By Tris Dixon
It was Bach who in playing down his mesmerising talents once said, “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”
A shrug of Oleksandr Usyk’s lean shoulders displayed a similar nonchalance.
There was no real way to articulately describe how he dismantled Tony Bellew, he just did it, the way that he does it.
When someone possesses such talent it is almost insulting to declare it as natural. Nature maybe goes a long way, but in a sport of repetition, drills and highly-trained athletes, nurture goes even further.
Usyk submitted a wonderfully composed display to retain every cruiserweight marble worth having on the world scene and send Bellew down, out and into a retirement he had promised before the first bell.
As advertised, there was no quit in the former WBC champion, and he accepted defeat with a dazed grace that prompted a concussion conversation worth having about when boxers should and should not be taken to hospital after they have taken their fair share of headshots.
“He’s a brilliant fighter,” conceded Bellew, who described his tormentor as “slick, strong and exceptional”.
“He’s so hard to pin down. He’s just better than me. “Accept it, man. I only wish greatness for him. That’s the difference between world class and elite level.”
Last night was not one of the evening’s where the stars of fate aligned for an underdog to topple a pre-fight favourite. There was not one contest-changing lightning bolt, not from Bellew’s gloves anyway, just an entertaining lesson in the difference between the two heights, world and elite.
It’s most painful illustration came in the eighth.
Usyk’s left hand had become increasingly bothersome. One nailed Bellew when he was in a corner, moments later another had him groggy on legs that were ready to abandon his wishes to stay upright and then the final boom was lowered.
Usyk curved in a copycat left and Bellew’s legs collapsed so suddenly that his head and the back of his neck ricocheted off the bottom rope in an instant.
Promoter Eddie Hearn rushed to cradle him from the safe side of the ropes yet, stubborn as ever, the Liverpudlian attempted to rise. With a couple of seconds remaining in the count, referee Terry O’Connor rightly ended matters.
It was an emphatic full-stop.
Usyk, who had fallen short with many of his attempts in the early going, had worked his way into a position of control and then closed the show.
He started round one on a scouting mission, letting comparatively timid range-finders go.
Meanwhile, Bellew was motoring in and out, not providing a static target, feinting and pawing.
The visitor was more aggressive in the second frame and Bellew speared him with rights to the body and tried to goad him into exchanges.
Usyk did not take the bait but his usually impressive footwork was not yet in play, instead it was Bellew’s swagger that was putting rounds in the bank.
The champion attempted to get closer again in the third, trying to force a fight but Bellew looked mindful of space and distance and was winning the jab battle.
He copped a clean shot when he dropped his hands in an unnecessary display of bravado, and was admonished by trainer Dave Coldwell in the corner afterwards for doing so, but Bellew – the supposedly crude and limited slugger – was surpassing expectations in the style and substance stakes.
The action was tense. It was engaging.
The climax was not yet inevitable.
In the fifth, however, Usyk began to catch the challenger with short lefts over and under Bellew’s right arm.
Bellew was being drawn in and guilty of staying in the pocket too long – taking on damage. Mostly he was just ‘guilty’ of not being as good as the best cruiserweight in the world.
At the bell to end the sixth, both landed big shots but it seemed Usyk’s had the greater effect and in the seventh Bellew was no longer as razor sharp. He no longer looked to work the body while Usyk did. The Englishman backed off, went into corners and was inviting trouble.
He was fading, paying a heavy price for his early success and each three-minute success. The feints, the footwork, the concentration, the tension, it had all come at a cost.
His legs began to tire. His resistance began to soften. His wheels began to spin. To say Usyk had gears in hand is not to detract from Bellew or his performance, it’s just that he had to work over and above to take rounds while Usyk’s pace remained threatening and imposing without becoming exhaustive.
He was stylishly grinding away, making vital adjustments and scoring with important morale-sapping breakthrough shots.
It seemed Bellew was surrounded at times. Usyk has a way of ducking under shots and popping up alongside his target ready to strike, like a submarine emerging ready to do damage. And when he did fire in close, he rarely missed.
The devastating finale in round eight was not predictable even if the end was.
That, for Bellew, was that.
Usyk talked of moving up to heavyweight, where his footwork and movement might give much bigger men fits.
There will always be detractors for Bellew and he has had his for more than a decade. This sport, where there is no forgiveness on either side of the ropes, plays host to negativity and ridicule like no other.
They said he was an overhyped amateur who had not taken his freakish unpaid power into the pros. Then, when toppled by Bob Ajisafe, he became a mediocre hype job. Then, when felled by Ovill McKenzie, the writing was on the wall. Then, when he lost at home to Nathan Cleverly, he had found his level. Then, when he lost to Adonis Stevenson, he was never going to win a world title. Then, when he got the part in Creed, he got lucky. Then, when he avenged Cleverly, the Welshman was no cruiserweight. Then, when he took short money against Masternak, he beat an average fighter. Then, when he fought Makubu, he won a vacant title. Then, when he beat David Haye the first time, Haye had a ruptured achillies. Then, when he beat Haye a second time, the Bermondsey man was shot. Then, when he lost to Usyk, he didn’t belong in the same ring as him.
Well, for someone who was so pitiful, he has done extraordinarily well. Yes, he has secured his family’s future and that, we know, was his goal. But from a boxing-perspective he deserves plaudits, and not the back-handed type where someone says, “He did wonderfully well with the skillset at his disposal.”
That is, frankly, insulting. If it was just down to hard work and power then plenty of wannabes would have an even chance of winning a world title. There is so much more to it than that. This is a hard sport. Talent helps. Hard work is crucial. A strong mentality is vital. The physical tools are just as important. Without one of those it’s a house of cards on an unsteady foundation. To get to the top you cannot just be a blunt instrument of crude power.
Bellew has a sound boxing brain, an indelible work ethic, a ruthless drive and the right mindset for the job.
Why did he do so well early on? Why did Usyk lose sessions? Any masterpiece takes time to blossom. Usyk was finding his range, taking a look at what was in front of him and working out how he would ultimately time and measure Bellew.
Of course, Bellew was doing his part. He was moving well, using a solid jab and firing stiff right hands down the chute and that was initially a deterrent. Then Usyk started to step to the side or go underneath and that often-potent weapon was, in essence, removed from the battlefield.
Let’s not hear of whitewashes or mismatches. Yes, Usyk has more in the tank, but this was no glorified spar, he just had answers to the questions he was posed – and some of them required considerable thought.
For Bellew, the whole premise of the show was daring to be great, not trying to survive. He had slated the hollow attempts of Murat Gassiev against Usyk and vowed that if he went down, he would do so fighting. He would go out on his shield, with nothing left. No regrets.
Some will remember him as a big mouth. They may mock his clichés or well-worn phrases but plenty will miss him. A city that is home to so many sporting legends is rightly proud of him. He exceeded his own expectations. He was better than you probably think he was or gave him credit for. No, he was not elite.
In his own words “Just a world class fighter”. `
But that’s not a bad epithet, is it?