If we never hear the Z-Cars theme in a British ring again, we will nevertheless have the stirring memories of the fighter who brought all the passion of his Evertonian roots to every occasion, big or small. Tony Bellew lost his 34th and final fight here on Saturday night, stopped in the eighth round by one of the finest champions in boxing, Oleksandr Usyk.
Curiously, it was probably Bellew's most complete boxing performance in his 11 years as a professional, and it needed to be against Usyk, who arrived as the first undisputed cruiserweight champion since Evander Holyfield 30 years ago but the only one to hold these four belts. He left as the avenger of the last big Ukrainian to visit these shores, Wladimir Klitschko, and he might well be back. He would be more than welcome.
“He’s a great big champion and I lost to a fine man,” the 35-year-old Bellew said in centre ring, to sustained applause. Usyk threw barely a blow in the first six minutes, while Bellew – the fittest of his 11-year career at just under the 14st 4lb limit – edged the first on workrate and landed heavy headshots in the second.
The champion, egged on by his impatient challenger, came out of his southpaw shell in the third but paid for it with heavy Bellew counters over the top of his right lead. The Liverpudlian, a decent amateur himself, outboxed the Olympic gold medallist, to the astonishment of many ringside observers including Tommy Hearns.
Bellew got the row he wanted in the fourth, stopping a stiff right then swinging back hard, sometimes wildly, and had Usyk under pressure near the bell, relaxed enough to showboat by resting on the ropes.
There was both method and danger in Bellew’s game of cat-and-mouse but he oozed confidence, moving smartly and peppering the champion with body shots. As he added feints and double jabs to his attack, he looked far from the outclassed underdog, while Usyk, his matted hair cut short across his prominent brow, had the appearance of an archetypal eastern European Bond villain.
Usyk was warming to his task as they got to the halfway stage, his jab now landing more frequently, but there was still no sign of his trademark assault and Bellew stole an otherwise close sixth with a late flurry.
Usyk, needing to take more risks, kept rumbling forward with intent, but was wary of Bellew’s countering right, even when he trapped him in a neutral corner, and again he let the points slip.
Bellew was blinking through the sweat at the start of the eighth and his energy level appeared to slip as he waited for one big shot, but found himself on the end of some major artillery, the last of which was a left hook he will only ever see on a replay. He dropped to the canvas like a stunned bull, and his longtime trainer and friend, David Coldwell, stepped in to comfort his man, a worthy loser who never gave anything less than his best.
When smaller fighters approach or pass 30, they are caught between diminishing resources and lingering pride. For the 31-year-old former world champion Anthony Crolla, the prize for a unanimous points win over Daud Yordan (also 31) is a mandated challenge against the peerless and seemingly ageless Vasyl Lomachenko, who defends his WBA title next month against José Pedraza. So, for now at least, a rematch with the equally durable 35-year-old Scot Ricky Burns gets shuffled down Crolla's list of priorities.
Crolla’s 34th win was gruelling from start to finish, the Indonesian finishing strongly after early dominance by the home fighter. Three scores of 116-112 did not reflect the visitor’s effort or pedigree.
Confirming there is no room for sentiment in the boxing business, Burns, the former three-weight world champion, earlier cut and stopped his compatriot and friend, 29-year-old Scott Cardle, in the third round of a non-title 10-rounder that could yet propel him back into title contention.
The finishing right bounced off Cardle's left shoulder, caught him flush and dumped him heavily. Bleeding and bruised around the left eye, Cardle, a late substitute for the injured Joe Cordina, looked in a sorry state when he rose on unsteady legs.
Burns, who lost in this ring on points to Crolla just over a year ago in his 50th contest, continues to surprise with his resilience after 17 years as a pro. Whether he gets a fourth world title shot, though, is a tough call.