What is it about a concussive knockout that brings people together? How does a left hand thrown from the depths of hell turn a normally vicious shit talker such as Tony Bellew into a gushing superfan of the man who threw it? Why would an arena packed with bloodthirsty Brits stand and applaud the man they spent the previous hour booing and screaming Neil Diamond songs at, internationally recognized as the most savage insult a human being can dish out?
Maybe it’s similar to the elation of enduring a particularly violent horror movie. The collective exhilaration of perseverance always outweighs the dread that preceded it. The trepidation of watching your hero crumble to the canvas like a bag of wet laundry will always be swallowed whole by the euphoria of watching him rise to his feet. The acceptance of inevitability is the most potent tonic against the poison of fear.
We like to tell ourselves that boxing is, as HBO’s Larry Merchant once called it, the “theater of the unexpected.” We settle into our couches or our seat in the arena and lie to ourselves that every fight is a toss-up. That everyone has a “puncher’s chance.” The networks sell us prefight hype packages full of sound bites about the unpredictability of the outcome. But in our hearts we know it’s bullshit.
Boxing is about when, not if.
Sure, there’s upsets and surprises and bad calls and bad days. No one is immune to the morbid sense of humor of the laws of physics. But to the degree that outside forces can be managed and corrupting influences can be mitigated, one guy is almost always just better. A good promoter and a big mouth can get you into a fight but they’re not much help once you’re there. The inexorable march of truth will always show up at the doorstep of a lesser fighter to remind them what we and they knew all along: You never had a chance, kid.
Since his ascent to the world stage in 2014 Oleksandr Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs) has been the sum of all fears for the cruiserweight division. A gap-toothed, globetrotting psychopath marching from village to village destroying anything with a title belt and most likely eating its young. Someone smarter than me and with less of an axe to grind against the alphabet groups can recount which titles specifically Usyk holds but if you have a belt of any kind chances are he’s taken it. Seriously, go check your closet. Does it smell like Borscht and Icy Hot? It does? Usyk has your belt now. Move on.
For his part, Tony Bellew (30-3-1, 20 KO’s) came into Saturday night in arguably the best shape of his life. For him that still means having the doughy upper body of a teenage backyard wrestling enthusiast but it was more baby fat than Baby Ruth’s this time. It’s amazing what fighting in a weight class that actually has a limit does to curb those late night cravings. Bellew claimed that regardless of the outcome this would be his last fight. With only 34 fights and 224 total rounds on his resume, Bellew is a young 35 but with his sharp wit and articulate elocution Bellew has a bright future on the other side of this sport. It would be a shame to risk any undue punishment that could erode those skills. Unfortunately for him, Oleksandr Usyk is the very definition of undue punishment.
By the time the bell had rung for the opening round, the crowd in the Manchester Arena had worked themselves into a frothing powder keg just looking for a reason to explode. The two fighters did their best pour water on the impending bonfire as they circled each other and pawed with the occasional jab. The Brits have a finite amount of time they’re capable of going without having their bloodlust satisfied and in this particular instance that time had elapsed after about 90 seconds. As the boos reigned in and the action remained stagnant the realization that this pace was ideal for Bellew seemed to be lost on the Manchester faithful.
The 2nd round saw a slight uptick in the action with Bellew finding a home for his jab. For all his bluster and shit talking Bellew is a crafty, if not overly gifted fighter. He has deceptive hand speed and knows how to find a home for his punches. At the quarter mark of the fight Bellew was holding his own and ahead on the cards. It wasn’t so much what he was doing as was what Usyk wasn’t. Both fighters were going off-script. Were we going to get an alternate ending to this movie?
Early in the fight Bellew slammed his hands to his sides and screamed at Usyk, admonishing the Ukrainian maniac to fight. There’s a saying about waking a sleeping giant and one about being careful what you wish for and even another one about how eatin’ and cheatin’. In this instance though, this was the moment in the horror movie we mentioned before where the half clothed teenager goes to investigate the noise in the attic. Applaud the bravery all you want but any sensible person is screaming “What the fuck are you doing?! Don’t go in there!” Usyk’s left hand was the monster making the sound and it was now wide awake.
As the fight entered its midway point, the excitement of inevitability started to creep in. As Usyk got more comfortable, Bellew became increasingly less. As Usyk found his rhythm, Bellew lost his. As Usyk gained energy, Bellew’s rapidly depleted. This is the script we were sold. This is the party we came for. Like seeing your favorite band two nights in a row, knowing what’s in store doesn’t diminish the excitement.
The eighth round was the setting for the climax of our movie. Predetermined and written in ink, the brutality was no less shocking. Usyk stalked from his southpaw stance and stunned Bellew with a left hook. With the hometown fighter on his back foot and struggling to clear his head, Usyk unleashed an overhand left that crumpled Bellew to the canvas, arms and legs splayed out as if he were sunbathing on a beach. This was the violence we tuned in for administered by the man we expected to dish it out. These are the words we hoped to sing along to.
For Bellew it was a respectable to attempt to win a fight he was never meant to win. If in fact he decides to call it a career he can do so proudly, though the image of his supine body draped over the bottom rope will be a lasting one to say the least. His career ending on a punch he almost certainly has no memory of maybe wasn’t the way he saw things ending but it’s just how the script was written.
Usyk now sets his sights on the heavyweight division and possibly Anthony Joshua, should it all shake out that way. Usyk isn’t on Evander Holyfield’s level as some media types have claimed. Not yet anyways. He is however, a special fighter. A once in a generation fighter and we likely haven’t seen his peak yet. I personally won’t be able to picture him losing until it actually happens, so foreign is the concept. He will haunt the heavyweight division they way he did cruiserweight and any fighter that goes to inspect that scary noise they heard in the attic may not like what they find when they do.
At its best, boxing is a horror movie. Violence, repulsion, elation, repeat.
Every horror movie needs a monster and boy is Oleksandr Usyk ever one.
- Go ahead and Google “Sam Hyde eye” and see how you feel. No seriously, do it. I’ll wait. Pretty cool, huh?
- Anthony Crolla (34-6-3, 13 KO’s) won a comfortable if unspectacular decision over veteran Daud Yordan (38-4, 26 KO’s). The fight was a WBA Lightweight Title Eliminator which is basically the World’s Greatest Grandpa mug of professional prizefighting. Everyone has one, no one needs one.
- It is nearly impossible not to love Ricky Burns, who scored a 7th round stoppage of Scott Cardle (23-3-1, 7 KO’s) on the undercard. Rick Sterko is a treasure to the sport and we need to start treating him like one, dammit. STERKO!