It was a night of savage extremes for British boxers on Saturday with Nathan Cleverly on his feet but out of his head when he lost his world title, while in Atlantic City the tears rolled after Darren Barker defied far more than the odds to win a world title.
Cleverly took a risk and was the betting underdog in his defence against Sergey Kovalev of the WBO light-heavyweight title, which took place in front of 6,000 fans in Cardiff. Kovalev, a Russian fighter with fearsome power and a disturbing calmness, entered the ring unbeaten in 22, with 19 ending inside the distance and 18 of those finishing in rounds one, two and three.
It was a brutal short fight played out against a backdrop of screaming, devoted and hopeful fans; they had lifted the tension with a rendition of "Delilah" moments before Cleverly came to the ring that bordered on devotional. In round two, when Kovalev was cut, complaining and reduced to spitting out his gumshield to get a break, it looked for a minute, just a glorious 60 seconds, as if Cleverly could pull off the shock.
However, in round three Kovalev connected sweetly with a sublime left-lead uppercut on Cleverly's jaw and forced the local idol to do the awful little dance that all fighters perform before the end. Cleverly tumbled over twice from punches to his neck and head and was in the referee's arms at the sound of the bell.
Cleverly was given another chance, a minute, to try to get his head and legs back and somehow reverse the painful and inevitable end, but it never happened. Kovalev caught him with every shot he threw in the fourth and once again a distraught Cleverly was sent sprawling and helpless to the canvas. The referee had seen enough and after 21 seconds of round four nobody complained when a broken Cleverly was led back to his corner for the first time in 27 fights as the loser.
In Atlantic City, Barker was facing a showdown with his very own setbacks; a series of factors which he has had to overcome during a career that has looked close to collapse several times and has resembled a mission for a long time. Barker's hips have frozen, forcing temporary retirement; he was left unconscious after a brutal assault when he was playing Good Samaritan; and there was the devastating death of his young brother in a car crash.
On Saturday Barker, one of the sport's nicest guys, survived a horrible knockdown in round six against the defending IBF middleweight champion, Daniel Geale, to go the full distance and win a split decision, which was also the right decision.
Barker had lost a world title fight in Atlantic City in 2011, but this time he arrived with a sense of desperation and simply refused to lose and surrender his boyhood dream; it was Barker's last chance and that is boxing's greatest motivation. "When I was on the floor everything went through my head," said Barker, choking back tears. "I thought of my family, my wife and my daughter and I just had to ignore the pain and get up." The short left hook, thrown with hate under the elbow, is the type of punch that very few fighters recover from.
The offers have started to arrive for Barker's first defence and, hopefully, the British duo of Matt Macklin and Martin Murray, who between them have lost five world title fights, get a chance. The future for Cleverly, meanwhile, is not as dark as it first appears and his recovery will be interesting.
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