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Underprepared and Overhyped: The Inevitable Fall of Nathan Cleverly

It's a story as old as boxing itself: a young fighter propped up and oversold, given the keys to the kingdom before battling back the tests that prove a fighter's true mettle. Nathan Cleverly is just the latest victim.

Matthew Horwood
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Boxing promoters are liars by nature, and few in the modern age have endured as vigorously as Frank Warren, the man who has loomed large in British boxing and on the world scene for the last three decades and counting. Warren has given the public the careers of Ricky Hatton, Naseem Hamed, Joe Calzaghe, and Nigel Benn, among others. These days, he's lost some of his footing to Eddie Hearn, son of former rival Barry Hearn, and the upstart Matchroom Boxing outfit, which has taken over the Sky Sports coverage in the United Kingdom, leaving the veteran promoter to seek his fortunes with the subscription channel BoxNation.

Now 61 years old, Warren has been up and down, counted out, and bounced back many times. Though Hearn and Matchroom have put the heat on him, just this year he's been able to sign hot prospect and super bantamweight contender Carl Frampton away from Hearn's stable, a strike back after Matchroom signed up former Warren fighters Ricky Burns and George Groves.

Nathan Cleverly was told many times over that he was a key figure in Warren's long-term future planning. He became "world champion" despite never having to beat a "world champion," and his BSc in mathematics from Cardiff University was pushed hard, first on Sky Sports, and then later on BoxNation. Much was made of Cleverly, an athletic, good looking young fighter, being the sort that didn't need boxing to make a living. This was no kid from the wrong side of the tracks saved by the discipline and dedication that it takes to be a serious professional boxer. Cleverly could have done something else, but his passion for the sport put him into the hurt business for a living.

It needs to be said that yesterday's loss to Sergey Kovalev isn't really damning in and of itself, but there have to be serious concerns about what it may have proven. Kovalev (22-0-1, 20 KO) is simply a devastating puncher to both the head and body, with solid technique and a simple, focused approach. This is a legitimate top fighter right now, and Cleverly getting mowed down by the Russian does not mean that Cleverly can't fight, or can't get back to the higher levels.

What's troubling is that, like so many fighters before, Cleverly (26-1, 12 KO) was sold as something he simply hadn't yet proven to be. Warren had given Cleverly a big start to his pro career, and had promoted him extremely well, leading Cleverly to state that he would remain loyal to the promoter in March of this year, after the back-to-back defections of Burns and Groves.

"Things haven't been great for Frank in the past week, I'm sure he'd say that, but I have no desire to seek a move away from him," Cleverly said in a BoxNation press release. "Times are tough with the current economic climate and it's unfortunate with certain fighters getting frustrated when bills are postponed, but that's life and that is boxing.

"But me personally? I am staying put, I feel loyalty to Frank because he's stayed loyal to me. He's survived rough patches before and will again, I know from experience he is the man who can get a fight made with Hopkins and Golden Boy."

That fight with Bernard Hopkins did not materialize, and perhaps sensing a shift in how Cleverly was being perceived by some media and many fans, both fighter and promoter knew that the time to put the cards on the table was looming.

So instead of Hopkins, they signed to fight Kovalev, categorizing him as a potentially overrated fighter with some U.S. fanfare who would put Clev on the next level. It didn't work out that way, and once we were all of two or three minutes into the fight, it was very clear: the boy was now playing with the men, and he wasn't prepared.

Promoters are liars, and part of their deception is to always, always make something or someone seem bigger or better than they are. Cleverly, 26, "won" his world title by virtue of three wins in 2010-11. First, he defeated the solid Karo Murat in a WBO eliminator bout, which is probably still his true best performance to date. After that, he beat Nadjib Mohammedi for the interim WBO title, and after Juergen Braehmer didn't (or couldn't) come to the United Kingdom for his scheduled defense against Cleverly, the young Welshman got to claim the title by beating Aleksy Kuziemski, a non-contender who proved to be chum.

A grudge match with domestic press rival Tony Bellew followed, and Cleverly was expected by many to dominate an opponent who had struggled somewhat with the likes of Bob Ajisafe and Ovill McKenzie. Instead, Bellew proved a stiff challenge for Cleverly, who escaped with a decision victory at Liverpool's Echo Arena.

What happened after told the story, even if nobody was saying it in ringside interviews, TV puff pieces, or friendly magazine articles.

The competition was scaled back, and fairly dramatically so, at that. Following Bellew, Cleverly was matched against American Tommy Karpency, whose claim to "fame" was either being a male nurse for his day job, or having at some point sparred with Roy Jones Jr, both selling points for a fighter no one had ever really heard of, who was in no legitimate way a serious contender. The WBO had Karpency rather absurdly ranked as a cruiserweight, and to fight Cleverly, they moved him into a No. 14 ranking at light heavyweight, with zero victories of note on his record.

Cleverly easily routed Karpency over 12 rounds in Cardiff, then scheduled a fight against Ryan Coyne, another non-contender. Don King blocked that fight, so a sideways step was made and another patsy signed up, this time sending Cleverly to Los Angeles to face Shawn Hawk on a Golden Boy bill on Showtime. Cleverly won easily once again, clearly outclassing the level of opponent he'd already beaten handily three and four years prior.

Robin Krasniqi was named WBO mandatory challenger, and he was the next to fail to challenge Cleverly. Krasniqi, with a gaudy 39-2 record that could pop like an overinflated balloon at the lightest pin prick of inspection, was himself no serious contender, despite the sanctioning body's insistence. Cleverly won every round, and never faced any real resistance.

Going into the fight with Kovalev, my personal feeling was that maybe folks were right, that Kovalev wasn't quite all he was sold as being himself. After all, Kathy Duva, too, is a promoter, and though more affable than Warren, herself a professional liar always selling and overselling, for the good of her company, herself, and her fighters. So I picked Cleverly to surprise a lot of people and grind out a decision, surviving Kovalev's early assault, and then wearing him down with his signature high workrate and durability as the fight progressed, emptying the Russian's gas tank.

It took a round to figure out that this wasn't going to happen. With nervous excitement and even a touch of jumpy fear, Cleverly offered nothing in the first round, as Kovalev marched forward and fearlessly threw heavy shots to the body and head. The pattern continued in round two, as Cleverly had no answers other than to keep his guard high and tight, shielding himself as best he could from the thudding force of the "Krusher," who continued to whip punches in Clev's direction, the so-called champion unable to do much in return.

Round three was the real end. As Kovalev unleashed more wicked blows, Cleverly began to fold; not because he wanted to, but because he couldn't stop the Russian from doing as he pleased. Kovalev fought like a shark who smelled blood in the water from the time Cleverly stepped onto the walkway to make his entrance, with no robe but a headband for an accessory, doing a bit of a dance. Cleverly sold confidence the way Warren sold a world champion. Neither of them had what they claimed.

After his second trip to the canvas in the round, Cleverly was all but given a free pass by referee Terry O'Connor, who recklessly stationed himself in the middle of the action while Kovalev tried to finish the deed at the close of the round. Falling into O'Connor's caring and somewhat fearful embrace, Cleverly was essentially carried to his corner by the referee, as the BoxNation commentators wondered if he had stopped the fight, what with all his arm waving and the like. O'Connor should have stopped the fight. When he didn't, trainer and father Vince Cleverly should have stopped the fight.

Nathan Cleverly, though, is a fighter, and he'd likely tell you he wanted to go out on his shield. Dangerously sent back into the lion's den to start round four, Cleverly had no legs, a frazzled and overwhelmed bit of body language and facial expression giving him away like a bad gambler.

To O'Connor's credit, it took only 21 seconds of round four for him to pull the plug and keep Cleverly from absorbing any truly unnecessary punishment. Cleverly's tenuous grasp on the WBO light heavyweight title had really ended in round three, maybe even before the fighters ever started throwing punches. Now, the official announcement would come, and Nathan Cleverly, showing his class, congratulated the other side, from Kovalev on down the line with the rest of the team.

By all accounts, Cleverly is a likable young man and a hard-working student of the game. His overconfidence comes not from arrogance, it would seem, but from being told by enablers that he'd done more than he had. A fighter's psyche can be a fragile thing, which is why you see the entourages, the hangers-on, the grown men hanging around yelling into another grown man's ear that he's the best, he's the champ, he can't be beaten. Fighters put their health and their lives on the line for a job, as spectators scream for blood and want knockouts, which is a sporting way of saying they want to see a man trying to support his family on the ground, concussed, and incapacitated, however briefly.

Cleverly, like anyone, used that confidence to carry him on through laborious and trying training camps, which rather unfortunately led him into a series of mismatches designed to lend credence to a façade.

"You're the man, Clev. You're undefeated. You're world champion. You're winning world title fights."

Technically, Nathan Cleverly will hit the comeback trail as Former World Champion Nathan Cleverly, still young with a long future ahead of him. In the harsh reality of the boxing world, which will always expose the pretenders and the phonies at some point, Cleverly is really back to the drawing board as Stalled Prospect Nathan Cleverly, a talented fighter who has done no more at this point than he had by 2010, when he did an impressive job on Murat to thrust himself into the title mix with the WBO.

Going from the relatively creampuff likes of Karpency, Hawk, and Krasniqi straight into a ferocious, focused Sergey Kovalev displayed an underprepared young man who felt with wincing pain and cruel certainty his bubble being burst. The Nathan Cleverly he'd been told was coming into this fight never really existed. This was not a seasoned young world champion, turning back credible challenges to his throne, headed toward certain world stardom. This was a fighter whose career had been managed in such a way that he walked straight into a buzzsaw, his head filled with the idea that not only were the blades duller than advertised, but that in fact the machine may not even be truly operational. Calzaghe-Lacy this was not, unless you want to flip the roles.

If Cleverly can come back from this, it will say a lot about him, as well as a lot about Sergey Kovalev. If he cannot, and if he's just not good enough to be a real top-level fighter, it will come down to quite a few things, not the least of which is that he was marched into the ring against Kovalev having not been given the proper preparation for what awaited him at Motorpoint Arena. There is a method to the madness of matchmaking, and while Cleverly was frankly handled very well up to a certain point, the kid gloves pampering of the last two years did him no favors when he had to step up and face a real challenge.

But that's boxing. Always has been and always will be. Some of the Rising Stars of today are also going to go this way, while guys like Kovalev, signed to a second-tier promoter because nobody else saw much in him, will emerge and show us the truth. You can't hide from this sort of inevitable result if you've got the ambition to really prove you're what you've said you are. To Cleverly's credit and detriment, he had that ambition. Hopefully, he'll regain it, and learn from what went so very wrong during his development, and made him little more than a sacrificial lamb against Sergey Kovalev.

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