunney, James J Braddock, Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks, Evander Holyfield and Tyson Fury. A fine, fortunate boxer, one of the sport's greatest ever upsets was to prove just beyond his wearied grasp. There is no shame in that.
"I tried my best and I gave it everything, but Usyk is a great, great champion," a magnanimous Bellew said immediately afterwards, after embracing his wife. "He beat me fair and square and I have no excuses. He is the greatest man I have ever shared a ring with and only the very best and very greatest will find a way to beat him."
As one storied cruiserweight career ends, another emerges into the full glare of the global spotlight. And not before time. Even bigger fights are already on the horizon. "With Eddie Hearn we can make some great fights. Usyk definitely needs to fight Anthony Joshua," his promoter, Alex Krassyuk, said. "I will have some extra pasta for dinner," deadpanned the champion.
There had been a respectful, above all restrained build-up to this most seismic of contests — just the sixth time in history that two men have fought for all four major belts — but that went out the window as soon as a wild Bellew made his entrance. He impatiently beat the ropes after making his way into the prize-ring and, suddenly there was Usyk, eyes fixed on the camera, that ever so bizarre bowl cut so razor trim that it gave him the look of a mad-eyed manic monk.
Yet it was a phoney war, at first. Bellew cautiously prowling forward, flicking out rather than throwing that famous left hook. And Usyk on the back foot, calculating, competing. Such a state of affairs was never going to last for long and, midway through the second, Bellew lost it: slapping his knees and screaming at his rival with all the demented rage of a madman.
It did the trick. And from ringside the pace was dizzying. Usyk hopped, skipped and danced his way around the ring as Bellew began to tear around in pursuit, with one clubbing right hook landing and earning the Ukrainian's respect. Stung, he upped the aggression, leading to the incredible sight of Usyk wildly throwing leather while Bellew effectively bobbed and weaved for dear life, like a big, bald Vasyl Lomachenko with a fortnight-old beard.
It was as brilliant as it was bizarre. But Bellew — 35-years-old and in a fight that he had spent all week insisting would be his last — could not maintain the pace forever. As the fight ticked over the halfway point he began to visibly tire, and a stinging counter left obliterated his by now completely absent defence a fraction of a second after the bell for the end of the seventh round.
As the ball continued to reverberate around a packed Manchester Arena, Usyk reclined back into his corner like a man sinking into an armchair, cigar in one hand and whisky on the rocks in the other. Bellew meanwhile staggered to his corner and the writing was on the wall. He returned for the eighth only to walk onto that crushing left, and the war was over.
"I thought he won the first three rounds but he was starting to fade a little," was Hearn's verdict. "He's given absolutely everything to this sport, and I'm so pleased that people got to see the real Bellew. We are so proud of him. He can leave the sport knowing that he fought the very best."
As the lights went up in the Manchester Arena the curtain came down on Bellew's time as a boxer. His is the story of hard work and good fortune, a Commonwealth, European and British champion whose career appeared to be winding down in 2015 before four thrilling fights in three years elevated him to a special place in the nation's affections.
He is now free to finally vacate this most dangerous of stages and devote himself to what comes next. He has his reputation, his health and his millions. And so while this may have fallen short of the fairytale ending the well lubricated Manchester masses roared for, perhaps it wasn't far off at all.
Earlier in the night, Anthony Crolla was tough enough to grind out a victory over the ungainly and awkward Daud Yordan, but drew the line at publicly calling out Usyk's equally freakish compatriot, the great Vasyl Lomachenko. "I'm never going to be disrespectful enough to call him out," said Crolla. "But I would love to have that fight. And this is my hometown and a very special arena to me."
Knockout of the night meanwhile went to Scotland's three-weight world champion Ricky Burns, whose stiff right hand sent domestic rival Scotty Cardle toppling over in a sickeningly lurching fashion. "I'm always waiting on the phone call and I hope there are still big fights for me," Burns insisted. There were also wins for domestic favourites Dave Allen and the ever impressive Josh Kelly. The welterweight will return next month with a fight against former world champion David Avanesyan.
Independent News Service