Cleverly seeks defining victory
Nathan Cleverly's light-heavyweight showdown against Badou Jack on the Mayweather vs McGregor undercard could define his career, argues Jack Laidler as he examines the Welshman's pro journey so far...
At 30 years old it could be argued that Nathan Cleverly has done it all - the Caerphilly-born pugilist has been British, Commonwealth and European champion; he is the former WBO light-heavyweight champion and the current WBA title holder. He has been involved in huge box office grudge matches that have drawn the attention of the boxing world, and he is fighting on Saturday night on the undercard of Mayweather vs McGregor, the biggest boxing 'event' of the year.
However, the sense still lingers that Cleverly is something of an unfulfilled talent, and that his career thus far isn’t quite the highlight reel the headlines on his CV would suggest.
Cleverly started life in the paid ranks back in 2005. He was kept active and, unlike many young fighters in the infancy of their careers, he was given the opportunity to fight in huge arenas thanks to his relationship with the Calzaghes - for example, he fought in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff on three occasions, as well as the MEN Arena twice and the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas by the time his career had reached its 12th pro bout.
One weakness that became clear, though, in Cleverly's early fights was a lack of power. In his first dozen contests he only stopped three of his opponents, while the likes of Ernie Smith (12-84-4) and Mark Philips (8-33-0) both managed to survive four rounds with the young prospect. This lack of power would ultimately hold Cleverly back when he graduated to world level.
In just his 13th fight, Cleverly claimed the vacant Commonwealth light heavyweight title. Three defences later he was pitted against the then unbeaten Danny McIntosh for the vacant British strap. Cleverly dominated his opponent, knocking him down on four separate occasions before the referee called an end to proceedings in the seventh. A further two fights later and the Welshman was European champion and ready for a world title tilt.
His chosen route was the WBO and its then champion, the German Jürgen Brähmer. Cleverly first won an eliminator by stopping the unbeaten former European champion Karo Murat. Instead of going on to face the champion, however, Nathan had to settle for a fight against Nadjib Mohammedi for the vacant interim strap as Brähmer was busy dealing with problems outside of the ring.
Cleverly defeated Mohammedi via a unanimous decision but looked less than impressive.
The fight with Brähmer was finally re-scheduled in 2011, however, frustratingly, the German pulled out due to an injury to his eye. This led to Cleverly being named the full WBO champion. Aleksy Kuzimeski was lined up as a replacement as Cleverly defended his newly obtained title via a fourth-round stoppage.
Although now an unbeaten world champion, the low key manner in which Cleverly had claimed the title meant he had not garnered the attention of the casual sports fan.
Five months later, in October 2011, he faced the heavy-handed and unbeaten British and Commonwealth light heavyweight champion Tony Bellew. In the challenger's back garden of the Echo Arena in Liverpool, Cleverly was able to scrape a debatable majority decision win.
The Welshman went on to defend his WBO title a further three times against fringe level contenders, none of whom really posed any kind of threat. Heading into the summer of 2013, Cleverly was 26-0 and was gearing up to defend his title for the sixth time.
His opponent would be the ‘Krusher’ - Sergey Kovalev.
In a total mismatch Cleverly was dismantled. The champion was dropped twice in the third round before finally being saved by the referee in the fourth as Kovalev bludgeoned him to defeat.
His world title had been ripped away and, perhaps worse, Cleverly had seemingly been exposed at the elite level.
Instead of plotting a comeback at light heavyweight, Cleverly followed his old rival Bellew up to cruiserweight. The war of words that had started in the lead-up to their first contest intensified as they both strung together a couple of stoppage wins at the new weight.
The rematch between the two men garnered so much attention that it was shown live on Sky Box Office. Unfortunately, however, the return was a dull affair. The work rate of Cleverly was lower than we had seen before and Bellew was able to control the fight. Neither man really hurt the other, and a drab contest ended with Bellew taking a close but deserved split decision win.
Cleverly accepted the experiment at cruiserweight had not gone to plan and quickly moved back down in weight. A first-round blow-out against Tomas Man followed before he travelled to Chicago to face Andrzej Fonfara for the WBC International title. Fonfara was coming off the back of a hugely impressive stoppage victory over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
The fight would turn into a 12-round war as both men threw tremendous amounts of punches. Each fighter almost landed at will and both men's faces were soon battered and bruised. Towards the end of the contest, however, Cleverly began to fade which ultimately allowed Fonfara to edge a hugely entertaining contest.
Although he had suffered defeat yet again, Cleverly had restored and even heightened his reputation.
His next fight took place almost 12 months later; it would be worth the wait.
Finally, Cleverly and Brähmer stepped into the ring together, five years after they had first been slated to meet, this time it would be for the WBA 'regular' world title. The fight was again action packed as both men traded early with Cleverly throwing lots of arm shots without really sitting down on his punches.
Although Brähmer was winning on the scorecards, he was beginning to visibly tire and surprisingly retired on his stool at the end of the sixth round, citing an injured elbow. Nathan Cleverly had become a two-time light heavyweight world title winner.
On Saturday, Cleverly faces another tough test in Las Vegas-based Swede Badou Jack. The challenger made a case to be regarded as the best super-middleweight on the planet after his draw with James DeGale earlier this year. If Cleverly beats the 'Ripper' it would undoubtedly be the biggest win of his career, and pave the way for potential super fights with the likes of Kovalev, Adonis Stevenson or Andre Ward.
Perhaps, after all, Cleverly still has time to cement his place in British boxing history.