Tomorrow night, former WBC cruiserweight champion Tony Bellew returns to 200 pounds to face unified champion and pound-for-pound entrant Oleksandr Usyk in one of the biggest fights of the year and certainly in British boxing history. All four world title belts are on the line along with the Ring Magazine and lineal titles.
Bellew fought at heavyweight as an amateur, and earned a reputation for heavy-handedness by stopping 32 of his opponents in three-round contests with headgear, earning the nickname ‘Bomber’.
However, he fought the first 23 fights of his professional career at light heavyweight, going through hell just to boil down to the 175 pound limit. The power seemed to dry up with it as Bellew only stopped 12 men while fighting at the weight.
Moving to cruiserweight – effectively the same as the amateur heavyweight limit – has given Bellew’s career a whole new lease of life. As a cruiserweight he is unbeaten in 10 fights, with 8 of those victories coming inside the distance.
He has fulfilled a lifetime dream of becoming world champion and, as major underdog with the bookies, won two money-spinning fights at heavyweight against David Haye. On Saturday he will step into the ring for the final time as a professional boxer, once again a heavy underdog, but with no shortage of self-belief and confidence.
Much has been made of the perceived disparity in quality between the opposition faced to date by Usyk and Bellew. In this article, we take a no-holds barred look back at Tony Bellew’s five best wins at cruiserweight so that readers can make their own minds up on the matter.
#5 Valery Brudov
Former world title challenger Brudov was a respectable first opponent for Bellew at cruiserweight. Brudov was a former interim WBA cruiserweight titlist and had twice challenged unsuccessfully for full versions of the world title at the weight.
The Russian was however 37 years old and had seen better days. He had lost on every occasion time he had stepped up in class; against Virgil Hill, Firat Arslan, Guillermo Jones and Ola Afolabi.
Afolabi was not a big puncher, but handed Brudov a brutal beating; decking him twice and stopping him in five rounds. Brudov is also a natural light heavyweight who has routinely weighed in well below the cruiserweight limit of 200 pounds during his career.
Bellew knocked down Brudov twice in a dominant first half of the fight and a rout looked on, but he then suffered a real scare after being caught by a Brudov right hand in the seventh round which left him out on his feet.
He was fortunate to receive a break when Brudov hit him with a low blow, prompting a time-out call from the referee. Bellew recovered well and went on to knock out Brudov in the final round.
#4 Nathan Cleverly
Cleverly and Bellew had previously locked horns at light heavyweight, with Cleverly successfully defending his WBO world title via a close majority decision in an action-packed fight.
Both went on to suffer devastating stoppage defeats at the hands of light heavyweight knockout artists Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson, precipitating a move up to cruiserweight for the two bitter rivals. However, their rematch at 200 pounds failed to live up the expectations created by the first encounter.
Cleverly – the naturally smaller man – clearly respected Bellew’s power at the higher weight and refused to be drawn into a tear-up. Bellew struggled to pin down his awkward foe until the second half of the fight when his size and strength began to take their toll on a tiring Cleverly, outworking the Welshman for a split decision victory which should really have been unanimous.
#3 BJ Flores
Flores was Tony Bellew’s sole defence of his WBC cruiserweight title. At the time of the fight’s announcement, the American – better-known for his work as a ringside analyst and commentator than his fighting career – was not even ranked with the WBC’s top 15 fighters. Flores, a big cruiserweight, was an amateur standout and did have numerous rounds of sparring against leading heavyweights under his belt, but sparring is one thing and fighting is another.
As a professional, he did not possess any notable wins on his record and was one fight removed from a decision loss to a moving-up-in-weight Beibut Shumenov for the interim WBA title. The only speck of redemption was that the Shumenov fight had been competitive.
The fight with Bellew was anything but. Bellew performed a demolition job on Flores, knocking him down thrice in the second round and finally for the full count in the third.
#2 Ilunga Makabu
Makabu was the slight betting favourite when he faced Bellew for the vacant WBC cruiserweight title at Goodison Park in May 2016. All bar one of the Congolese hitter’s 19 victories had come via knockout. Only Dmytro Kucher had taken Makabu’s power, dropping a highly competitive majority decision in 2013.
Kucher is tough, but no-one would mistake the Russian for an elite cruiserweight. Other than Kucher, Makabu held wins over fringe contender Thabiso Mchunu (a fight in which he was being outboxed and beaten up before the South African ran out of gas in the second half of the fight), busted-prospect Eric Fields and a fossilised Glen Johnson.
Bellew started strong, bullying Makabu to the ropes and unloading heavy artillery on him but, just as it seemed that Makabu was in some trouble, the visitor uncorked a left hand to send Bellew to the canvas in the dying seconds of the round. Bellew rose quickly, more embarrassed than hurt.
A quieter, more cautious second round followed. However, when Bellew hurt Makabu again in the third round, he did not let his man off and went for the finish. It paid off as a barrage of punches sent Makabu flopping against the ropes and onto the floor, out cold, triggering celebrations from an ecstatic Bellew and sending the home crowd wild.
#1 Mateusz Masternak
Masternak is a solid and seasoned operator at cruiserweight; a well-rounded fighter who does nothing outstandingly but everything well and has proven heart and durability. Only Grigory Drozd, the one-time WBC champion, was able to stop the Pole, on his feet in the eleventh round of their 2013 encounter.
His only other career reversals at the time he faced Bellew were dubious split decision losses on the road to Youri Kalenga and Johnny Muller. He can also claim the distinction of a win against a great former cruiserweight champion, Jean Marc Mormeck, albeit well past his best.
At 28 years of age, Masternak was in his prime when he faced Bellew in 2015 for the European title and he produced one of his best career performances that night. It was, without a shadow of doubt, Bellew’s toughest fight to date at cruiserweight, and has a strong case for being his best win at the weight.
For the first nine rounds, it was virtually impossible to split the two fighters, both of whom had showcased decent boxing skills, landed and taken good shots, and enjoyed periods of controlling the fight tempo. However, Masternak had a big tenth round, hurting Bellew for the first time, swinging the fight in his favour.
Bellew showed admirable resolve not just to fight back but clearly dominate the final two rounds, including a big twelfth round in which he came within a whisker of stopping Masternak. The brave Pole deservedly heard the final bell, but Bellew had demonstrated that he was the better man and took away a hard-earned unanimous decision victory.
Article by: Paul Lam
Follow Paul on Twitter at: @PaulTheWallLam