Light heavyweight titlist Nathan Cleverly earned the best win of his career last weekend by defeating unbeaten British prospect Tony Bellew. His victory confirmed that he is now one of the Britain's top active fighters. In addition, he is now safely ensconced in all of the world top-10 light heavyweight lists, or at least all those that matter.
Cleverly and his handlers have some interesting decisions to make regarding his immediate future. Just 24, he has shown significant growth in the ring over the past 12 months, but the Bellew and Aleksy Kuziemski fights have demonstrated that he still has a lot of room for improvement. (Cleverly made his first title defense against Kuziemski earlier in 2011)
Most observers predicted that Cleverly would have beaten Bellew with more ease than he did. The consensus seemed to be a win by either a late-round technical knockout or a wide decision. Instead, Cleverly squeaked by with a majority decision. Give Bellew credit for his conditioning and fighting spirit, but Cleverly must be assessed some demerits as well.
Cleverly's most glaring limitation is his inability to understand his own strengths and weaknesses. Against Bellew, Cleverly had significant advantages with his jab, conditioning, work rate and lateral movement. He should have remained on the outside, only coming forward judiciously and opportunistically. After throwing combinations, he needed to get out of firing range. Instead, Cleverly remained firmly entrenched in close quarters playing the macho game, providing action not necessarily securing the round at hand. In the trenches, he exchanged power shots with Bellew and received more punishment than someone with his talent level should. Whenever Cleverly fought at distance, most notably the 11th and 12th rounds, he scored with ease.
In addition, although he delivered an exciting performance against Kuziemski, earning a fourth round stoppage, he endured a rough, and, quite frankly, unnecessary third-round pasting, eating dozens of flush shots.
Cleverly fancies himself a brawler, which may work on the Commonwealth level, but he most likely wouldn't win a toe-to-toe battle with Tavoris Cloud or Bernard Hopkins. In addition, his knockout rate is less than 50% (although improving somewhat in recent years), but that percentage doesn't tell the whole story; he has only faced a few opponents on the world-class level. Conventional wisdom says that as a fighter faces better competition, his knockout percentage tends to drop. Perhaps Cleverly is an exception to the rule, but it's unlikely.
The upshot of Cleverly's approach leads to a lot of TV-friendly brawls, which is not a bad thing for boxing enthusiasts. His desire to entertain his fans is a refreshing trait that is often lacking among many of the sport's high-echelon fighters. But does a boxer with his athletic and technical gifts need to make every fight a brawl? In essence, he's giving lesser opponents an easier opportunity to beat him.
Cleverly is not exploiting his advantages. He holds massive conditioning edges against anyone in the division, with the possible exceptions of Cloud or Chad Dawson. He throws his punches (jab, hook, uppercut, straight right hand) with excellent technique and can score with all of them. What he doesn't have is real power, or the type of physicality that can break down elite opponents. In addition, his defense tends to get sloppy during tight exchanges, where he is very susceptible to counters.
Perhaps most worrisome is how hook-happy Cleverly has become. It's a good punch and it's admirable the way that he goes to the body with almost reckless abandon, but again, it's not like he's knocking everyone out with that punch. Meanwhile, when he goes through his hook infatuation periods, he practically forgets his straight right hand and uppercut. Defensively, his hook reliance is dangerous in that he consistently gives up his height and reach and leaves himself open for all sorts of counter shots, especially right hands.
Cleverly's promoter, Frank Warren, has a real conundrum regarding his fighter's career. On one hand, Cleverly has developed into a crowd-pleasing attraction, giving fans their money's worth. He's good business. However, he wants to fight the best in the division. This might be a significant problem for Cleverly in that the finer points of ring generalship seemingly elude him at this point in his career. To beat the best, he must realize that his current ring style does not give him the best chance of winning.
For Warren, he should use the next 12 months to further develop Cleverly. If his fighter wants to make a unification bout, make a match with Beibut Shumenov, the tough Kazakh now fighting out of Las Vegas, who can be outworked over 12 rounds, instead of a ruthless banger like Cloud or a master technician like Dawson. If Cleverly insists on getting frisky, see if a fight can be made with Jean Pascal, who has imposing physical dimensions and a unique offensive attack, but doesn't fight for three minutes a round. Additionally, there are probably other quality opponents on the European circuit that could provide needed rounds for Cleverly.
Warren is one of the savviest promoters in the business and won't risk exposing his guy too quickly for a payday. He's one of the few remaining promoters who understand how to build fighters. If it were up to him, I'm sure he would feed Cleverly solid B+ fighters from the Continent and fill arenas in Britain (specifically, Wales, Cleverly's home base), while his boxer continues to develop.
However, fighters can be impetuous and are not known as a class for their patience. Warren must master a difficult dance with Cleverly. His young titlist needs to get better but will soon itch for the sport's largest stages. Additionally, Warren must have lurking in the back of his mind the notion of losing Cleverly, like he did Hatton, Calzaghe, Khan and Brook. Those fighters felt that Warren was too protective of their careers; they wanted the big fights. If Warren doesn't deliver soon, will Cleverly be the next one to leave the fold?
For Cleverly, he will instill a lot more confidence in Warren if he understands what will make him elite. By using a two-handed approach, keeping his height, mastering the outside and capitalizing on his superior conditioning, he has a real opportunity to reach the top of the division. However, if he falls for the roar of the crowd, his name in the lights and the irrepressibility of his machismo, his goal of becoming the best light heavyweight in the world will remain unrealized.
These are Cleverly's challenges and hopefully he realizes that the hardest part of his career lies ahead.
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