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 Germany’s Juergen Braehmer, training and showing up ready to make weight and fight. Brahmer didn’t, 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 didn’t make weight on Friday.
“It was difficult, a lot of changes,” said Cleverly. “I 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 doesn’t 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 you’ve 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 wasn’t going to take place, that it was too late notice to find and opponent.”
Warren came to the rescue once again though, with Poland’s 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.
“I thought I’ve trained so long and hard, why not get in there and just fight? So that’s what I did and it turned out to be a good night.”
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.
“The confidence comes from not worrying about the opponent in front of you,” he said. “As long as I’m one hundred percent prepared and I’m fit and I’m ready to fight, then regardless of the opposition, the result is going to be inevitable because I feel that when I’m one hundred percent, I can pull off the victory.”
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). It’s a bad blood meeting that has been heating up for a while, with Cleverly’s father and trainer Vincent even causing a stir at a September press conference that brought in the police to settle things down.
“Being two British fighters, there’s an automatic rivalry because we’re in the same weight division, we’re both undefeated, and ultimately I have the belt that Tony Bellew really wants, so obviously he’s been saying a few disrespectful things, I’ve been, I suppose, returning a few verbals, and it’s just elevated from there really. It’s turned into a real grudge match.”
And if there’s one thing British boxing produces better than practically any other nation, it’s 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.
“It’s important, in personal terms, to keep my unbeaten record and to remain world champion,” said Cleverly. “That’s number one. But secondly, the fight is also for bragging rights really. When you win the fight, there’s always the case of showing your opponent that talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words basically.”
“When you’re in boxing and in the sport to be a winner, I think you prepare to go to your limits in whatever fight you’re in against any opponent,” he continues. “It’s obviously added spice to this fight because of the rivalry, but I think in terms of effort and giving your all, it’s gonna be the same as any other fight, and that’s how it should be. Just because of the grudge, I don’t think it should affect how emotionally involved you get in the fight.”
If Cleverly’s cool, yet confident approach to the game sounds eerily similar to another Wales native of note, it’s 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.
“I 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,” said Cleverly. “I 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 can’t buy that experience and it’s something I’m very grateful for, and it puts me in good stead for the future and the place I am in my career right now.”
As a world titleholder, he’s already ahead of the pace Calzaghe (who was 17-0 and a British champion) set at 24, and that’s 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 doesn’t want to stick around past his welcome. In fact, he’s already got a number in his head – six fights before retiring.
“I’m in this sport and I’m quite intense,” he said. “I 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 I’ll continue to do that and there’s only a certain amount of time that you can get away with that and do that in your career. So provided I’ve earned enough money from the sport, my intention is to remain unbeaten and to really get out of the sport while I’m healthy and maybe find another challenge in life, which is what I’ve done since I was a young boy. I’ve always looked for different things to keep me occupied and keep me challenged, and after six fights, that could be the case.”
That doesn’t 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.
“Once you’ve established yourself in the UK and you’ve kind of established yourself as number one and you obviously become world champion, it’s 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,” he said. “In most cases, that’s 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, that’s appealing to me. I’ve been to America on several occasions on holiday and I boxed on an undercard there once and I absolutely loved the occasion and I’m really interested, so it’s something I intend on doing in the near future.”
But first there’s Bellew, and in his challenger’s hometown of Liverpool no less. It’s 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 it’s on short notice or in their backyard. And then you go on and win.
“I kind of looked at the situation and thought ‘I am world champion now and I should be beating these guys regardless of whether it’s on home turf or away in their backyard,’” said Cleverly. “It’s 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.”