As he struggled to his feet, his face swollen and eyes glazed, the man they call ‘Bomber’ appeared not to know where he was or what had hit him. Tony Bellew had, of course, been hit and knocked down by Oleksandr Usyk, the first man in history to hold all four cruiserweight belts.
He was up before the count of ten but the referee, seeing that Bellew was in no state to continue, ended the fight there and then, closing the final chapter of the British boxer’s career in doing so.
As the two fighters embraced afterwards, their differing trajectories were stark. While Bellew had earlier decided, regardless of the outcome, that this would be his farewell to the sport, the win would seem to mark a new beginning for the Ukrainian victor, as he casts his eye on a move up in weight, and to the glamour of the heavyweight division.
An Usyk win was the bookies’ tip before the first bell, but Bellew, not for the first time in his career, brushed aside his underdog status and appeared to win the first three rounds with an effective counter-punching strategy and excellent defensive head movement.
However, it is not for nothing that Usyk is credited with owning one of the finest brains in the sport, and the champion never seemed seriously troubled by his opponent.
Just as we saw the best of Bellew in these opening rounds, we also saw his less impressive side, as he too often approached the Ukrainian with his hands down and postured for the adoring Manchester crowd.
As Bellew’s confidence rose, his energy dropped, and by the fifth round it was clear that Usyk was in control, marshalling the centre of the ring and manoeuvring the challenger onto the ropes.
Having found his rhythm, Usyk stalked Bellew, never rushing, timing his shots perfectly and wearing the Briton down. Two minutes into the eighth, it was over. A rapid one-two stunned Bellew, again guilty of holding his hands too low, and left him sprawled on the canvas. A former world champion turned into an oversized, betrunked baby.
Strangely, though, this was a noble end for a fighter who would probably admit himself that he was never an elite athlete. That he found himself facing such an elite opponent owes something to Bellew’s talent for self-promotion and pithy soundbites. That he gave Usyk a good fight for almost eight rounds was a result of his extraordinary determination.
As per the opinion of the BBC boxing commentator Mike Costello, Bellew is one of the few in this cruellest of trades to depart with his “health, wealth and reputation intact”.
Having played the villain in a Rocky film, ‘Bomber’ retires a hero, a man who proved his doubters wrong and performed to a level which exceeded his comparatively modest talent.
What of the victor, though? A fighter whose ability could never be described as modest?
Usyk is surely the most gifted heavyweight since Evander Holyfield, as acknowledged by Bellew in his post-fight interview.
Holyfield moved up to heavyweight when it was clear that there was nothing left to achieve in the cruiserweight ranks, and Usyk appears set to follow his path.
There is demand for a big-money match against Anthony Joshua, but the Ukrainian is too sensible, too forward-thinking, to jump straight into the ring with a man who has 22 wins at heavyweight, 21 of those coming by knockout, and a three-inch height advantage.
While an eventual showdown between the two is very possible, for now Usyk is more likely to choose a fight against a well-known but less risky opponent.
Perhaps Dillian Whyte, depending on whether the latter wins his eagerly-anticipated rematch against Dereck Chisora in December.
Now among the best, pound for pound, in the world following his victory, we can only look forward to what Usyk does next.
Image: WorldSeriesBoxing via Flickr