And so this is the way Tony Bellew’s extraordinary professional boxing career ends, both with a bang and a whimper. “It is hard to go out like this, a loser,” Bellew whimpered at a desperately sad post-fight press conference in a small side room at the Manchester Arena, above the din of a small team of roadies dissembling the prize ring. “But I just would not have been able to live with myself had I not taken him on.”
The bang came a couple of hours before. 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, Oleksandr Usyk too brutally brilliant.
That this was quite possibly Bellew’s finest performance merely 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 Usyk could be overthrown. And to his credit, he showed absolutely zero deference to the undisputed cruiserweight king, beckoning his rival forward and hurting him with well-timed hooks from both wings. It was not enough. The finish came in the eighth: a left hook from the heavens which saw Bellew slump sadly towards the end.
Bellew peeled himself up slowly from off the canvas only for the referee, Terry O’Connor, to wave off the contest. As expected, by both bookmakers and boxing fans alike, Bellew did not possess quite enough to ascend to 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. How on earth could there be shame in that?
“I tried my best and I gave it everything, but 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,” a magnanimous Bellew said in centre ring. Later, he would quietly confide that Usyk had not been his only opponent. “To be honest, for the first time in my entire career, I got tired,” he added. “I don’t know why. And I don’t know how. But I was fucking tired in there.”
This barmy sort of fight did not only mark the epic conclusion of Bellew’s cruiserweight career. Usyk, too, looks finished with the division. The heavyweights, rather than retirement, awaits him. And not before time; even bigger nights loom enticingly 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.
Ultimately, Joshua awaits. Although Hearn would rather hand Usyk at least one scholastic scrap first. “He will want to move into heavyweight and get comfortable,” Hearn said, the Brylcreemed cat who got the cream. “I would like him to come to Whyte vs Chisora. There is also Joseph Parker, Carlos Takam, Jarrell Miller, Alexander Povetkin. But he will tell me the kind of fight he wants.”
First though, Usyk will need a holiday. For while there had been a respectful, restrained build-up to this fight — just the sixth proper four-belt unification fight in boxing history — it immediately jolted into life when a wild Bellew made his entrance. He impatiently beat the ropes after making his way into the ring and then there was Usyk, wide unblinking stare fixed on the camera, that bizarre bowl cut as razor sharp as ever.
Bellew started the better, pressuring his opponent and repeatedly slamming bearing hooks into Usyk’s fastidiously chiselled chest, with all the unerring efficiency of a jackhammer. He even found the time to showboat, first slapping his knees and screaming his rival forward, then briefly resting on the ropes after avoiding an uncharacteristically clumsy combo.
There was method to Bellew’s madness. In some boxing circles there is the suspicion that Usyk is too willing to stand and trade in the pocket; by urging the champion to attack him Bellew was courageously probing that flaw. And he enjoyed some success, too: particularly with a blood and thunder right hook in the fourth. “I know I hurt him,” Bellew smiled after. “He was better than me and I can accept that and live with that … but I know I hurt him.”
But Bellew — 35-years-old and in a fight that he had spent all week insisting would be his last — could not maintain that pace forever. And before long he was to experience that unfamiliar burn of lactic acid, blocking up his bloodstream like diesel in a petrol engine. As the fight ticked into the seventh round he began to tire, and a vicious flurry snuck in by Usyk a few nanoseconds after the bell left him visibly dazed.
As the bell continued to reverberate around the Manchester Arena, Usyk reclined back into his corner like a man sinking into an armchair, cigar in one hand and whiskey on the rocks in the other. Bellew meanwhile staggered to his corner and, suddenly, the writing was on the wall. He returned for the eighth only to walk onto that crushing left hook, 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.”
Bellew could hold back the tears no longer and they continued into his deeply impactful post-fight press conference. “I just want to be a normal person again, a normal man,” he said, sat alongside his longterm trainer and friend, Dave Coldwell. In front of him stood his parents with his wife, Rachel. “And I never thought this is how I would go out. A loser. But although I sit here as a loser tonight I know that I have won in life.”
As the lights went up all around the Manchester Arena the curtain came down on Bellew’s career. His is the story of hard work and good fortune, a Commonwealth, European and British champion whose time at the top 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, he is anything but a loser. Maybe it is closer to that fairytale ending than we can truly appreciate.
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.