Top-ranked contenders Tony Bellew and Isaac Chilemba fought their way to a draw in a twelve-round WBC light heavyweight eliminator at the Echo Arena in Liverpool.
It was a fight of two halves as Bellew, rated No. 10 by THE RING at 175 pounds, got off to a fast start, imposing his aggression on No. 7-rated Chilemba with some extremely powerful attacks as the visitor ducked for cover. However, Chilemba avoided the worst of it, waited for the storm to pass and fought his way back into the contest in earnest.
Bellew 19-1-1 (12 knockouts) scored well with solid jabs that drew blood from his opponent’s nose in the opening moments and it initially looked like it could be a quick night for the British star. Chilemba 20-1-2 (9 KOs) appeared intimidated and offered little as he backed off in a hurry.
The Brit seemed to have a psychological edge and his home support erupted when he let his hands go but gradually the pace slowed and Chilemba began releasing sneaky counter punches, many of which caught Bellew, who looked on in frustration and anger.
Chilemba earned Bellew’s respect as the bout progressed and began leading with crisp right leads. The change in momentum seemed to distract Bellew, who neglected his jab and began backing off with a look of uncertainty.
The Liverpool star came back to life in the sixth and landed his jab with accuracy but Chilemba was not making up the numbers and landed a terrific right hand which drew derision from the home support before Bellew returned fire with an equally concussive shot.
Chilemba barely blinked.
Bellew, sensing that the fight was slipping away, opened up in the ninth after being tagged and beckoned Chilemba to exchange. It was difficult to separate the combatants and they were literally trading blow for blow as the bout neared the closing stages.
Bellew went on the back foot again in the tenth but, although a rare occurrence, his jab re-appeared and landed nicely throughout the session. Both men dug deep in the final two rounds and this reporter had Bellew a 115-114 winner at the end of an intriguing duel.
One judge had Chilemba winning 116-112 (eight rounds to four) in a tally which was uncomfortably wide for most at ringside. The 116-115 score for Bellew along with the 114-114 result was an accurate representation of a razor close contest.
The home support seemed shocked but many within the trade had predicted a very tough night’s work forthe Brit. Chilemba had only lost once in an eight-year career, to oneWillbeforce Shihepo, and he avenged that defeat in an immediate rematch.
The Malawian volume puncher is trained by former world champion Buddy McGirt, and guided by shrewd promoter Lou DiBella. At only twenty-five he is approaching his peak years and the division is wide open for a fighter of his undoubted talents. The same must be said of Bellew, who acquitted himself well as always.
Bellew said directly to Chilemba; “Your trainer told me that I won the fight and that speaks volumes.”
Eddie Hearn suggested that a direct rematch would not be out of the question.
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In a hugely hyped chief supporting bout, Liverpool’s Derry Mathews and Manchester’s Anthony Crolla fought their way to a draw in a vacant Commonwealth lightweight title bout. Crolla 25-4 (9 KOs) started well, employing a brisk jab and steady movement, but Mathews 32-8-1 (17 KOs) remained in hot pursuit and sucked life from Crolla each time he landed. There was a turning point in round six when Mathews landed some thumping hooks to the head and Crolla looked very vulnerable as he backed off in panic. Mathews continued to apply pressure but the ebb and flow was furious as Crolla dug deep to hurt his man with a terrific body assault. Crolla survived a huge right hand in the tenth and both men closed well in a spirited effort. This reporter slightly favored the slicker boxing of Crolla but the judges couldn’t split the two warriors. The two fought last April with Mathews winning by sixth round technical knockout in a classic domestic showdown and this was another sizzling affair.
The atmosphere during this bout reached fever pitch and a long period of crowd violence occurred at the midway point.
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing