Tony Bellew, left, and Nathan Cleverly acknowledge the applause after their WBO light-heavyweight title fight. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA
Nathan Cleverly ensured this was not a day Wales will have to forget completely by retaining his WBO light-heavyweight crown against Tony Bellew in a steamer of a contest fuelled by the two men’s enmity.
The count was 114-114, 116-113, 117-112 in the champion’s favour, and at the end both men could grin and accept that the bad blood should be discarded after each had banged each other around the canvas enough to prove their points.
After a morning that began with Cleverly watching Wales fail so gloriously against France in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup, the 24-year-old walked into the Echo Arena and on to Bellew’s home patch wanting to put the Liverpudlian in his place.
This fight nearly happened in May when the pair came close to blows in a pre-fight press conference before Bellew’s failure to come in on weight stopped the bout.
Here, the 28-year-old began with a warning for a butt by Richie Davies, the referee, at the start of the opening round. Then, some competent work from him was followed by Cleverly clipping Bellew with a left before a later right was answered by a roundhouse from the challenger.
That was Cleverly’s round. In the second, he started with smart work, each man standing toe-to-toe, obviously wanting to fight.
Bellew hurt his opponent with around 10 or 15 seconds of constant punishment â€“ this would be his highlight â€“ before Cleverly raised his right arm to indicate he was unhurt.
Having to showboat, though, at such an early juncture suggested he was being troubled. Cleverly, the clear favourite with the bookmakers, was being made to prove why and his tactic of standing in front of Bellew giving him the thousand-yard stare was to let him know he would not be denied.
If the next three minutes were a draw, Bellew opened up the next with a decent body blow that was given a later riposte from Cleverly when he stuck him on the ropes with some left-right treatment.
By now this had become a terrific fight. The men’s bitterness still simmered, but a developing mutual respect also ensured that each was careful not to make the telling mistake.
In the fifth, Bellew burrowed into Cleverly’s neck while trying to work his body, but it was his own unmentionables that took a blow. Davies did not deduct the point but gave the champion a final warning. When the action resumed, Cleverly continued on to win the second half of the round to edge these three minutes.
Another low blow from Cleverly went unpunished by Davies as the men moved into the sixth, despite the previous warning. Trading treatment yet again, three left hooks from Cleverly came the closest yet to stunning the local man. The Welshman was beginning to administer pain as he wished, and clearly won thisÂ round.
Davies had a long word with both at start of the seventh â€“ probably to ask that each kept the remainder of the night clean. This prefaced Cleverly continuing to land the heavier blows: a right had Bellew pausing to taunt him, before he let go two sharp lefts. Later, in a corner, Bellew waved Cleverly on but the former was falling further behind.
As this continued through rounds eight to 11, Bellew walked out for the final 180 seconds probably requiring a knockout or stoppage. As he had done throughout, he continued to try to land a telling blow but Cleverly had not become the champion without reason: at the close his class had told.
Earlier, James DeGale made a difficult return to the ring following his points defeat to George Groves in May. He nearly lost his senses and the direction of a career that is supposedly headed for the stars in the fifth round when Piotr Wilczewski had him clinging on.
But DeGale will not care as he became the new European super-middleweightÂ champion on a majority count, winningÂ 114-114, 113-115, 113-115 against Wilczewski, the 33-year-old title holder.
DeGale said: “I proved a point in there tonight. It’s a great title to win and but I am still going to get a lot better. It was one of the toughest fights of my career.”