By Jake Donovan
Tony Bellew pined for a rematch with Nathan Cleverly from the moment he was announced as the losing fighter in their terrific Oct. ’11 slugfest. A second dance with the unbeaten light heavyweight titlist never happened; neither, for the foreseeable moment, will a mandated shot at any other major title.
Several shifts in tide led to a split decision draw between Bellew and Isaac Chilemba in their 12-round light heavyweight eliminator Saturday evening in Bellew’s hometown of Liverpool, England.
Scores were 116-112 for Chilemba, 116-115 in favor of Bellew and 114-114 even. The verdict came on the heels of a split decision draw in the evening’s co-feature, a rematch between Derry Mathews and Anthony Crolla.
Bellew came out purposeful in the opening round, forcing Chilemba to fight a quicker-than-desired pace. Combination punching was a bit uneven for the Brit, though often found a home for his straight right hand. The most anxious moments of the round came after the bell, when Chilemba engaged in trash talk, prompting Bellew to shove his opponent towards the corner.
Similarly inspired aggression was offered by Bellew in the second, while Chilemba spent much of the round circling the ring and offering little to no offense in return. Patience paid off in an active third round for the visiting South African, who for the first time in the fight outworked the house fighter.
Chilemba took the lead in a round four that saw the roles reversed. Active through the first two rounds, Bellew was now fighting in reverse through the first half the fourth before catching Chilemba with a combination on the inside. The fighters resumed their original roles by round’s end, as Bellew went on the hunt, catching his opponent with a lead right hand just before the bell.
The pattern carried over into round five, though Bellew’s corner was displeased with its fighter’s punch selection. A more efficient body attack was demanded, insisting that it was a waste of energy to chase a moving head target when the body is stationary.
Bellew didn’t quite follow through on the instructions, instead overthinking his mode of attack for most of the sixth round. Chilemba attempted to let his hands go, but most of the punches were blocked. Bellew scored with a straight right hand with a minute to go in the sixth, but Chilemba clinched enough to disallow his opponent to enjoy a sustained attack.
A round after Bellew caught an earful, the bold truth was laid out for Chilemba. Head trainer and former two-division champ James ‘Buddy’ McGirt demanded more action and less fighting in reverse from his fighter. Both boxers attempted to take the lead in a seventh round that saw more clinching and rabbit punching than effective aggression in either direction.
The offering from Chilemba wasn’t enough for his corner, demanding to know if the fighter really wanted to win the fight. The response was perhaps his best round of the fight to that point in the 8th, as Bellew’s activity continued to decrease.
A mid-fight adjustment was made by Chilemba to throw lead rights rather than take a step backwards. It worked for about 1 ½ rounds before Bellew began to time his foe midway through the ninth. Still, the visiting challenger refused to wilt, standing center ring and forcing his opponent to expend unnecessary energy.
His bravery nearly got the best of him, as Chilemba dropped his guard just enough for Bellew to connect with a left hook to the solarplexus and right hand upstairs to reclaim momentum. Bellew targeted the body in the 10th round, though at one point was warned for straying a bit low. Chilemba was no longer in stalking mode, instead stationary in center ring.
However, fatigue appeared to set in for both fighters as neither took the lead in the closing moments of the round.
Timing became key for Chilemba in the 11th round, briefly reverting back to counter punching mode but without the early rounds hesitance. A right hand from Bellew sailed far above its target, leaving the Brit open for a counter left hook to the body. It was enough for Chilemba to initiate the action, forcing Bellew to reconsider his means of attack heading into the final round.
With the fight seemingly on the table, it was Bellew who surged ahead down the stretch. A late rally prompted the hometown crowd to rise to its feet, if only to subtly sway the judges. Chilemba fought hard to the bitter end, scoring at times with long right hands.
Both fighters rightly celebrated at fight’s end, as opinions widely varied on social media outlets as to who won the fight.
Observations were just as varied on the official scorecards as a bout to determine a mandatory light heavyweight challenger ended in a deadlock.
Bellew’s record moves laterally to 19-1-1 (12KO), with a strong case to be made that he deserved the nod in both non-wins on his ledger.
Chilemba offered a better account of himself over the back half of the fight, though not until strongly urged by McGirt and his corner. His record now stands at 20-1-2 (9KO), having also previously fought to a 12-round draw with current super middleweight contender Thomas Oosthuizen.
With plans in place for defending titlist (and lineal light heavyweight champion) Chad Dawson to face Adonis Stevenson, there remains time to fill the vacant mandatory slot. A rematch is not out of the question, as both fighters excelled in spots but fell way short in several areas to where a return go could present a completely different look.
The bout served as the main event of a card that aired live on Wealth TV in the United States, and Sky Sports in the United Kingdom.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox