By Nick Halling
Earlier this week, former world light heavyweight champion Nathan Cleverly said it is “inevitable” that he will meet his domestic rival Tony Bellew once again. Inevitable it certainly is. Barring injuries, or an unexpected defeat for either man, the inevitable is expected to become reality in Liverpool in late November. A date has been pencilled in at the city’s Echo Arena, and it could well be for a lot more than British bragging rights.
There are whispers that the fight may well be a final eliminator for the WBC title. Bellew currently has a top five ranking with the WBC, and although Cleverly in not ranked by them, that should not prove a serious impediment. The current WBC champion is the Pole, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk. It’s far too early to talk about a deal being done, but the groundwork is certainly being prepared.
Both men are now campaigning at cruiserweight after suffering a shattering defeat at light heavy – Cleverly blasted out by Sergei Kovalev, and Bellew similarly despatched by Adonis Stevenson – and both have said that they don’t expect to hang around too long before being given another shot at a world crown.
The two met for Cleverly’s WBO light heavy title in October 2011, with the Welshman gaining a majority decision. Bellew, especially, has clamoured for a return engagement ever since. Both are intelligent operators who know how to play the game. Bellew, in particular, bangs the drum as effectively as anyone in British boxing, and Cleverly is quite happy to play along with it.
The dislike they profess for each other may be genuine or it may be manufactured, but either way it doesn’t matter. It is whipping up interest in a potential grudge match which will see both men well rewarded financially (the pragmatic Cleverly will also forfeit home advantage in the knowledge that Liverpool represents a better payday) and the winner will be on course for the world title. Sharing a common promoter, Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn, will help ensure that a deal both men want will get done.
Cleverly makes his cruiser debut in Cardiff on Saturday against Guyana’s Sean Corbin, and should expect to prevail against an opponent whose previous three ventures into Europe have ended in stoppage defeats (including a previous Cleverly victim, Karo Murat). There’s nothing on Corbin’s record to suggest that Cleverly is in potential trouble.
Bellew made his bow at the higher weight in March, when he impressed – albeit despite a genuine mid-fight wobble – against the gritty Russian Valery Brudov. The Liverpool man looked sharp throughout, finishing with an exclamation mark by emphatically stopping his opponent in the last.
Bellew is currently in camp for his next engagement in July. An opponent has not been confirmed, but is expected to be of at least a comparable standard as Brudov. If he gets through that one, Bellew will then almost certainly be put into mothballs until November.
Assuming Cleverly is not on the end of an upset against Corbin, he will have an option to have another fight in the summer – quite possibly on the same Liverpool bill as Bellew in July - before settling down to plan seriously for November.
Both fighters freshened up their camps following defeat, with promotions coming from within. Bellew parted company on amicable terms with the respected trainer Mick McAllister to work with Dave Coldwell, a trusted and valued member of his inner circle.
Coldwell may be the hardest working man in British boxing, and is certainly the most versatile. In addition to training Bellew, he also promotes and manages a string of decent fighters, as well as working regularly as a cutsman. From training in his home city, Bellew now works out of Coldwell’s Rotherham gym, a 200 mile round trip.
In contrast, Cleverly decided to pitch his tent closer to home. Having considered the possibility of working with Adam Booth in London, the Welshman eventually decided to stay in South Wales and upgrade his strength and conditioning coach, Darren Wilson, to the top job. Wilson is no green novice, having worked the corners for a number of fighters, including Jamie Arthur and Jason Cook, in championship contests. The new gig is unlikely to overwhelm him.
Everything seems to be in place. If the two boxers can keep their end of the bargain, expect another huge domestic dustup on Merseyside in November.
There’s a big opportunity for Welsh super middleweight champion Tobias Webb to make a name for himself on Saturday night. Webb challenges rising star Callum Smith for the WBC International title in Cardiff, and if he puts up a decent showing, it could elevate him to British championship level.
Smith will be the overwhelming favourite, and rightly so, simply because he has demolished every opponent he has faced. Observing Smith go to work is the equivalent of watching a combine harvester mowing down a field of corn – unstoppable, efficient, and clinically effective. Smith looks future world title material.
But Smith potentially might have a tougher fight on his hands than many people expect. Webb’s record shows just one defeat (to Rocky Fielding in Prizefighter), and just two stoppages from 14 wins. He’s also never been past six rounds.
That might scream mismatch. Except that Webb has recently engaged in some high level sparring. Earlier this month he was working with Nathan Cleverly, and prior to that, he spent a total of three weeks in Germany, where he helped WBO super middle boss Arthur Abraham prepare for his recent successful defence against Nikola Sjekloca.
Whispers out of Germany say that Webb put the German over with a body shot. Webb is saying nothing himself: most sparring partners would be mortified at putting their employer on the floor, which is most certainly not what they’re paid for. But reportedly Abraham legitimately went down, albeit briefly, and the spar soon continued with Abraham fully recovered.
This information will be of great interest to Callum’s older brother, Paul Smith. The British champion harbours hopes of securing a shot at Abraham himself later this year, and might be tempted to pick the Welshman’s brains.
Ironically, Webb’s name had been put forward as a possible contender for Paul Smith’s Lonsdale belt earlier this year, but the British Boxing Board turned the request down. Presumably they looked at Webb’s record and observed that although he has been scheduled for 10 rounds, he’s yet to go past six. Boxers with less experience have been ushered through to British championship contests in the past, but on this occasion the Board decided to dig their heels in.
Webb has a new trainer working with him in South Wales, former pro Chris Ware, whose own career ended after four fights unbeaten with hand damage. A fitness fanatic, Ware has been licking Webb into shape physically.
But those close to the fighter feel they have observed a maturing mentally too. He’s recently married, and the experience of being on his own for sparring in a foreign country has definitely toughened him up psychologically.
It’s far-fetched at the least to suggest that Webb is going to shock us all and spring an upset against Callum Smith. But it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that lasting the distance, or even simply asking some serious questions of the young prospect, would represent a significant achievement in itself. This one’s worth keeping an eye on.
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports.