Nathan Cleverly and Tony Bellew meet once again this Saturday night three years on from their first meeting. It's been an eventful three years for both fighters with small successes followed by both suffering bad knockout defeats in world title fights and both moving up to cruiserweight.
The first bout between the pair was a good battle, whilst it wasn't what you'd call a thriller, it was a competitive fight that always held your attention with the anticipation that anything could happen at any moment. Both fighters impressed, both took hard shots and neither seemed to be a clear level above the other, and whilst Cleverly edged it via a majority decision, the fight was close enough for the rivalry to continue, albeit on a low simmer.
Immediately after the fight both seemed to have a new found respect for each other, a respect that slowly evaporated before the bad feeling between the pair started to intensify again. Hopefully Saturday night will settle the argument once and for all.
Both have had mixed fortunes in the three years that have past, but bizarrely it seems like Bellew was the man who gained more confidence from the bout despite being the loser. Cleverly went on to make three defences of his WBO light-heavyweight belt but against B and C level fighters who'd not done anything prior to show they deserved a title shot. It was a strange move, one would've thought Cleverly would've tried to take another step-up in class having dispatched his major rival, instead he trod water for 18 months and never seemed to have the sharpness he'd had in his world title bouts before the Bellew fight.
Bellew, on the other hand, seemed to take heart that he'd been competitive at world level. Whilst he didn't fight anyone else on Cleverly's level, the fighters he fought were an improvement to those he'd been fighting previously. He also seemed to becoming a more patient fighter, one that was setting attacks up rather than one who was just trying to bomb opponents out with every punch.
The first time both fighters stepped back up to world title level they were stopped in brutal fashion. Cleverly ran into the mallet-fisted Sergey Kovalev, who repeatedly dropped Cleverly on the way to a fourth round stoppage. Whilst Kovalev is a top class fighter with savage power, Cleverly got his tactics all wrong, choosing to try and stand and trade with Kovalev rather than using his footwork, speed and fitness to frustrate Kovalev. It might not have made any difference to the outcome but it would've given him a better chance.
Bellew's beating came at the hands of Adonis Stevenson, another heavy-handed light-heavy. Whilst Bellew got his tactics right, trying to keep the fight at range and frustrate Stevenson, it made little difference as the Canadian powerhouse took his time before blasting Bellew out in the sixth round.
Once again the reaction from both fighters was noticeably different. Cleverly took nine months out and talked about retirement before deciding to carry on at the higher weight, whereas Bellew was back in the ring within four months dismantling Valery Brudov in twelve rounds at cruiserweight.
At a quick glance it looks like Bellew is the mentally stronger and maybe the hungrier fighter, although it may just be their personalities; Cleverly is a calmer, more measured individual, whereas Bellew's naturally more impatient and peppy.
So far at cruiserweight it's been Bellew who has impressed. As well as the aforementioned Brudov victory, he's also stopped Julio Cesar Dos Santos inside five rounds. The Brudov victory was impressive, Bellew had to overcome a couple of tricky moments before knocking out the tough Russian in the twelfth. His victory over Dos Santos was more routine but the way he levelled the Brazilian with a perfectly timed left hook was impressive.
Cleverly's not done anything wrong at his new weight but it's fair to say he hasn't exactly faced anyone of note. He blasted out Shawn Corbin and Alejandro Valori but those two aren't on the same level as Brudov or Dos Santos. With that in mind, Cleverly has yet to really prove himself at cruiserweight or prove that he's truly over the Kovalev fight and isn't carrying any mental baggage from the beating he took.
Cleverly has all the attributes to beat Bellew, he has advantages in technical ability, punch repertoire, footwork, speed and stamina. The questions are whether he can keep his composure and fight to the correct game plan and whether or not he's still the same fighter he was when they met three years ago. If he's lost his hunger, is mentally fragile or gets drawn into a toe-to-toe battle, that's when the fight becomes Bellew's for the taking.
Bellew looks far more comfortable at cruiserweight than he did at light-heavy, he looked relatively fresh in the late rounds against Brudov – something that probably wouldn't have happened at the lower weight, and looks to be punching much harder. Whilst Cleverly has shown a decent chin for most of his career, there's no doubt Bellew has the power to stop the Welshman, especially if it becomes a slugfest.
If Cleverly can keep his distance, land flurries and move out of range before taking too much back in return then he should be able to outpoint Bellew again. That's a big ask though, especially when you consider that Cleverly's not impressed in the past couple of years, has had thoughts of retirement and struggles to keep his composure around Bellew – it's not hard to envisage him trying to out-man Bellew and coming a cropper in trying to so, which is what I believe will happen.
I can see Cleverly starting well before either getting caught with a huge shot or getting drawn into a toe-to-toe trade off. When either of those things happen, it won't be long before the fight is over, most likely within eight rounds.