By Thomas Gerbasi
As Nathan Cleverly sat in his London hotel room in May, just before what should have been the biggest moment of his career, he thought about packing his bags and heading back to Wales for a moment, and no one would have blamed him if he did.
He fulfilled his part of the bargain before his WBO light heavyweight bout against Germanyís Juergen Braehmer, training and showing up ready to make weight and fight. Brahmer didnít, pulling out of the fight on the Wednesday before the opening bell.
The withdrawal saw Cleverly elevated from interim to full 175-pound champion, and he still wanted to fight, so his promoter, Frank Warren, found him an opponent in Commonwealth titlist Tony Bellew. Bellew didnít make weight on Friday.
ďIt was difficult, a lot of changes,Ē said Cleverly. ďI think I had been in training for four to five months for that fight (with Braehmer) because of a few cancellations and change of dates. I was actually in training camp for a very long time for one opponent, and when I hear about two days before the fight that the opponent doesnít arrive in the country, it was a bit of a blow because you had your heart and your mind set on one individual. But this is boxing and sometimes youíve got to deal with this. And then there was another change of opponent. In steps Tony Bellew, and he fails to make the fight unsurprisingly, and obviously we got another change. At one point I was in the hotel and I contemplated just packing up and going home because I thought the fight wasnít going to take place, that it was too late notice to find and opponent.Ē
Warren came to the rescue once again though, with Polandís Aleksy Kuziemski. Sure, on paper, Cleverly should have had no difficulty with this new foe, but after so many changes on fight week and with a hungry 34-year old veteran (who had previously lost a title bout to Braehmer) perhaps looking at his last shot at glory, the danger was clear and present.
Cleverly took the fight.
ďI thought Iíve trained so long and hard, why not get in there and just fight? So thatís what I did and it turned out to be a good night.Ē
It was, with Cleverly looking sharp from the opening bell before stopping Kuziemski in the fourth round. What was even better was that the card, which included the domestic battle between George Groves and James DeGale, was aired in the United States on the EPIX network, introducing Cleverly to an entirely new audience. It was a risk, but taking risks is part of the business as far as the 24-year old is concerned.
ďThe confidence comes from not worrying about the opponent in front of you,Ē he said. ďAs long as Iím one hundred percent prepared and Iím fit and Iím ready to fight, then regardless of the opposition, the result is going to be inevitable because I feel that when Iím one hundred percent, I can pull off the victory.Ē
On October 15th, Cleverly will look to make it 23-0 as a pro as he defends his full WBO crown for the first time against Bellew in a highly anticipated matchup at Echo Arena in Liverpool (airing live and exclusively in the UK on Sky Platform Ch. 456). Itís a bad blood meeting that has been heating up for a while, with Cleverlyís father and trainer Vincent even causing a stir at a September press conference that brought in the police to settle things down.
ďBeing two British fighters, thereís an automatic rivalry because weíre in the same weight division, weíre both undefeated, and ultimately I have the belt that Tony Bellew really wants, so obviously heís been saying a few disrespectful things, Iíve been, I suppose, returning a few verbals, and itís just elevated from there really. Itís turned into a real grudge match.Ē
And if thereís one thing British boxing produces better than practically any other nation, itís compelling domestic rivalries. Groves and DeGale did their thing earlier this year. Chris Eubank, Michael Watson, and Nigel Benn achieved legendary local status for their battles, and even Frank Bruno almost pulled off the upset when pitted against Lennox Lewis in 1993. And those are just a few. So putting the 22-0 Cleverly against the 16-0 Bellew is a masterstroke, and even though the Welshman is the favorite on paper, when you add in all the emotions involved with the bout, anything can happen.
ďItís important, in personal terms, to keep my unbeaten record and to remain world champion,Ē said Cleverly. ďThatís number one. But secondly, the fight is also for bragging rights really. When you win the fight, thereís always the case of showing your opponent that talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words basically.Ē
ďWhen youíre in boxing and in the sport to be a winner, I think you prepare to go to your limits in whatever fight youíre in against any opponent,Ē he continues. ďItís obviously added spice to this fight because of the rivalry, but I think in terms of effort and giving your all, itís gonna be the same as any other fight, and thatís how it should be. Just because of the grudge, I donít think it should affect how emotionally involved you get in the fight.Ē
If Cleverlyís cool, yet confident approach to the game sounds eerily similar to another Wales native of note, itís not a surprise, considering that one of his mentors in the game is retired super middleweight great Joe Calzaghe. A longtime sparring partner of Calzaghe, Cleverly got a front row seat as the southpaw cut a swath through the world boxing scene, finishing up undefeated after 2008 wins over Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr.
ďI started boxing in the same camp (as Calzaghe) at a young age and I saw with my own eyes what a world champion trains like, what he prepares like and basically how to deal with being a champion and what comes with being a champion in terms of the media and the people with the positive comments and people with the negatives,Ē said Cleverly. ďI had the opportunity to box on the undercards of these big events, so I gained invaluable experience fighting in big arenas and in front of thousands of people at such a young age so early in my career. You canít buy that experience and itís something Iím very grateful for, and it puts me in good stead for the future and the place I am in my career right now.Ē
As a world titleholder, heís already ahead of the pace Calzaghe (who was 17-0 and a British champion) set at 24, and thatís a good thing, because the holder of a degree in Mathematics from Cardiff University knows that boxing can be a numbers game, and as such, he doesnít want to stick around past his welcome. In fact, heís already got a number in his head Ė six fights before retiring.
ďIím in this sport and Iím quite intense,Ē he said. ďI prepare very, very well for a fight and I fight with a lot of heart, a lot of intensity, and sometimes my style is quite reckless, admittedly, but I kind of enjoy that. I get a buzz from putting it all on the line and taking risks, and I like that element of my style. So I think Iíll continue to do that and thereís only a certain amount of time that you can get away with that and do that in your career. So provided Iíve earned enough money from the sport, my intention is to remain unbeaten and to really get out of the sport while Iím healthy and maybe find another challenge in life, which is what Iíve done since I was a young boy. Iíve always looked for different things to keep me occupied and keep me challenged, and after six fights, that could be the case.Ē
That doesnít mean he wants to stay strictly on the European circuit though. The United States and the big names there are on his hit list as well, and though he may have to hurry, he does want to get in all the major fights he can while he can.
ďOnce youíve established yourself in the UK and youíve kind of established yourself as number one and you obviously become world champion, itís always a dream for any British fighter at the top to go and make a name for themselves in America, and really take on the top American guys,Ē he said. ďIn most cases, thatís where the real best guys are, and to prove yourself at home first and then push yourself and test yourself against the elite, which would be in America, thatís appealing to me. Iíve been to America on several occasions on holiday and I boxed on an undercard there once and I absolutely loved the occasion and Iím really interested, so itís something I intend on doing in the near future.Ē
But first thereís Bellew, and in his challengerís hometown of Liverpool no less. Itís a gutsy move by the young champion, who is taking that belt around his waist very seriously. The way he sees it, as a champion, you take on all comers, whether itís on short notice or in their backyard. And then you go on and win.
ďI kind of looked at the situation and thought ĎI am world champion now and I should be beating these guys regardless of whether itís on home turf or away in their backyard,íĒ said Cleverly. ďItís a boxing ring and may the best man win, and I think the best man will nine times out of 10 come out on top, and the true champion will always find a way to win regardless of the environment.ĒTags: Nathan Cleverly , Tony Bellew , Cleverly-Bellew , Cleverly vs Bellew