Oleksandr Usyk’s dominant September WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight title win over Anthony Joshua was not his first successful raid on English shores. On this day in 2018, the Ukrainian superstar walked into the Manchester Arena with destruction on his mind. When he reached the ring that night, he found Liverpool’s Tony Bellew, the former WBC cruiserweight champion fresh from a successful two-fight sojourn to heavyweight. Spectators who witnessed Usyk’s eighth-round victory over the great Scouser got an early glimpse of the man who would become heavyweight king.
Tony Bellew was riding high going into this contest for the undisputed cruiserweight championship of the world. ‘Bomber’ had won his last ten fights, a five-year run that had seen him register eight stoppages and claim the WBC cruiserweight championship. After successfully defending the belt against BJ Flores, Bellew moved up to heavyweight for a pair of grudge matches with David Haye. ‘Hayemaker’ was an injury-wracked fighter by the time Bellew got to him, and the lifelong Everton fan dispatched the former two-weight world champion with a pair of TKO victories.
Usyk was a 2-0 professional novice when Bellew embarked on his ten-fight winning run. By the time it concluded, he was the undisputed ruler of the 200-pound division. ‘The Cat’ beat talented Pole Krzysztof Głowacki to win the WBO title in just his tenth outing, and added the division’s other straps by virtue of the World Boxing Super Series tournament. Usyk beat Marco Huck, Mairis Breidis and Murat Gassiev to add the WBC, WBA and IBF titles to his mantle, a frightening run of top fights.
The stage was set for an exciting battle. The Olympic gold medalist was the bookies’ favourite, but Bellew had home court advantage. Manchester would stage just the sixth four-belt undisputed world title fight in history. While the oddsmakers firmly sided with the champion, Bellew was well-acquainted with underdog status. Former heavyweight champion Haye had been firmly-backed to show ‘Bomber’ what the banner division was all about. Despite winning their first encounter, the influence of Haye’s injuries on the result saw Bellew as a betting longshot to turn the trick twice. He did so, in even more emphatic fashion, with a fifth-round stoppage. If there was any fighter who would be unbowed by underdog status, it was Tony Bellew.
He was unbowed on the night, too. Bellew came out stronger in the early rounds, building a lead on the scorecards through his superior activity. The Liverpudlian’s counter-punching was sharp, while Usyk was taking time to have a good look at his target. But slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the champion began to back up his prey. Bellew got on his heels, trying to stick and move as Usyk looked to close the distance. The Ukrainian started to walk his foe down, using intelligent footwork to corner Bellew.
The challenger was still swinging though, finding the target with shots while on the move. But the bit was firmly clenched between Usyk’s teeth now, and the end was imminent. In the eighth round, it arrived. A cuffing left hook caught Bellew by surprise, and before he could compose himself he was clubbed by another, more precise punch. The challenger was out cold before he hit the ground, a brutal and decisive end to a fight worthy of its undisputed championship status.
Climbing off the canvas would be the final act of Tony Bellew’s boxing career. Boxing often dispenses cruel final chapters to its fighters, and the career of ‘The Bomber’ deserved better. He had reigned as world champion, defied the odds at heavyweight and been in a litany of memorable wars. But in Usyk he had simply come upon a generational talent. That much is even clearer now than it was back in 2018.
Usyk would step up to the land of the giants in his next fight, stopping fringe contender Chazz Witherspoon after seven rounds. In his next heavyweight clash, he survived some scares to outpoint Derek Chisora. Then came his crowning glory, defeating unified heavyweight title-holder Anthony Joshua at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Now finding himself in the role of underdog, it was Usyk’s turn to upset the odds. Anyone who saw ‘The Cat’ dismantle Tony Bellew would have perhaps smirked at the idea Usyk was not the betting favourite.