By Chris McKenna, courtesy of The Daily Star
NATHAN CLEVERLY celebrated his last win in Las Vegas gambling on the poker tables at Planet Hollywood.
But this time he is putting his career on the line in the ring as he defends his WBA light-heavyweight title against Badou Jack this weekend at the T-Mobile Arena.
Cleverly, 30, will defend the belt he won last October for the first time against the Swedish-born fighter on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather’s mega money clash with Conor McGregor.
This clash is the real competitive fight on the card which is headlined by a one-sided mismatch.
Cleverly will face Jack, who held IBF super-middleweight champion James DeGale to a draw in January and beat George Groves in 2015 in a WBC title defence.
But now he is moving up in weight to challenge for the WBA belt and the Welshman insists it is win or bust for his career as he looks to reach the elite level in the sport.
“I would say it’s that crucial now,” said Cleverly, who has lost three of his 33 professional bouts.
“We are at the stage of my career that any defeat could be the end.
“I’m at the highest level and I’m here to stay. Defeat is not an option. I’m all in with this fight because if you win you’re in the big time.
“There are a lot of world champions in boxing but to break through that elite hierarchy, which is what the top fighters love, then I have to win this fight.
“I probably won’t reach this level again if I lose. It’s now or never for me. I’m two-time world champion but before I get out of boxing I want to reach that elite level.”
Cleverly’s use of “all-in” is apt considering he was going all-in on the poker tables here in 2008.
The Welshman claimed a points win against Antonio Baker in an eight-rounder on the undercard of compatriot Joe Calzaghe’s clash with Bernard Hopkins.
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And he celebrated by going off on his own to play poker and falling in love with Sin City.
“I didn’t really get a feel for the enjoyment side of Vegas until the day after the fight,” said a relaxed Cleverly as he chatted in his hotel suite at the New York New York hotel overlooking the T-Mobile Arena where he fights this weekend.
“I was staying in the Planet Hollywood hotel, I won my fight and I was on a high, high on life and embracing Vegas life.
“I remember just being on my own and loving it. I entered a few poker tournaments that night. I done OK. I didn’t make the final table but I was enjoying the moment. I didn’t care where I came.
“I like the vibrancy of it. I enjoy the casino side of it because I love the poker tournaments and it is a fight city.
“It’s got everything that I like. It’s got the boxing side of it and the poker. It’s the capital of boxing. I love that side of it.
“If you want to be big in boxing you come to Vegas. This is my seventh time. I came out just before Christmas after my world title win.
“But this time we are here this time strictly on business. This is not about Las Vegas leisure side. It’s all business.
“We have done our work back home and we are maintain that. I can’t be distracted now. We are all in until the fight now.”
Cleverly has been here since Thursday and has been out running along the Strip, dodging the thousands of tourists as he goes, as he sheds the last few pounds to make the light-heavyweight limit.
While this fight will be overshadowed by the hype around the main event, it is still a big one for both fighters as a possible clash with WBA ‘super’, IBF and WBO champion Andre Ward potentially awaits.
“Andre Ward is the elite fighter in the division – one of the best around,” added Cleverly. “He is a special fighter and that type of fighter only comes around once every generation.
“I think Ward is a smart, smart guy in and out of the ring and he knows his weight division is light-heavyweight.
“I think he will sit patiently and consider all options, specifically take a closer note of this fight because ultimately the winner is mandatory for Ward's 'super' title.”
Cleverly is gambling by taking on Jack – who has lost just once in 24 bouts – but the risk is worth the reward should the Welshman claim his 31st career win.
But there will be no poker tournament on Sunday as he has a 12.30pm plane to catch and he hopes to still have the WBA belt in his luggage for that trip.