A week can be a long time in boxing. Enough time to get a title shot, lose a title shot and then get another one.
Cleverly all dressed up and ready to go…
Nathan Cleverly is one of the UK’s two World Champions, a young fighter with a world of potential within his lean frame. With much hullabaloo his next defence of the WBO World Title he lays claim to was announced. He would defend his belt at the Royal Albert Hall, a place most recently known for concertos over concussions but once upon a time somewhat of a Mecca for British boxing, the place where Lennox Lewis developed and where Mike McCallum fought for world titles against the likes of Herol Graham and Michael Watson. For the first time in a decade world championship boxing would return to those hallowed halls. Announcements were made, press releases issued, publicity photos taken.
Just one slight problem.
Cleverly’s last bout had been a discretionary defence against overmatched American Tommy Karpency, allowed on the basis that he would face a mandatory opponent next. The opponent he had lined up, the 24 year old 37-2 Robin Krasniqi didn’t fulfil that criterea, with the most likely candidate for the shot being Russian Dmitry Sukhotsky. The WBO kicked up a fuss and appeared to nix the bout, demanding that Cleverly make a mandatory defence or be stripped.
There was another twist in the tale. Showing why the WBO is often nicknamed the “Warren Boxing Organisation” (much as HBO gets the “Haymon Boxing Organisation” tag due to Al Haymon’s perceived influence on it), the WBO quickly reversed its position. Now Cleverly will be allowed to defend against Krasniqi on the condition that he then defends against Sukhotsky. Which is no different to the position we were in before the Karpency fight, but the workings of the Alphabet Soup organisations is beyond me.
But the consequences of which I truly dislike.
I like Nathan Cleverly. I’ve been a fan since his days in the UK domestic scene, watching his first step-up bout with Tony Quigley or his war for the Commonwealth title with Tony Oakley or his battle for the British Title with the then undefeated Danny McIntosh (a poor quality video of which can be found here). I loved his story, the Cardiff University student deep of the depths of his maths degree who spent his spare time boxing. I loved the way his performances improved as his competition got better and I enjoyed the way he finally started to put power into his punches, going from someone originally considered feather-fisted to a run of seven straight stoppages against steadily improving opponents.Not only is he one of the most exciting fighters on the world right now (a combination of a high workrate and suspect defence giving many of his matches a Paul Williams’esq nature) but he’s in a division where there are high profile fights with other exciting fighters (Pascal, Cloud and Shumenov would all be excellent fights to watch between some of the best in the division) and is young enough at 25 that the flaws (mainly the above mentioned defence) could be sorted out.
But ever since he beat Karo Murat is the bout that propelled him into world title contention its all been a bit of a mess.
Some of that isn’t either Cleverly or his promoter Warren’s fault. Jürgen Brähmer was the WBO champion but by accident or design found himself injured for a number of bouts; a unification bout with WBA champion Beibut Shumenovand then two bouts with Cleverly for the title. The first occasion Brähmer pulled out Cleverly fought for an interim belt; the second time he was awarded the full belt and then had to make a title defence, which meant that while Cleverly eventually got his full world title as he was robbed of that defining moment when you beat the champion. Worse he was less than inspiring in the replacement bouts.
The first of them, the bout for the interim title, saw him placed opposite tricky Frenchman Nadjib Mohammedi, a slick, awkward boxer who was happy to hit and move or spoil and hold as necessary, avoiding the sort of “tear up” that Cleverly thrives on after more conventional opponent Alejandro Lakatos pulled out with pneumonia. The fight was a mess, with Cleverly clearly getting more and more frustrated as he failed to land on Nadjib, eventually having a point deducted as he tried to rough his opponent up. He won, and it wasn’t an example of home-cooking, but it was far from inspiring as anyone who watches the video here could tell you.
His bout for the full title was a little better. He found himself opposite solid but unspectacular Pole Aleksy Kuziemski. This was much more of the sort of fight Cleverly enjoys, two opponents standing in front of each other and throwing away until someone falls down, and a video of which can be found here. Cleverly was clearly getting the better of it but his own defensive frailties meant he was taking his share of punches as well… but just as it started to heat up the referee jumped in to stop the bout, declaring Kuziemski unable to defend himself. A soft stoppage and one that Cleverly himself noted was probably early.
So here we are, Cleverly as a world champion. A young world champion in a competitive division with vast amounts of talent on both sides of the Atlantic, (relatively) high profile names and seemingly the boxing world at his feet. Almost immediately he and his promoter, Frank Warren, start talking about unification about huge fights, about the sort of bouts that get people excited.
And then he takes on Tony Bellew.
Bellew at that stage being a domestic British contender who had picked up the Commonwealth 175lbs title but who’s best win came over gatekeeper Ovill McKenzie, who had given Bellew a torrid time dropping him twice in their first bout and still gave him problems in their rematch. Bellew was huge for the weight but this also seemed to rob him of much of his punch resistance and stamina… he had spent almost all of his amateur career at 200lbs.
Let me say this. I have no real problem with the Bellew bout. When Brähmer pulled out the second time this was the match that Frank Warren tried to put together and it looked signed, sealed and delivered on paper, the two exchanging verbal (and nearly physical) fisticuffs at a press conference. The bout was only changed when the weight problems mentioned above for Bellew reared their ugly head and he couldn’t cut down to a pre-match limit imposed by the WBO in time. As such the bout had hype, a certain amount of bad blood and was a decent domestic tear-up. After a run of hard competition and then the frustration of world title matches falling through Cleverly was allowed this sort of bout, a bit of a soft touch on paper but one that should get the home fans fired up. In any event Bellew gave a far better account of himself than anyone expected… but Cleverly still did enough to win and retain his title, with a video of the bout here.
The hype machine went to work again. Hopkins was called out, Dawson called out, Pascal mentioned, top fights hinted at, serious monetary offers alleged.
And then Cleverly signed to face Tommy Karpency.
21-2 doesn’t sound like the world’s worst record. But click on that link, check the record. Of those 21 wins only 9 had come against opponents with winning records. Since comprehensively losing to Karo Murat (a man Cleverly had already beaten remember), Karpancy’s wins had been against 3-7 and 10-16-2 opponents. The best win of his career was against the then 13-0 Chuck Mussachio, a man with equally little depth to his record. Frankly Karpency should have been nowhere near a title shot. Yet here he was, standing opposite Cleverly at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff.
Not surprisingly Cleverly won, although once again he didn’t exactly look spectacular. And once again the bells started to ring. This time… this time… Cleverly and Warren really would find a top opponent. This time they really would get a big name. This time it really was time for Cleverly to step up and show exactly what he could do.
And then they announce Robin Krasniqi as the opponent.
I know I shouldn’t expect too much. I know I should always take a promoters words with a grain of salt. I know that describing someone’s matchmaking as “Warren-like” isn’t a complement. And I know that getting Hopkins or Dawson to cross over the Atlantic is going to be a challenge, I know that Shumenov may be reluctant to move, I know that Pascal probably wants to wait for a higher profile rematch with whoever emerges from the Dawson/Hopkins mess.
But were Karpency and Krasniqi the best that could be done?
No, clearly not. For an example, let’s compare Krasniqi to the opponent the WBO originally wanted Cleverly to face, Dmitry Sukhotsky.
At a quick glance, on paper Krasniqi’s 34-2 record looks far superior to Sukhotsky’s 18-1, especially when you consider that Krasniqi is a mere 24 to Sukhotsky’s 30. But once you look a little deeper it starts to unravel.
Krasniqi may have won a lot of fights but they were against pretty abject competition. His record s littered with the sort of middling fighters, be they 9-4, 10-10 or 1-11-1, the traditionally are only found right at the start of a prospects career. His only real win of any note was against the 16-2 Hakim Zoulikha, a man with an equally soft record. He may have won a European title… but even that wasn’t the more respected EBU belt that Cleverly once held but instead the WBO’s regional belt.
In contrast in his 19 fights Sukhotsky had fitted a lot more in. His early record was pretty poor and he himself had received a soft title shot against Brähmer where he was beaten with ease. Since that point however he had been on somewhat of a run… most notably in his last three fights he has shared opponents with Cleverly. First he beat Aleksy Kuziemski with just as much ease as Cleverly did and then, most impressively, in his last bout he demolished Nadjib Mohammedi in two rounds, the man who had given Cleverly such a hard time left a broken man. Sukhotsky is in every way a better opponent than Krasniqi… and it’s not like either are drawing a particularly huge crowd for Cleverly or carry interest in the way the Bellew bout did.
It’s also not as if Sukhotsky is some unknown destroyer, a monster of a man who Cleverly would struggle against. Brähmer was good but never great and he beat Sukhotksy comfortably. It is a fight where Cleverly would be the favourite… and yet instead he still gets to feed on someone who shouldn’t be in the ring with him.
It’s that which really sticks in my craw. There are more than enough great fights (both as a fan and in regards to talent) at 175lbs for Cleverly to have, even if Dawson and Hopkins stay away from him. WBA champion Shumenov throws with power and evil intent, IBF champion Tavoris Cloud is a wrecking ball of a fighter, arguably the most destructive man at the weightclass, the former WBA champion (and much robbed) Gabriel Campillo puts together some of the most beautiful combinations of punches in the division, Adrian Diaconu is a monster coming forward and former RING champion Jean Pascal is athleticism personified, speed and power at his finger tips.
They’re also all beatable. Shumenov is a crude puncher who throws little but haymakers. He may have power but across their two bouts Campillo showed his limitations when he cannot land. Campillo also showed that while Cloud can destroy anyone if he he pushed back, his head snapped side to side by punches, put onto the back foot by combinations, forced into his shell he becomes a quarter of the fighter he once was… and Cleverly throws some very nice combinations. Campillo himself has a bad habit of admiring his own work instead of stepping on the gas, Pasca throws every punch looking for the knockout and tires himself out when doing s as his two bouts with Hopkins and brawl with Froch demonstrated. Diaconu might be a monster coming forward but Dawson showed he can be discouraged and Cleverly has not just stood up to but also handily beaten that type of fighter before in Murat (seen here) and Brancalion (seen here). Those are all winnable fights that would be both better to watch and mean more in terms of respect then the likes of Karpency and Krasniqi.
I hate to see young boxers not improve and, world champion or not, at 25 Cleverly should still be improving. Put simply, he hasn’t, at worst stagnating if not actively regressing as a fighter. His defence is no better than it was three years ago, with him still being far too easy to hit and rarely either moving his head or blocking effectively. His power, which once appeared to finally be coming through has likewise seemed to have faltered. I just don’t think he’s a better fighter than he was when he was tearing up the domestic and European scenes.
Likewise, I hate to see someone’s opposition get worse. The best fighter Cleverly has ever faced is still Murat and frankly, I’m not sure his recent opponents have been better than those he was taking on for the Commonwealth title or Brancalion. Cleverly’s matchmaking is coming across as pretty similar to Warren’s other UK world champion Ricky Burns, who faced three people who shouldn’t have been in the ring with him for his defences of his WBO 130lbs title… with the difference being that Cleverly was a much better fighter at domestic level ten Burns but that Burns had a near career defining win over Roman Martinez to win the belt.
As boxing fans our instinctive reaction is to always view the alphabet soup organisations as being in the wrong. We’re normally right; the mandatory system in question here often leads to undeserved title shots (see John Ruiz and Rahman at HW who seemingly get/got a title shot on demand through playing the sanctioning bodies game). But sometimes they do get it right. For a simple example, Paul Williams, flawed as he is, would have struggled to get onto the world stage if he has not been in a position to demand Margarito faced him rather than face Cotto.
175lbs has already been cursed by fighters using (and abusing) the sanctioning orgs. Chad Dawson led both Diaconu and Cloud on a merry little dance while they were his mandatory opponents, ducking both for a several years and eventually dropping the belt rather than face either of them. It was only through necessity that he faced a badly faded Daiconu… and the chances of him getting in the ring with Cloud are pretty slim. Diaconu spent what little was left of his prime hopelessly waiting for a title shot and Cloud, already inactive because of his (poor) choice of promoters, spent time when he should have been improving instead sat at home wondering what would happen.
This right here, this was example of the mandatory system working, of a champion not being able to take on soft-touch after soft-touch and of a deserving fighter who’s just a little bit dangerous but doesn’t have huge promotional backing getting the shot he deserves.
But it’s not going to happen.
Even when they do something right, alphabet soup sanctioning bodies can’t help but get it wrong once again.
I’m sure we’ll hear more noises about Cleverly facing Hopkins once this bout ends (with Cleverly almost certainly winning). I’m sure they’ll be talk of the 50,000 fans Cleverly could get in the Millennium Stadium (which I doubt, but here’s to hoping) and how no-where in America could offer that (although Canada possibly could). We’ll hear about the great offer Warren’s side has made to Hopkins and Golden Boy.
It may happen.
Or more likely we get the Bellew rematch…