Frontline diary: 'Sometimes the rounds you lose, you end up winning'
Chris Williamson reports on all the gossip and goings-on from ringside in Manchester as Oleksandr Usyk's masterplan undoes Tony Bellew, with the likes of Prince Naseem Hamed and Thomas Hearns in attendance...
Combat imagery was ubiquitous in Manchester on the day of Usyk vs Bellew, which took place on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.
A poignant new permanent statue of blinded soldiers marching with hands on the shoulders of the man in front stood outside Manchester Piccadilly station, draped in poppies. In this context the tag for the prize fight - ‘He Who Dares’, a Del Boy bastardisation of the SAS motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ - may have seemed a little crass, but it did frame the danger and potential for glory inherent in Bellew’s challenge to the formidable undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk.
Almost by its nature, boxing seems to reject the PC brigade and alongside the ring girls - that argument seems to have gone away for now doesn’t it? - young women in tight black cocktail dresses escorted VIP guests to their seats.
Heavyweight Dave Allen’s refreshing anti-PC attitude, ongoing ‘Babestation’ love-in (note to Ed: investigated purely for research purposes) and social media interaction have helped him become a cult figure.
Despite Allen’s own disappointment with his performance, the mini-classic with Argentinian hard man Ariel Esteban Bracamonte will surely have grown his fan base further. Allen was badly out of shape and barely a jab was thrown in the old-fashioned heavyweight dust up, until the Argentinian team pulled their man out at the end of the seventh. At least one of the White Rhino’s fans was sporting an ‘Allen 3:16” send up of a wrestling slogan.
There can’t be much worse than hearing about the first world struggles of media, but there was plenty of grumbling after it took over an hour for some to be granted entry. Those expensive VIP seats do seem to be encroaching on areas previously reserved for media. There was one spare seat next to BM - I suspect as a result of one outlet being barred from the arena for breaking a quotes embargo from a fighter round-table with the print newspapers.
Welterweight Josh Kelly had little more than a one-round walkover against another Argentinian, Walter Fabian Castillo, but moves onto a much more meaningful test against David Avanesyan next month.
Dominic Ingle was in the arena, far away from the ringside-bound Kell Brook which might hint at their potential future together. It seems that Ingle charge Billy Joe Saunders may be headed for the 22 December Warrington vs Frampton bill in this arena.
Dominic’s late father Brendan was, of course, responsible for developing one of the greatest British fighters ever in ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, who was buzzing around and in jovial spirits along with former British light-heavyweight Maurice ‘Hard’ Core. Core had initially taken one media seat in the front row. When Naz later noticed that Chris Walker of Boxing News had retaken his seat he playfully asked: “what happened to my good friend Maurice?”
Hometown lightweight Anthony Crolla decisioned Daud Yordan with a competent if predictable performance which technically qualifies him for a mandatory shot at pound-for-pound star Vasyl Lomachenko. The Ukranian media near me seemed surprised that this match served as a box off to fight the mighty 'Loma'.
Tom Gray of The Ring magazine clocked up some mileage during fight week, having presented both Usyk (officially) and Callum Smith with the world title belts recognised by the magazine. Gray told BM he’d been caught a little off guard by the prominence given to presenting the awards and half-joked he would have upgraded his sartorial game had he known.
Naseem Hamed, of course, moved away from the Ingle camp midway through his career and hired legendary US trainer Emanuel Steward towards the end of his featherweight title run. Arguably Steward’s most famous warrior Thomas Hearns was present, sat enjoying the fights and attention he generated. Hearns wore his International Boxing Hall of Fame induction ring. Naz and Hearns embraced warmly and BM’s Danny Winterbottom reminded us that the two boxed on same show at this arena when Hamed beat Paul Ingle back in 1999.
Billy Graham was also present with Manchester fight scribe Terry Dooley - who used to interview Graham for his Preacher’s corner BM magazine column - arranging to meet him and a wider fight crowd at Mulligan’s pub just off Deansgate before the event.
James DeGale confirmed that he’s likely to fight Eubank Jr on 12 January.
British fans create a special atmosphere when one of their own challenges a dangerous champ on home soil and this night was no exception. There were plenty of Ukrainians at the arena too, most of whom looked as though they could take care of themselves should the need arise. Apart from a few handbag-style scuffles there were no significant crowd problems, even when the 'other' Ukrainian on the bill, Dymtro Mytrofanov, appeared hard done by with a four-round draw.
There will have been a large number of scousers with an eye on the main event timing and a view to catching the last train from Victoria station - adjoined to the superb Manchester Arena - at 11.24pm. In the event, and with Mick Goodhall laying a fresh new canvas before the main event, there was little hope of this and the uber and mini-cab drivers did brisk business.
When the big one did finally begin, Bellew made what seemed at the time a terrific start. His footwork and feints were excellent and the challenger landed with enough straight rights to win the early rounds. However, as Usyk cornerman Russ Anber later eloquently put it in a revealing interview with BM's Luke G. Williams, “sometimes the rounds you lose, you end up winning.”
Usyk was steadily wearing Bellew out mentally and physically with the intensity of his pressure and began to take over. Bellew’s movement adopted a weary look, his face began to swell and the confidence that initially seemed so bold, suddenly seemed forced and unconvincing. The champion hurt Bellew in the corner and - with a wounded target in front of him - his punches seemed even quicker, even more hurtful.
Finally, the traps Usyk set worked perfectly and in the eighth round a tired Bellew succumbed to a brutally quick right jab, left hook combination which flattened the challenger. Despite Bellew somehow climbing to his feet, the referee mercifully terminated the argument.
Bellew did indeed win the early battles in Manchester, but Usyk - as on two previous occasions in Latvia and Russia earlier this year - went behind enemy lines and won the war. The ominous part of all this is that Usyk’s master plan is to continue advancing all the way to the world heavyweight title.
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