Tony Bellew praised Oleksandr Usyk to hilt in the build-up to his challenge to become undisputed Cruiserweight champion. And praised him to the hilt after being stopped by the undefeated, and often unreal, Ukrainian in Manchester.
“He was great, the best I shared a ring with, “ Bellew said post fight, slipping questions about whether he was winning the fight before the flashing left hand that sent him flying.
Bellew was winning on the cards of analysts Paul Malignaggi, Carl Froch and David Haye. Two of the three judges had him up too.
You sensed the tide had turned before the brutal conclusion though. As Darren Barker, former middleweight champion said to me, that ‘the championship’ rounds were yet to come. But that belied a significant takeaway - Bellew had already surprised us and Usyk.
That ability to to confound consensus opinion has been the theme of the Evertonian’s career since he left the frustrated toil of the light-heavy division after being stopped by another southpaw, Adonis Stevenson five years ago.
He surprised us by first playing the part of Liverpudlian boxing world champion fighting at Goodison Park in a Rocky film. He then surprised us by bringing Hollywood to life by winning a Cruiserweight world title at Goodison - home of his beloved Everton.
Then he surprised us by beating former heavyweight world champion David Haye - twice.
He couldn’t ultimately pull off the ultimate surprise win, but he surprised us and Usyk by troubling the storied opponent who’d won European, World and Olympic gold before waltzing through the pro ranks, collecting belts like most of us collect ‘bags for life.’
The Ukrainian couldn’t land. Couldn’t get close enough. The jab wafting in clear air as Bellew kept sidling out of range. Bellew’s right hand counters enough for him to edge into a surprise lead.
But the effort of making Usyk miss, of mixing up the range continuously, began to tire Bellew. Usyk’s left began to land in the middle rounds before detonating in the eighth to finish matters.
Bellew was stunned by a right jab. Then the power shot snapped his jaw and sent him tumbling dangerously into the ropes. Promoter Eddie Hearn, visibly frightened, jumped to his feet and almost made to cradle Bellew’s shaved head as it bounced on the bottom ropes.
A third and final defeat for Bellew. The curtain dragged dramatically down on his career. He briefly confirmed his resolution to retire post fight, but then the praise of Usyk flowed.
“He’s just better than me. You come up against great people in life and sometimes you lose and you have to accept it,” Bellew said, once he’d regained his senses.
The question now is who will stop Usyk? It seems it will have to be a heavyweight. He praised Bellew in his post-match ring interview via a translator, but made it clear he tends to take his slick skills to the land of the giants.
He also made sure to let the crowd know that he loves England. He won Olympic gold in London. Now he’s sealed his Cruiserweight legend in Manchester. And the crowd loved him at the end. For his skills and for his affection towards the felled Bellew. A respectful and warm ending to only the sixth fight ever for all the belts in boxing history.
It was left for Usyk’s English-speaking promoter to address the elephant in the room. “He definitely needs to fight Anthony Joshua,” Alexander Krassyuk clarified to the media and remaining fans ringside.
Usyk’s good. Very good. But can his skills compensate for a 3-inch height differential, a current three-stone weight disadvantage and a lack of reach when compared to the colossus who is Joshua?
Time will tell. Time will certainly remember him as all-time great Cruiserweight. A world champion in his 10th pro fight, successfully defending ‘all the marbles’ in his 16th.
It was a night of endings and beginnings for Bellew and Usyk. It was a night of second chances in the case of chief support and local hero Anthony Crolla, who earned a shot at his old WBA lightweight belt with a tireless and skilled points win over Indonesia’s Daud Yordan.
In the case of Ricky Burns, Scotland’s three-weight world champion it was the latest chapter in what is fast becoming boxing’s never ending story. Seventeen years a pro, in his 51st contest, Burns stopped Scotty Cardle in explosive fashion to underline his continued effervescence, enthusiasm and ambition.
He turned pro in 2001, months after the Spice Girls first quit. Maybe in 2019, will see not only the pop group’s reunion tour, but another Burns world title shot? Eddie Hearn says he’s working to make it happen. Just reward for a Scot who spends his weeks training in London while his family remains north of the border.
In the case of Richard Riakporhe, who won the domestic Cruiserweight clash with Sam Hyde, it was a night of learning. A night where Hyde boxed the better, but Riakporhe got out of jail with a big right that caused a shocking ballon-like swelling above Hyde’s left eye.
Ultimately, it was, overall, a sombre ending to the Tony Bellew story. But it was conclusive. No doubt, no dodgy decisions. No need to defy his family’s pleas to quit. He can enjoy a well-earned retirement after 11 years as a pro in which he’s surpassed all expectations.
And when Oleksandr Usyk is done, leading him on points after eight rounds, might be listed as an impressive last dance from Bellew. The heavyweight division will be on notice. And Bellew’s warning at the end of the night may turn out to be prophetic;
“Only the very best, and the very biggest, will find a way to beat him."
Usyk has all the belts and now he has drawn Tony Bellew’s fame. His next chapter will be box office.