On 3rd February, Dan Azeez and Joshua Buatsi will contest the British and Commonwealth light heavyweight titles. It is a high-quality collision that you could imagine being repeated with a world title at stake one day. Both men are unbeaten and well-renowned for delivering exciting fights.
This high-quality match-up carries echoes of a light heavyweight fight from days gone by. In 2011, WBO light heavyweight champion Nathan Cleverly put his title on the line against Liverpool’s Tony Bellew. As with Azeez and Buatsi, this was a coming-together of two unbeaten young lions with a championship on the line. While the world title remains a level February’s competitors aspire to, their bout has echoes of what went before.
Caerphilly’s Cleverly had come through the hottest gym in boxing at that time. Enzo Calzaghe had turned an unassuming old rugby clubhouse in Cwmcarn into a talent factory. The LA Times once termed the unconventional building as “a few notches north of squalid”, but you couldn’t argue with the results.
Enzo’s industrial-park-adjacent den produced WBA light welterweight champion Gavin Rees, WBO cruiserweight boss Enzo Maccarinelli and world title challenger Gary Lockett. Of course the jewel in the crown was Enzo’s own son, two-weight world champion and all-time great Joe Calzaghe.
Another fighter who would go on to great things after emerging from Calzaghe’s organisation was Cleverly. But unlike his decorated forebears, the young light heavyweight left the stable before reaching the top. Cleverly departed Calzaghe’s camp in September 2008. Many questioned the wisdom of leaving what had been such a prolific training group. Then Cleverly won the Commonwealth title a month later, beating Tony Oakey. This move might just work out after all.
Walking the traditional domestic path, more belts followed for Nathan. He knocked out Danny McIntosh in seven rounds to add the British championship to his mantle. Then Antonio Brancalion fell in five sessions for the European light heavyweight title. With regional and continental matters settled, it was time for Cleverly to take on the world.
After beating former European champion and future Bernard Hopkins opponent Karo Murat in an eliminator, Cleverly was given a shot at the interim WBO light heavyweight title. Undefeated Frenchman Nadjib Mohammedi was the opponent for the vacant strap. After 12 competitive rounds, ‘Clev’ had his hand deservedly raised by unanimous decision.
Cleverly was matched with the full champion, classy German Jurgen Brahmer, to crown a single champion. But the WBO boss withdrew through injury, with the sanctioning body upgrading the Welshman to sole champion. His first defence arrived against a former Brahmer challenger in Aleksy Kuziemski. The German had taken 11 rounds to get him out of there, but Cleverly got the job done in just three. A promising start to his full title reign.
Bellew’s rise echoed Cleverly’s in a lot of ways. For the Calzaghe’s famous gym, swap in Liverpool’s equally-iconic Rotunda ABC. Bellew made his bones on British and Commonwealth title success too, rising through the domestic ranks unbeaten and unbowed. Two wins over Ovill McKenzie had rendered ‘Bomber’ as the best of the British pack. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t yet be enough for a world title shot. But when one of the world championships is around the waist of a fellow Brit, that changes everything.
Thus Bellew was chosen as Cleverly’s second title challenger. The bout would take place in Liverpool, giving challenger and lifelong Everton fan Bellew home advantage. It was a brave move from the champion. Usually the title-holder asserts terms in these situations. But instead, Cleverly went outside his comfort zone in a move he would surely get criticised for in the event of a defeat.
The build-up was tense and antagonistic. A press conference ruckus between the pair had lit the blue touchpaper. Before Jake Paul, KSI and Tommy Fury made such occurrences a matter of carefully stage-managed frequency, such contretemps would make major headlines. These two would be fighting for more than the lavish WBO light heavyweight championship. This had spilled over into real animosity.
That distaste for one another spilled out into the ring. Both men were professionals and boxed cleanly, but with venom and focus that made it clear neither could afford to lose. Neither man took a backward step. Each came out with noses blooded. Exchanges stretched on for longer than spectators thought possible, as Cleverly and Bellew strained to have the last word. This was enthralling stuff.
One moment ‘Clev’ would be grinding Bellew down along the ropes. The next, ‘Bomber’ would be detonating shots to the head and mid-section. Around the eighth round you began to pity the judges more than the two men punishing each other and themselves. How on Earth could anyone be expected to split these two men who simply would not stop punching each other?
Each fighter made their case. Bellew ensured his would stick in the mind, unloading shots throughout the final round as Cleverly tried to survive. Often a strong finish can sway the judges. But not this time. A majority decision verdict seemed fair considering how razor-thin each man’s advantage had seemed throughout. But the fact one 114-114 card was tempered by scores of 117-112 and 116-113 for Cleverly seemed baffling. This had been the epitome of a close fight, but two of the judges had somehow lived through a comfortable night that Cleverly never had.
Bellew would bristle over the decision for years to come. It may have even driven him. ‘Bomber’ would battle his way into contention for the WBC light heavyweight title, losing to the mighty Adonis Stevenson. But undeterred, he would eventually find his level at cruiserweight, winning the WBC belt at 200 pounds. A heavyweight sojourn would follow, where injuries to David Haye handed Bellew two victories over ‘Hayemaker’. Bellew finished his career in defeat against undisputed cruiserweight champion and future heavyweight king Oleksandr Usyk.
Cleverly rattled off another three defences of his crown before being stopped in four rounds by Sergey Kovalev. The Russian would go on to be recognised as the best light heavyweight in the world for a number of years. No shame in that defeat. Cleverly went 4-3 for the remainder of his career. He would win one more world title, finally having that fight with Brahmer and picking up the WBA light heavyweight title in the process.
But this only tells part of the story. For Bellew and Cleverly would meet again before they were done. In 2014, the rivals met in a cruiserweight clash. Back at the Echo Arena in Liverpool, Bellew and Cleverly renewed hostilities. There was no title on the line this time, just a few years of pure animosity. Bellew got the better of the Welshman this time, though once again the cards were curious. Cleverly had been clearly outpointed, but one judge contrived to give him the fight, meaning Bellew had to make do with a split decision.
Azeez and Buatsi’s fight can lead the pair down the same road. The venom isn’t there, but the fine credentials and possibility of world title success is. Like in 2011, this is a meeting between the two best light heavyweights in the country. Two fighters who could conceivably conquer the world. Now is the time to see if they can follow in Cleverly and Bellew’s footsteps.
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