OLEKSANDR Usyk was on the ropes early but produced an unbelieveable finish in the eighth round against Tony Bellew to retain his unified cruiserweight title.
It might be the final time both men fight in the cruiserweight division for a while with Bellew set to retire while Usyk has been touted for a move up to heavyweight and a blockbuster clash with Anthony Joshua.
Bellew took charge in the early rounds, taunting Usyk along the way.
He confounded expectations and stunned the unified cruiserweight champion Usyk.
Usyk came into the fight in the fourth round, rocking Bellew with a huge left early in the round and forcing the Brit into onto the ropes.
“Very few thought it would be as torrid as this. It’s been a pulsating round as it is being fought at a ferocious pace,” BBC Sport boxing correspondent Mike Costello said in round four.
On the bell of the sixth, Usyk hit Bellew with his best shot, leaving Bellew’s legs a little wobbly.
From then, it was all Usyk with a huge left hand knocking Bellew out in the eighth round as the crowd erupted to the stunning blow.
Bellew fell backwards into the ropes and referee Terry O’Connor called an end to the fight.
Usyk is the first-ever holder of the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO cruiserweight belts and completed a sixth victory world title victory away from home.
Asked about a potential rise to heavyweight, Usyk said he’s not ready to answer the question yet.
“You know what, I had the most difficult year in my life, now I want to relax, I want to spend time with my family,” he said through a translator. “Only after my rest can I talk about my future.”
Bellew was emotional as the pair embraced after the fight and Usyk celebrated Bellew, lifting his arm to salute the crowd.
The 35-year-old Brit said he couldn’t remember much of the fight and struggled to remember what round he was knocked out but had nothing but praise for Usyk, who he called “the best I’ve ever fought”.
“I tried my best, I gave it everything I’ve got,” Bellew said.
“Make sure you clap him because he’s an excellent fighter and he deserves all the awards in the world. Oleksandr Usyk is a great great champion and I lost to one of the pound for pound best that’s ever gone, he’s fantastic.
“He beat me fair and square, I have no excuses. He’s an amazing fighter. He’s an amazing fighter and the greatest fighter I’ve ever shared a ring with. He deserves all the success in the world.
“He’s just better than me, you have to accept that man. Sometimes you come up against great people in life and sometimes you lose, you’ve just got to accept it.”
Fans praised the fight and Bellew’s brave performance.
Ukrainian Usyk now has a 16-0 record with 12 knockouts.
The 31-year-old superstar is also an Olympic gold medallist in the heavyweight division and will reportedly move up after this fight for more of a challenge.
Richard Riakpohre defeated Sam Hyde — TKO in round 8
Dave Allen defeated Ariel Esteban — retired in round 7
Josh Kelly defeated Walter Fabian Castillo — TKO in round 1
Ricky Burns defeated Scot Cardle — TKO in round 3
Anthony Crolla defeated Daud Yourdan — unanimous points decision, 116-112
Oleksandr Usyk defeated Tony Bellew — TKO in round 8
‘NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THAT’: HORROR INJURY
His corner threw in the towel to end the fight in the eighth round and effectively hand Richard Riakporhe for the vacant WBA Inter-Continental Cruiserweight Title.
Hyde was on top in the fight until he was hit with a big right hand.
It caused a massive haematoma over Hyde’s eye, swelling it shut.
Riakporhe said he was behind on the scorecards before the knock.
“I was down on the scorecards so I had to pull it out of the bag,” Riakporhe said. ”I hit him with a hook, his face swelled up so I targeting it. I thought they should throw in the towel.”
Social media lit up with shock from fans.
None of the fights have gone to the distance with Dave Allen outlasting Ariel Esteban despite admitting “I was [tired] after one round. No excuses. I’m not fit enough. I’m not conditioned enough.”
Esteban retired between rounds after a back-and-forth fight.
Ricky Burns also dismantled Scott Cardle inside three rounds.
In the quickest stop of the night, Josh Kelly monstered Walter Fabian Castillo with a first round TKO.
Local hope Anthony Crolla became the mandatory challenger for the WBA lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko with a unanimous points decision over Daud Yordan with all three judges scoring the fight 116-112.
YOUTH VS EXPERIENCE IN TITLE BOUT
In Oleksandr Usyk, boxing has a rising, unbeaten star ready to further shake up a revitalised heavyweight division but the Ukrainian fighter just has one last job to finish off at cruiserweight level.
Usyk makes the first defence of his four cruiserweight titles when he takes on Tony Bellew in Manchester on Saturday.
It will be Usyk’s 16th professional fight, and likely his last in a division he unified in July. The 31-year-old Usyk is planning to make the step up to heavyweight — the division in which he won Olympic gold at the 2012 London Games — and there’s already talk of a fight against Anthony Joshua, the IBF, WBO and WBA titleholder.
This all sounds familiar to Bellew.
Last year, Bellew climbed up from cruiserweight to heavyweight to fight David Haye, another boxer who intended to use Bellew as a way to get a lucrative fight with Joshua.
Bellew upset the odds by knocking out Haye in the 11th round and then, in a rematch in May, stopped the former heavyweight champion in the fifth round.
The 35-year-old Liverpool native has already been world cruiserweight champion and has a 30-2-1 record. The fight against Usyk is set to be his last before retirement.
“One more night to survive through,” Bellew said, “and then I go on to live the dream life with my family.”
It could be the biggest night of his boxing career — and possibly the toughest.
Usyk, a southpaw, has risen virtually untouched through the professional ranks since leaving his amateur days behind him after the London Olympics.
Eleven of his 15 wins have come inside the distance. As an amateur, he was also a world and European champion.
“The only chance I have is a puncher’s chance — I cannot outbox this man,” Bellew said. “He is a formidable opponent. He has everything any boxer could possibly want and he is a horrible southpaw.
“But I’ve shown what I can do at heavyweight and, believe you me, I will show even more what I can do at cruiserweight. I am faster, sharper and possibly even stronger at cruiserweight. As good as he is, as great as he is, he is meeting someone with something inside him.”
Given Bellew’s improved standing in recent years and the fact the fight is being held in Britain, Usyk’s profile is set to be bigger than ever if he wins.
“Tony is my best opponent ever, definitely,” he said Thursday.
Usyk was born in Crimea and has said he was forced to leave the peninsula after Russia annexed it from Ukraine in 2014.
He became undisputed cruiserweight champion after fighting three times in 10 months in the World Boxing Super Series, in which he beat Marco Huck, the then-WBC champion Mairis Briedis, and most recently Murat Gassiev in July.
What stood out, in particular, during those wins was his remarkable footwork and movement that the ageing Bellew could struggle with.
Comparing the two fighters, Bellew — the underdog — appears to have one major advantage: Experience.
And potentially another.
“Tony’s left hook is the equaliser,” the now-retired Haye said in the build-up. “If Tony can land that left hook to the head, that left hook to the body, he can really get a foothold in this fight and turn the tide.”