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Nathan Cleverly: A Goodbye

by Adam Thorn

A group of lads are on a night out in Cardiff, so the story goes. They’re having exactly the kind of night out one might expect for young guys in their twenties, except one of them is drinking less. Another of the boys goes over to talk to him at the bar, no doubt slurring his words incoherently. The drunk later describes talking to a nice bloke he’d not met before, who talked to him about his degree and how he knew others in the group. Something about a maths degree, and being a boxer, the man remembered. Not being a boxing fan the man enquires, “Oh, like, for a local club?”

“Well yes.” The boxer replies, almost embarrassed, “But I’m a world champion too.”

The way my cousin tells the story of his meeting Nathan Cleverly is of a meeting a man who is very easy to like, and not in any way grandiose. In his words, “you’d never know he’s famous”. Although I’m never quite sure if he’s more impressed with the restraint shown in the face of a lovely beer by a Welshman, than the world title.

Having just retired at the age of thirty, Nathan Cleverly is many things to many people, a high flier, a middling champion and an over achiever. An objective look at his record tells a different tale, however, one of a multi championship winning boxer, unfairly judged on other people’s successes, or by the wrong standards.

It was never going to help coming so close on the tail of Joe Calzaghe’s career, being from the same gym, of a similar weight and something of a stylist, too, comparisons were inevitable. As is so often the case, they were also unhelpful. Being billed as the next version of a superstar makes a fighter easy to sell, but what happens when, as is more often than not, they fail to have the exact same career or success? It unfairly colours the perception of their achievements.

Nathan Cleverly is a man who, looking back, can say he’s done it all. A two time light heavyweight world champion, European, Commonwealth and British light heavyweight champion, WBA Inter Continental Cruiserweight champion, fought all over the world on huge events… And although it stuck in Tony Bellew’s craw, getting a degree whilst doing all that is an achievement to be rightly proud of; which with the retirement now looks better forward planning than ever.

There are students the world over who cannot hold down bar work while trying to complete a degree, for Cleverly to have done it while winning professional boxing titles and fighting all over the world is nothing short of brilliant. Having risen from an 18 year old debutant, to a 19 year old, 6-0 (1) prospect, Cleverly beat 7-0 (2) Tony Quigley in his own seventh fight by knockout.

At only 23 years old, “Clev” was European, Commonwealth and British light heavyweight champion, and that year voted Boxing Writer’s Young Boxer of the Year. In February 2010 he dominated and retired Antonio Brancalion, who had just been beaten by Juergen Braehmer, a man whose shadow was to haunt Cleverly’s next few years, and arguably his legacy.

A Braehmer bout was in the offing around 2010, aand would have been a good test for Nathan, but never materialised due to the German's legal troubles. However, under the guidance of Frank Warren, who did a solid job of matching Nathan until he had to step into the really big tests, Cleverly went on to win the WBO interim light heavyweight title against Nadjib Mohammedi. It wasn’t pretty, but he did it. He won the title proper in his next fight, dispatching Aleksy Kuziemski in the fourth stanza. Clev then defended the title four times, most notably against domestic rival Tony Bellew, with a majority decision in an ill tempered and close match.

Bellew was as close as Nathan got to a domestic rivalry. Which is a shame for Clev, as that could have worked wonders for him. As nice as Bellew seems privately, his fighting persona could start a brawl in an empty room, which takes the meaning away from those who don’t get on famously with him in the build up to a fight. The less said about the rematch, the better.

Admittedly the move to cruiserweight was ill-advised, and seemingly just a response to running into the brick wall that was a prime Sergey Kovalev, in August 2013. This was three defenses after beating Bellew, against opposition that came in for criticism, but as the saying goes you can only beat what’s put in front of you.

Frank Warren said of the Kovalev bout that, “when managing and promoting World class fighters, there comes a time when you have to roll the dice to determine whether they're exceptional or just simply very good.” The fight was in Cardiff, home advantage for Nathan, but the Russian known as “Krusher” was imperious that night, brutally chopping Cleverly down with body shots, and ruining his unbeaten record and any aura of invincibility.

The aforementioned move to cruiser followed. Nathan never looked a natural at the weight, simply looking puffed up, although some decent looking knockouts and an Inter-Continental title helped build him back up until the farcical rematch with Bellew. Both men seemed bored of the fight in the build up, and even more so once the bell went; Bellew won a split decision.

It marked the end of a period of Cleverly’s career that saw him get less of the limelight than he had been previously. Returning to light heavyweight, he beat an overmatched Tomas Man by technical knockout in the first round. This win saw Nathan get a shot at a title, Andrzej Fonfara’s WBC International light heavyweight strap. The fight was a battle, with 2,524 punches thrown combined. Cleverly persisted to come forward despite an obviously broken nose, which affected his breathing. The Pole, and home fighter Fonfara took a unanimous decision.

Cleverly’s brave showing earned him a lot of respect, and the opportunity to fight long mooted opponent Juergen Braehmer presented itself, in Germany, for the WBA light heavyweight title. Despite looking to be behind on the cards, the Welshman rallied and while on top, injured Braehmer, causing him to retire and making Cleverly a two time world champion. While the manner of victory left people dissatisfied, Braemer knew that quitting would cost him the title, and did so anyway, which tells its own story.

After the win in Germany, Cleverly’s record stood at 30-3 (16), although his last five was 3 wins to 2 losses. Nathan again agreed to go on the road, this time to Las Vegas to face new arrival to the light heavyweight division Badou Jack. The Swede based at Mayweather’s gym is widely respected, and often has the faint praise of being good at everything, but exceptional at nothing slapped on his skillset.

Jack was a good test for Cleverly, one we at Hellraiser thought might be a barnburner given what was at stake for both men. Sadly for Nathan he was overwhelmed by a man invigorated by his new weight, and desperate to make an impression in his hometown on the biggest pay per view of all time. Looking decidedly outgunned, but doggedly brave, the referee judged the Champion in no fit state to continue in round five.

Nathan promptly retired, all the indications are that he’s a man who knows himself well enough to make a good call. Saying himself on social media that he has, “too many miles on the clock”. There’ll be plenty of offers of punditry work for him, no doubt, as well as whatever other work he wishes to apply himself to.

Some may argue he never lived up to the hype, and because of that in some way he has failed. But being billed as the next Joe Calzaghe he was never going to live up to the hype, there is only one Joe Calzaghe. As for his potential, well, he is two time world champion Nathan Cleverly, which speaks for itself, and history will be kind to his reputation.

If Nathan Cleverly is a failure, I can only aspire to be a failure like him.

Posted: 7th Sep 2017

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